I have been totally wrong about the Singapore electorate.
I thought most voters would do as citizens elsewhere did, giving the incumbent political party an overwhelming victory in the election because of this phenomenon called “flight to safety’’. This was why, I thought, the People’s Action Party (PAP) kept insisting on a “strong and clear mandate” as it was confident enough to think that the vote would be heavily tilted in its favour.
Political observers and pundits have said much the same: that the PAP offered a safe harbour to those of us in this small sampan, who worry about a potential capsize. Look, they said, at how Singapore voted in 2001, after the September 11 attacks in New York.
Those same pundits, myself included, will now start dissecting the reasons for the 61 per cent vote for the PAP, which the Prime Minister described as “a good mandate’’ but which I would say was probably far below general expectations.
I will do the same but not before offering an apology to the Singapore voter, whom I thought was still trapped in the idea that only bread-and-butter issues mattered and that a good life can only be delivered by a dominant PAP in power. I thought they would imbibe the PAP’s jobs, jobs, jobs line, so worried they were about their livelihoods, that all other cares and concerns are thrown to the wind.
Worse, I had believed that they would be enamoured of the PAP’s line that the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) system would give voters the best of both worlds: an opposition voice and a functioning PAP MP at the grassroots level. It now seems that voters prize their vote too highly to fall for the gambit of having NCMPs even with voting rights (by the way, this will not encumber the legislative process anyway).
My own prediction was for the PAP to achieve between 65 per cent and the 70 per cent vote share of GE2015, but for the Workers’ Party (WP) to keep the Hougang single seat and Aljunied GRC, with a possible win in Sengkang GRC.
I did not want the PAP to have a clean sweep in Parliament, because I’m worried about how it would use this mandate. A strong Government should be accompanied by a strong Parliament, which can restrain possible excesses, ask uncomfortable questions and put a brake on legislation that preserves the PAP dominance, even if it declares them to be in the national interest.
There have been too many examples over the past five years of the consequences of giving close to 70 per cent of the vote to the PAP. They can be tracked right back to the beginning of the 13th Parliament, which set about revising some aspects of the elected presidency and devaluing the role of an elected MP by giving NCMPs the same voting rights they have.
I have no doubt at all that the PAP genuinely believes that it puts people at the centre of its policies. I think it also wishes everyone else would just shut up while it gets on with the business of running the country. But even its much vaunted efficiency has come into question over the years, with the last example being the implementation of the electoral process yesterday. Even if it swears that it has the voters’ interest at heart, the extension of voting hours smacked of the high-handedness of the PAP.
I don’t know how much of a role young voters played in this election. My guess is that most do not want to keep seeing an overbearing PAP berating Singapore’s miniscule opposition. In fact, the PAP’s various rows with opposition MPs in Parliament, as well as its detractors outside, go against the grain of the political correctness of the millennial generation.
I wager that even older Singaporeans, themselves the beneficiaries of the Singapore system, have started to think so. It is a sense of people losing control of their own country, subordinating themselves to a power structure which, while benign, is too entangled in all aspects of our lives.
The PAP leaders’ habit of pointing to the electoral process as an example of how it is accountable to the people only serves to advance the message that the electorate is powerless in-between elections. I have always thought this was a dangerous game to play, to tell the people that if they don’t like this or that policy, they can show their dissatisfaction at the polls.
The PAP’s jobs mantra might well have worked if this was the 80s or 90s, because the Singapore voter was keen on greater material well-being. We still had some way to go. I think the PAP’s success in bringing about a higher standard of living has led instead to the expectation that it was the PAP’s job, anyway, to produce more jobs. That this surely cannot be a matter to be negotiated via an election. The voter has set a baseline so to speak, and was looking at non-material aspects, among which was a sense that they mattered as much as the PAP in the past as well as in the future of this country.
The PAP should lead, but with the people – and not so far in front of them. The PAP should learn to persuade and temper its cold rationality with empathy. Sometimes, it should also display more humility, instead of always giving itself a distinction in its report card. The Prime Minister is right that this is not a “feel good’’ election – the people don’t feel good at all.
I have said many times that I wish this election had been more about setting a vision, especially one that would set the 4G leaders apart from their predecessors. If the outbreak had not happened and if the PAP had not seized what it thought was a good opportunity to hold an election, I wonder if a whole new manifesto would be written, one that is more attuned to the wishes of a changing population.
Instead, the PAP focus was on continuity, not change.
The PAP might want to take the voters’ message to heart. The voters do not want more of the same – they want change. And that change must come from inside the PAP. The PAP might give itself a B in its report card, but for the country as a whole, I think we deserve an A.
