SINGAPORE: Since the watershed election of 2011 and an exciting SG50 election of 2015, General Elections in Singapore have become the biggest talk of the town.
It was therefore no surprise that election chatter began as soon as news came from the Elections Department last Wednesday (Sep 4) that the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) had been convened last month.
The statement sparked speculative conversations. We were told that one of the committee’s key task is to review the current electoral boundaries and recommend the number and boundaries of group representation constituencies (GRCs) and single-member constituencies (SMCs) in view of Singapore’s demographic changes since the last General Election.
If this direction is followed, Singaporeans can expect to see more political contests as there will almost certainly be more smaller GRCs, and more SMCs than the current 13, in keeping with the direction to reduce the average GRC size and have more SMCs, which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong articulated in 2016.
The bottom line here? Singaporeans will go to the polls again in a matter of months, maybe sooner than we know, for only the 13th time in Singapore’s history.
The more significant question is what will this General Election be about?
An election is about choosing the best possible team to lead the country. It is about political leadership expressed through the formation of a government.
This time, however, the spotlight will be on the Fourth Generation (4G) People's Action Party (PAP) leadership.
Singapore is about to enter a political transition, only the third in her modern history.
THE 4G LEADERSHIP – ARE THEY UP FOR IT?
As Singaporean political analyst Dr Lam Peng Er portended in the concluding chapter in the book that analysed the 2015 General Election, Change in Voting: Singapore’s 2015 General Election:
The PAP in the next general election may have a leadership issue. If Lee Hsien Loong were to lead the PAP again in the next GE, he would be older and less energetic, and would probably be fine-tuning the status quo which he and his father (Lee Kuan Yew) had painstakingly built rather than offer a slew of new initiatives or a relook at the fundamental of governance.
Although PM Lee will lead the Government to this election, he has already made it clear it will be his last, and he will pass the baton to the next PM as soon as practical, after the next General Election, or by the time he turns 70 (in February 2022).
The coming General Election will be transitional because Singaporeans will be electing – and indeed, endorsing – a slate of prospective leaders, comprising both incumbent and new candidates, who will collectively be key players in Singapore’s Changing of the Guard 3.0.
(After the election, while we may expect several 3G leaders to remain in Cabinet positions either in a key portfolio (such as home affairs, health and defence) or in a senior, coordinating ministerial role, it is likely most other positions will be filled by 4G members.)
All eyes will on the “new man” in the form of our current Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, as the leader of the 4G team. Among many other attributes, he will be closely examined for how well he can connect with the electorate.
As Dr Lam had previously highlighted, the nation would be transitioning from the status quo that the much-revered founding PM Lee Kuan Yew had established – and his successor Goh Chok Tong and current PM Lee Hsien Loong built on – to one that remains promising but is perhaps less certain.
Mr Heng has had a shorter runway compared to both ESM Goh and PM Lee, who had almost six and 15 years of political leadership experience as DPM respectively before assuming the role of PM.
Given this scenario, to use a nautical analogy, PM Lee’s primary task would be to pilot the PAP vessel through the upcoming electoral challenge, and ensure that all key crew members remain shipshape and ready to take control thereafter.
His secondary task is to clear the policy decks to give PM-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat a clean slate from which to start well. Only then would the new man be given a chance to become his own man to lead his team.
In fact PM Lee and his 3G team have focused on this second role over the past year. Transport woes, especially peak hour crowds and train breakdowns, have mostly subsided. There is some help to manage healthcare costs for Merdeka Generation seniors. Even the contentious Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) has been passed into law.
So the question that many Singaporeans will be asking in the lead-up to the polls is, “Is the 4G up to it?”
It will be the same question that opposition candidates, regardless of their party affiliations, will also be asking while spruiking their points of difference.
APPEALING TO PRAGMATISM AMID A TRANSITION
PM Lee’s efforts to steady the PAP ship had also already started more than a year ago when Singaporeans were sizing up their next PM.
Before the PAP elected Mr Heng as the First Assistant Secretary-General in its central executive committee (CEC) – which made him the obvious successor to the Prime Ministership – PM Lee spoke openly about how he expected the group of 16 next-generation office holders to select a leader from among themselves.
Having now selected their first-among-equals, the 4G leaders must convince the electorate to endorse their choice and to throw their support behind them, though they are likely not to make this the explicit election issue but focus on the pragmatics.
Why? We need to remember that Singaporeans have been conditioned to be a pragmatic lot.
They want to know that their lives will get better in the coming years. Singapore voters will protest if policies are left wanting (as they did at the 2011 general election when housing, transport and the influx of foreigners lit a fuse), and reward if their concerns are addressed (as in 2015).
Appealing to how this PAP government has made significant achievements that have served Singaporeans’ interests best might work best, and also help the PAP focus on a message of continuity of this track record as the 4G leaders take over.
ARE WE READY?
Although there are dark clouds on the horizon with the nation’s GDP for 2019 recently revised down to a narrow range of 0 to 1 per cent growth – given primarily the worsening effects of the US-China trade war – the domestic economy has largely been steady over the past few years, with fewer than usual gripes about job losses and retrenchments.
In any case, a worsening economic outlook typically leads voters to hunker down and stick with a tried-and-tested PAP leadership, instead of risking change.
But if this coming election does not centre on the economy or policy responses under the current Lee administration, it is likely to focus on the readiness of our 4G leaders, led by our new man Heng Swee Keat, even if the PAP does not intend so.
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.