Commentary: The battle now begins as Singapore heads into General Election campaigning post Nomination Day
The chessboard has been set for Singapore’s General Elections. But it’s the narratives parties put forth that will shape choices at the ballot box, says Terence Lee.
SINGAPORE: After a whirlwind week of new faces being unveiled and interesting configurations introduced for specific Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), the chess board is now set.
The PAP’s West Coast team has been bolstered with Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee, while arguably the biggest surprise of the day saw Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Heng Swee Keat move from Tampines to lead the PAP’s East Coast team against the Workers’ Party’s (WP) team of Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim, Kenneth Foo, Terence Tan, Dylan Ng and Nicole Seah.
Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Dr Koh Poh Koon, previously a Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio GRC, now joins the PAP’s Tampines team.
Sengkang, a place where many young families reside, may be a bellwether for future elections, and will see Ng Chee Meng lead the PAP team there against the WP’s Jamus Lim, Raeesah Khan, Louis Chua and He Ting Ru.
There were also some surprises on the opposition side, notably Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman Dr Paul Tambyah choosing to stake his claim on the Bukit Panjang Single Member Constituency (SMC) rather than the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC where he has been a part of the SDP team contesting in the past two elections.
But quite apart from which candidates will be fielded where, the fact remains that most Singapore General Elections have been shaped by the national mood and whether parties can articulate the best narratives that move voters.
COVID-19 THE OVERARCHING BACKDROP
There is no doubt COVID-19 forms that overarching backdrop that fuels top-of-mind concerns for most Singaporeans worried about jobs, livelihoods and more “bread and butter issues”.
The PAP will likely stress the credentials of its leaders and tout its past experience riding Singapore through past storms, including the global financial crisis and Asian financial crisis.
For the PAP, COVID-19 could nudge voters to adopt a conventional “flight to safety” mentality and vote for the incumbent PAP government.
The PAP’s campaign, centred on giving it a fresh, full five-year mandate to deal with “Our Lives, Our Jobs, Our Future”, the title of the party’s election manifesto, shows it knows this.
As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in his speech last week calling the election: “We must be psychologically prepared for more ups and downs in this fight against COVID-19. Economically, we must brace ourselves for a very tough period ahead. Singapore has not yet felt the full economic fallout from COVID-19. But it is coming.”
READ: GE2020: PAP launches manifesto focusing on jobs, economy and keeping lives safe amid COVID-19 pandemic
As it currently stands, Singapore is forecast to encounter her worst recession since independence, with unemployment expected to rise steeply.
The Government had responded with four budgets – the Unity, Resilience, Solidarity and Fortitude Budgets – allocating a record sum of nearly S$100 billion, or about 20 per cent of GDP, to fight the pandemic.
The steering of the ship analogy is generally safe. History has shown voters are inclined towards a political choice offering “safe harbour” at the ballot box, as was the case in December 2001 when the PAP won a record 75.3 per cent of the votes on the back of the September 11 attacks in the US.
Yet this narrative is also easy to attack, particularly given how Singapore’s fight against the pandemic has seen some setbacks, such as the outbreaks within foreign worker dormitories.
Incidents over the past week also distracted voters from the PAP’s campaign, including the eventual withdrawal of Ivan Lim, who dropped out of the race after a wave of allegations over his past conduct emerged, which overshadowed the party’s manifesto launch on the same day.
The episode opened the door for doubts to be cast on the PAP candidate selection process, sitting candidates and MPs, and for concerns that the GRC system allows new candidates to sweep into Parliament with less scrutiny to be seeded.
The PAP grasped how damaging the incident could be – and so PAP Secretary-General Lee Hsien Loong’s promise that the veracity of such claims will be investigated after the election is to be welcomed.
READ: GE2020: PAP prospective candidate Ivan Lim will not contest in election after online criticism
RENEWAL OF LEADERSHIP
A wild card in this election is how voters will view leadership renewal – and whether they would reward parties with leaders stepping down in recognising their contributions and legacies or do otherwise.