Bertha Henson is a veteran Singapore journalist who now lectures at NUS. The views expressed are her own.
Since there are now 10 opposition parliamentarians, does that mean Pinky will spend all of his time thinking about how to fix them?
Pinky should fix his health woes too, he's been looking rather sickly of late.
Putting things into perspective:
Senior Counsel Thio Shen Yi's Message to the PAP: Is this a repudiation of the political culture of bullying?
Is it my imagination, or did the WP, of all parties, take the high road? No smears, no attacks. Grace, humility and ability to apologise and learn, and a listening ear.
Some of the PAPs candidates are magnificent. PM, Tharman, Nadia Samdin(disclosure- colleague alert- congrats!). Lawrence Wong has had a good run, Chuan Jin and Iswaran show themselves to be gracious and gentlemanly, Indranee is a charm offensive unto herself and able to change minds through a combination of logic and more importantly, empathy. Tin Pei Ling and Patrick Tay clearly work the ground and win hearts and minds. Some PAP names are still untested or not well known to me, or are perceived to not listen, or to be arrogant and mean spirited.
The PAP run a country well. They run a campaign terribly (a shout-out to Stef for stealing her line). My two cents worth:
1. You are the majority- take the high road. People expect it. You are held to a different standard. That is neither illogical, illegal or unfair. Dominance has its responsibilities (like Competition Law).
2. Stop bullying candidates. Stop attacking them. Play the ball, not the man. Trust us to distinguish between good and bad ideas. We don’t like to see those in power beat up those outside looking in. Support for the underdog resides in all our hearts.
3. Be humble. I never saw a response to AWARE’s objection to a rather tasteless analogy about the wife beater analogy. Learn to apologise. People respect that. You will say something tone deaf or offensive. It is inevitable in the heat of the moment. You will get called out. Walk it back. Don’t double down. Say sorry. Express regret. We respect that, and that humility wins us over.
4. Don’t insult us. Our feelings, our intelligence or our aspirations. “Don’t worry about voting in all 93 PAP MPs - there will be 12 NCMP seats to ensure representation”. That is neither convincing or persuasive. Some see an NCMP, and there is a “loser” sign on their forehead. That is not what legitimacy looks like. Don’t tell us “own self check own self”works. That would be unacceptable in almost any form of organised public activity or corporate life. Why would we accept that in political life, where the stakes are the highest?
5. Understand what we want. We want you to run the show. But you clearly don’t need 100% of the seats to do that. You could run this country effectively if you lost 25 seats. You’d have 68 seats. Yes, you would have lost some talent. That forces you to partner and co-opt more ideas, you need to foster inclusivity, and encourage an active citizenry to step up. Groupthink is checked. You have to kick around ideas more- even consult your political opponents! But would that be so bad?
6. Don’t fearmonger. The LKY playbook is antiquated. Strategies for a time when the stakes were existential. It worked then, it is toxic today. We can survive because your predecessors have built a strong Singapore and a strong people. We have talent, energy and passion all around us. It just needs channeling by appealing to a collective stakeholdership, a real sense of ownership, and a solidarity or purpose. It’s there. If you think it isn’t then the last 50 years are a failed experiment where we have sowed the seed of failure even in our success. Reject that. Choose to believe we are better.
7. Be scrupulous in designing a fair playing field. Again, we aren’t stupid. We can see when things are not fair. The desire for fairness is a psychological default. Many won’t speak out- speaking truth to power is fraught with hazard. But resentment will build up. It’s more than a lost vote. It’s more than a civilised disagreement. Resentment means a disengagement of the citizen, a division of the soul and a rebellion of the heart against you. Why encourage that?
8. Fight bad ideas with good ideas. Fight falsehood with truth. Don’t rely on over inclusive tools like POFMA (or other statutes). That’s using a flamethrower against an ant. Even where there is falsehood, have a sense of proportion. Some falsehoods are truly egregious, and truly dangerous. Others are more debatable, and still more others are marginal and will get lost in the noise of the hustings and excreted in the wake of information overload. Overuse, asymmetrical use, and disproportionate use of POFMA irritates the neutral observer and is a deep condescension to our intelligence.
9. Think better of us. When you tell us that Singaporean’s are not really for a non Chinese PM, what is the basis for that? Do you have a poll? Or is it anecdotal? It feels that you are impugning our moral sense with a racism that isn’t substantively there. Yes, humans are tribal, but after 50 years, do you not think we can rise above that. Have you so little faith in the better angels of our nature? Maybe you do, but why default to it?
Require better of us. And what does it cost you? A few votes from older Chinese voters ( assuming that that is even true)? You may win over other voters with your openness and inclusiveness. When did doing what is right, even though it is not popular, stop you?
