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News Reports

Partying into the next GE

So the People’s Action Party has started the election ball rolling. It’s framed the terms of the contest: First World Government, not First World Parliament. I wish though the MSM would make it clear that this is not the Prime Minister addressing the nation. Mr Lee Hsien Loong was speaking as the PAP secretary-general and he was speaking to the party faithful. A quibble you say? It isn’t. Because that is the line that MSM must maintain between the G and the party. Plus, it’s the truth.

I was a little flummoxed at how what he told party activists was suddenly elevated into a national issue. Perhaps it is, or even should be. But that’s the interpretation or analysis of the facts. And putting cart before horse. So what did the party chief say? Every media angled on how he said the GE would be a “deadly serious’’ fight. Deadly serious for who? Given that he was speaking to party activists, it would be deadly serious for them especially if the PAP loses. Extrapolate further, and you could say his message could also be directed to the population at large.

If the media treated it as a party message, then it could be interpreted thus: Wake up your ideas! You think we are going to sail through the next GE like we did the past? Better buck up and don’t get complacent or you may find that we’re not just out of some wards, but out of government!

In any case, how would Mr Lee know that the PAP won’t form the G anyway? It all depends on whether the opposition parties choose to contest more than half the seats and deprive the PAP of forming the government on nomination day. But if the opposition decides to organise itself and contested just half or less, than the PAP has to worry about the by-election effect. (The PAP in power already leh, so let’s vote in a few more opposition politicians.) The PAP already knows what a by-election means. It lost both the Hougang and Punggol East by-elections. Hougang was helmed by a philanderer (from the Workers’ Party) and the voters still picked a member of the party he belonged to. Punggol East was also helmed by a philanderer (from the PAP) but voters chose to throw the party out as well.

Okay, the PAP failed to form the G on nomination day in the last two elections. Perhaps Mr Lee expects the trend to continue, especially with opposition politicians figuring that they have social media to utilise. Third time lucky/unlucky?

One political commentator noted that this was the first time the spectre of the PAP losing the GE has been raised by the PAP itself. Why did it do so? I wonder what the PAP thinks would be better for itself: form the Government on Nomination Day and never mind if people use the vote for opposition parties and lose more seats OR don’t form the G and scare everyone into voting for it so as not to get what it calls a “freak election result’’. It might actually win some lost seats in the process or at least retain its parliamentary margin. (NOTE: a freak election result is what happens when people actually want only one thing to happen, that is, more opposition members in Parliament, but get more than they bargained for: opposition forms the government. Of course, it is NOT freakish if that is what people really want. In fact, it might be the will of the people! Who can say?)

As a political strategy though, framing the contest as who forms the G is a great one. Why wait till Nomination day and find out that most of the seats are up for grabs and only then start telling people the consequences of the vote in a doomsday voice? Best to start seeding the ground early, whatever happens on Nomination Day. Unless, of the course, the G resorts to certain tools in its kit – bring back six-member jumbo GRCs, reduce the number of single-seat wards and redraw the boundaries such that those pesky opposition voting blocs are split up….

The GE has to be called by January 2017. The bet is that it will be late next year or early 2016 to take advantage of the SG50 hype and the feel-good factor. Actually, there are many issues that will be on the table next year that might well form its election platform, like Medishield Life. “If you like Medishield Life, vote for the PAP! A vote against means that you are against Medishield Life and thence, our social policies. And didn’t you want the PAP to do more on the social front anyway?’’

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Then there are amendments to the Broadcasting Act (if too tough, get it done early and hope people forget since the opposition will make hay out of it). There are also changes to the CPF after the review committee does the job (it can say it is listening to feedback or the opposition can say the changes don’t go far enough). I think the Town Council Act would be up for review too to plug loopholes on financing and who can or cannot be employed in the management. (Which will not look good for one particular opposition party and make it harder for those who think running an estate is a walk in the park).

And though Mr Lee said that every seat will be a national contest, I wonder if it would actually be more advantageous for the PAP it say it will be a “local election’’, in the light of what is happening/not happening in the Workers’ Party town council. People won’t “get’’ the big picture, but they know enough about dirty corridors and lifts which don’t work. Of course, if the WP shows that there is nothing wrong with the way it runs the town council when the Auditor-General is finally done with his work, then the G would have egg on its face. In fact, it might well be that the Town Council Act was badly conceived or the “regulators’’ did not do due diligence. (Speculating here, okay…)

In any case, I think the PAP already has a very strong hand in this game. It can safely say that it has fixed most of the things it would fix after the last GE, like housing and transport and tamping down on the number of foreign workers. (The opposition can, of course, say “not good enough’’) It can cite plenty of schemes and subsidies about levelling up the population especially the lower income group. (The opposition can, of course, say “too little, too late’’) It can say that it is living up to its new, improved constitution about making Singapore a fair and inclusive society underpinned by compassionate meritocracy. (The opposition can, of course, say “that’s because we’re around to make sure the PAP changes’’.)

You know how the game is played. The PAP will ask the opposition: “What ideas do YOU have?’’ Another point which it doesn’t emphasise as much is: “Where are you going to get the money from since you can’t touch what we’ve made in the past?’’ Actually, I wonder what are the provisions made for the finances of a changed government? Is it as clumsy as the handover of a town council seems to be?

BTW, what Mr Lee said about social media is the most placatory I’ve heard from him on the issue in a long time. According to CNA, Mr Lee noted there are different and louder voices now in society, especially on social media. Some mean well, and the PAP must engage and persuade them to make common cause with the party. But, Mr Lee said there are others who will try to mislead voters, and this will lead Singapore into trouble. And the party has to counter, expose and defeat them.

This is going to be interesting. I’m not sure the PAP has really been engaging well-meaning detractors on social media, it’s more like “digging in its heels’’. As for “counter, expose and defeat’’, we have a lot of examples of that. Methinks Mr Lee should have used the words accountability and transparency as the key approach in responding to social media views. Of course, there will be those who prefer not to believe anything the PAP says whatever the facts. But my bet is that there is still a wide middle ground just waiting and watching.  Both the PAP and opposition parties must work on engaging that middle ground instead of assuming (like the PAP does) that the silent majority is on its side or (like the Opposition does) that the vocal minority is vocalising for the majority.

Some people have pointed out that the PAP (and the opposition too) shouldn’t take the view that “if you are not for us, you are against us’’. But that is surely the point of casting a vote: You make a decision on who to back. Of course, you don’t have to display any partisanship if you don’t want to. And the vote is secret.

The question is: on what basis is that decision being made? On the way political parties frame the election agenda to influence thinking? I don’t know about you, but I will make up my own checklist closer to the date.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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