With 27 new candidates unveiled by the PAP, the highest number since Singapore’s independence, a record number of veteran MPs have stepped down.
In particular, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, as well as Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah also announced their decision not to run.
In the WP camp, the nation’s longest-serving opposition Member of Parliament Low Thia Kiang’s departure, along with Chen Show Mao and Png Eng Huat, has been met with some surprise, coupled with a tinge of sadness by voters in Hougang and Aljunied GRC.
Singaporeans will look to the prospects of new candidates filling the void left by the three WP men, ensuring that both Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC will remain some of the most exciting seats to watch in the coming GE.
Importantly, for the WP, this GE will also be used to judge if voters and supporters will give Pritam Singh – who is leading the WP into the election for the first time – the same show of support it gave Low.
LEE HSIEN YANG’S EMERGENCE
A third development that threatened to hijack the PAP’s narrative comes from Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s new Progress Singapore Party (PSP), with the emergence of Mr Lee Hsien Yang, the younger brother of Lee Hsien Loong, as a key member.
Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s presence may have diverted voters’ attention away from the PAP towards his bitter family dispute with PM Lee, dubbed “Oxley-gate” in recent weeks.
He used the possibility of his being fielded by the PSP to his advantage and attempted to harness the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew – the “LKY-effect” believed to have played a part in the PAP romping to a high vote share of 69.9 per cent at the previous GE in 2015. In a walkabout with Lee Hsien Yang, Dr Tan was heard introducing him to residents saying “his father founded Singapore, you know”.
With Mr Lee Hsien Yang not standing as a candidate in the General Election, these issues will likely take a backseat in the days ahead.
WHAT OPPOSITION PARTIES ARE LIKELY TO PUT FORTH
The opposition parties have all put forth manifestos, ranging from those that have specific proposals, like the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)’s call to suspend the Goods and Services Tax, to those like the PSP’s that envisages a new redistribution of the fruits of economic growth. Most of these pick at the pain points Singaporeans feel.
But it is the narrative of the Workers’ Party (WP) that hits at the heart of the PAP’s campaign. Its manifesto titled “Make Your Vote Count”, combines its narrative and campaign slogan into one. In essence, the WP seeks to implore voters to ensure that checks and balances are retained in Parliament.
As WP party leader Pritam Singh explained at the manifesto’s launch on Sunday (Jun 28): “The slogan calls into focus the overwhelming parliamentary super-majority held by the People's Action Party (PAP). There's a real risk of a wipeout of elected opposition MPs with 100 per cent of the elected seats in PAP hands at these general elections."
READ: GE2020: 'No possibility' of opposition being excluded from Parliament with NCMP scheme, says PM Lee
An opposition narrative is emerging. This claim of a wipeout of the opposition has also been repeated by opposition figures including Goh Meng Seng, the People’s Power Party sole contender, as he arrived to submit his nomination papers on Tuesday (Jun 30).
The PAP knows it must tackle this argument head on. PM Lee said on Monday (Jun 29) during the unveiling of PAP candidates for Ang Mo Kio GRC that the WP’s argument is a “tactic” to “paint the possibility that they will lose and, therefore, hope that through reverse psychology, people will vote for them to make sure that they're not going to be wiped out."
Will voters worry more of this new “freak election” result – where the opposition could be eliminated from Parliament – or vote for a steady pair of hands in a time of coronavirus? The next 10 days will be critical for all sides to win voters over.
One thing is clear - voters remain jittery about the health risks of voting at this time. Yet the pragmatic response of Singaporeans will be to get on with the task of voting because it is deemed essential.
Terence Lee is Associate Professor of Communication and Media at Murdoch University, Australia. He is co-editor with Professor Kevin Y L Tan of Voting in Change: Politics of Singapore's 2011 General Election and Change in Voting: Singapore's 2015 General Election, both published by Ethos Books.