You are trying to win hearts and minds. So it goes beyond logic. Legitimacy is built from emotional capital. It is not only about performance (what that looks like is another discussion!). Fairness, credibility, loyalty, passion, aspiration, understanding, unity, authenticity, warmth, respect, inclusiveness. Build on that.
To every MP on either side of the aisle, good luck, stay strong. We count on all of you. And today, I am strangely optimistic.
SINGAPORE — As the sample counts for General Election 2020 were announced on the night of July 10 and a national slide against the People’s Action Party (PAP) became evident, the ruling party’s branch in Teck Ghee — where its secretary-general, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, had contested and won since 1984 — was a scene of sombre despondency.
With supporters kept home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was also none of the fist-pumping and flag-waving celebrations of 2015, when PAP secured 69.9 per cent of the popular vote.
Instead, the media stationed outside the branch office could see — through the windows — about a dozen white-clad party activists and PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching silently glued to a small television screen watching the results, though their face masks hid their expressions.
PM Lee and the rest of his Ang Mo Kio Group Representation Constituency (GRC) teammates were in a separate room, which was out of the media’s sight.
As the candidates and activists waited for the final results, the smell of durians bought from a nearby fruit seller wafted out from the branch. One activist offered them to the media waiting outside, saying that there was plenty of the thorny fruit still unopened inside.
With PAP ultimately garnering 61.2 per cent of the national vote — which was 1.1 percentage points ahead of its poorest performance in GE2011 — several party activists across the country expressed their frustration over their party’s poor results.
The result missed the 65 per cent mark that the party was aiming for, party insiders told TODAY. It was also hoping not to lose more parliamentary seats to the opposition — but it did, after its main political rival, the Workers’ Party (WP), won the newly formed four-member Sengkang GRC.
In the wee hours of the morning following Polling Day, a panel of PAP bigwigs, including PM Lee and PM-designate Heng Swee Keat, addressed the media, with PM Lee saying that the party had received a “clear mandate” even though it was not as strong a mandate as he had hoped.
The results showed “a clear desire for a diversity of voices in Parliament”, particularly among younger voters, and also reflected the pain and uncertainty felt by Singaporeans, including income loss, jobs-related anxieties, and the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, said Mr Lee.
Other PAP leaders, including party treasurer K Shanmugam and central executive committee member Tan Chuan-Jin, also weighed in over the past week on the work that needs to be done to win back voters.
While PAP’s performance fell short of the party’s expectations, the party insiders noted that its overall vote share was in line with its electoral showings in the past three to four decades.
Since the 1984 GE, PAP has garnered around 60 to 66 per cent of the popular vote, with the exception of GE2001 (75.3 per cent) and GE2015 (69.9 per cent). The two outliers saw exceptionally strong performances by PAP, owing to voters’ flight to safety post-9/11 in the 2001 polls and the “Lee Kuan Yew effect” in the 2015 elections.
Still, the party insiders felt that PAP could have done better in this GE, if not for a host of factors behind the scenes that contributed to the below-par showing.
While party discipline meant that they would typically keep their views within the party, the 11 PAP members whom TODAY interviewed — ranging from rank-and-file branch activists to retired Members of Parliament (MPs) and former political office-holders — shared their frank opinions, on condition of anonymity, on what they thought had gone wrong during the campaign.
One activist, who is in her mid-30s and has been involved with the party for over a decade, said: “The problem with my dear PAP is that many activists have given feedback over the years, but there is still a large inertia about changing its tactics, about embracing social media, and accepting that there are things within the party that need to be relooked.”
Another 25-year-old activist, who has been with PAP for eight years, said: “The old guard of the party refuse to listen to the youth. They love tried-and-tested plans, and they are technocrats scared of taking risks… It may take a generational change before they change their ways.”
Some said that despite efforts on the ground to forge a positive agenda, the election campaign had veered off PAP’s message of jobs and livelihoods, which meant that the party somewhat failed to convince middle-aged professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) worried about the poor economy.
Others noted how the opposition’s unified call for diverse voices was hard to counter, including WP’s oft-repeated “no blank cheque” mantra.
Several also took aim at a campaign strategy that backfired, including the decision to field new candidates and move political office-holders to new areas just days before campaigning started, which gave candidates little time to reach out to voters and gain recognition.
With the ruling party licking its wounds after GE2020, TODAY looks back at the landmark election through the eyes of the activists and senior party members, who gave insiders’ accounts of how certain narratives played out during the election and picked out what worked well for PAP, and what was left wanting.
Read more at https://www.todayonline.com/big-read/big-read-what-went-wrong-peoples-action-party-eyes-party-insiders