Commentary: Why do humble backgrounds matter as candidates standing for Singapore’s General Election?
The People’s Action Party and the opposition parties have chosen candidates with backgrounds that further their narratives, says Dr Gillian Koh.
SINGAPORE: Nomination Day for the General Election to be held on Jul 10 is over, confirming who the candidates contesting for the 93 seats will be.
There will be straight fights between opposition parties and the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has governed Singapore since 1959, in all but one Single Member Constituency (SMC) and one Group Representation Constituency (GRC) which will see three-cornered fights.
The standout feature relating to the candidates being fielded is the convergence in the parties’ choices – the PAP has selected candidates with records of social activism and community engagement while the opposition is drawing in more professionals.
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They recognise voters want a stronger blend of head and heart and the PAP, particularly, is trying to ensure that candidates will connect better with them in this election.
MORE THAN THE USUAL PAP MOULD
The PAP has 27 new faces standing in these elections – the largest number it has ever fielded.
The PAP’s penchant for leaders with good academic as well as professional credentials, especially in the realm of public service, is well-known. Voters expect technocratic competence as well as the commitment of service to the nation and the people as a baseline.
Indeed, more than half of the fresh faces have served in the Singapore Armed Forces or the civil service. However, what is difficult to miss are the other facets to this group.
They have been in charge of offices where community engagement was integral to their objectives like Desmond Tan, who was Chief Executive of the People’s Association, Tan Kiat How and Yip Hon Weng who have designed and managed outreach programmes for policies targeted at seniors.
There is also Eric Chua who headed the SG Secure Office and has been a community leader for many years, and Mohd Fahmi Bin Aliman who was Deputy Chief Executive of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS).
Among the bumper crop of women on the PAP slate this time are also those who added new dimensions to their public service experience.
Poh Li San, previously a helicopter pilot at the Republic of Singapore Air Force, is now Vice-President of Terminal 5 Planning at the Changi Airport Group and recognised for operationalising the airport’s self-service terminal.
Yeo Wan Ling, who worked in the global operations team in the Singapore Economic Development Board now runs Caregiver Asia, a social enterprise she started along with parent company Caregiver Group, whereas Gan Siow Huang, Singapore’s first female brigadier-general is now Deputy Chief Executive of the Employment and Employability Institute where the key mission is to motivate workers to take on the painful task of re-skilling for new jobs.
There are several other social activists and community leaders among the PAP candidates, including Carrie Tan, who heads women empowerment group Daughters of Tomorrow and former President of the Association of Muslim Professionals, Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim.
In introducing new candidates, Tharman Shanmugaratnam in Jurong GRC highlighted that Shawn Huang, who also has a background in the military, had been doing grassroots work for 10 years, and Xie Yao Quan, who is in the public health sector, has been serving the constituency for five years.
In terms of their profiles and biographies, the candidates have either worked the ground or had to understand it well, which means there would have been time for party leaders to assess their ability to connect with ordinary Singaporeans and active citizens prior to selection.
After a bruising Punggol East by-election in January 2013 with the PAP losing to the Workers’ Party Lee Li Lian, PAP Secretary-General Lee Hsien Loong said that it was important to have candidates spend time on the ground to allow them to warm up to residents and vice versa before they were fielded. The lesson has been taken seriously.
THE ROLE CANDIDATE BACKGROUNDS PLAY
In the opposition camp, we see far more professionals and people with private sector experience being profiled.
In introducing candidates last week, Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party Pritam Singh said he was presenting a slate of candidates who could be competent Members of Parliament and also manage town councils well; his focus was on “quality candidates” - code for “a match to the PAP’s candidates”.
Among the new faces are Jamus Lim, Associate Professor at Essec Business School, Dylan Ng and Louis Chua from the finance sector, and Muhammad Fadli Mohammed Fawzi who joins several other lawyers on the WP slate.
Another interesting point to note was the emphasis on the candidates’ humble beginnings in particular, on the PAP side.
The 4G leaders led by First Assistant Secretary-General Heng Swee Keat have made social mobility and alternative pathways to success the leitmotif of their leadership platform.
In choosing candidates with humble backgrounds, they hope many voters will see them as personifications of the positive and empowering aspects of Singapore’s meritocracy, social mobility and recognise their sense of noblesse oblige – ploughing back to the system and helping fellow citizens benefit from it as you have.
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But the opposition camp always had candidates with such backgrounds. Among the new names in the field, Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s right-hand man in the Progress Singapore Party, Leong Mun Wai, is from a modest background, and was a government scholar and senior personnel in organisations within the finance industry before starting his own investment firm.
Or think of Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim of the WP, previously at the research arm of AMP, who had to work in several jobs to put himself through school and university.
We can expect the parties to argue their case from different sides, with the PAP saying the system it has built provides avenues for progress for families across the generations and it will ensure this continues.
The opposition will highlight how more opportunities are needed with greater funding for pre-school education and even higher cohort participation rates in university as set out in the WP’s party manifesto. Education and skills training are the route to uplifting oneself and one’s family but access must be improved.
The PAP candidates will say they are living proof that the system works, while the opposition will say that they had to strive hard to beat the odds.
WP’s Tan Chen Chen was almost apologetic about her poor academic record, hoping that voters would nonetheless give her a chance at the ballot box because she is “willing to work hard and against the odds” for what she wants.
SETTING THEM APART
What do the candidates wish to do? In addition to hewing closely to the lines of their parties’ manifestoes and campaign taglines, several PAP’s new candidates have mentioned they want to attend to the needs of Singapore’s seniors. We are an ageing population with 16 per cent of the citizen population over the age of 65, and such assurances should appeal to this key constituency.
On the other hand, the new candidates also have an average age of 43 which is close to the citizen median age of 42.
As a national political movement of over 60 years, the PAP is savvy enough to ensure their candidates appeal to what is the “median voter” by way of age yet can connect with voters of different interests and profiles. That is the burden it has to bear.
How will voters take to the candidates? In the heat of the election hustings, even if they are going to be primarily online with each party on its own platform, candidates’ ability to connect with voters and their true colours will show through.
Social media has also demonstrated how merciless the court of public opinion can be. At least three PAP candidates have been subjected to that effect in the run-up to Nomination Day.
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In three post-election surveys conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies, Singaporeans have told us the qualities of honesty, fairness, efficiency and empathy are what they look for in candidates.
The candidates who have put in more time to demonstrate those qualities on the ground will be better off. Those who have not will hope that sharing their personal track record of living by those values will merit a serious look by demanding Singapore voters.
Dr Gillian Koh is Deputy Director (Research) and Senior Research Fellow in the Governance and Economy Department at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.