‘The genie is out of Singapore’s political bottle’

Singapore's presidential election of 2011 has been bruising and divisive. (Yahoo!)
Singapore's presidential election of 2011 has been bruising and divisive. (Yahoo!)

By P N Balji

What does it say of the Singapore political scene when a man with impeccable credentials for the presidency is rejected by nearly 65 percent of voters? What does it mean when a relatively unknown former civil servant with his strident attacks on government emerge with nearly one-third of the votes? Finally, what does it signify when all four contenders for the presidency were either part of the establishment or had links with it?

That even a blue-chip reputation, which Dr Tony Tan had, is not enough to win a strong mandate from voters. That a shrill anti-government stand, which Mr Tan Jee Say displayed, can have a cache in a political oasis like Singapore. That a loose political front made up of smart, respected and able people is emerging.

It is this last point -- a hard truth, a phrase made famous by former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew -- that is likely to have a long-lasting impact on politics here in the aftermath of a stunning Presidential Election.

The signs of this development were already evident in GE 2001. A consultant physician with National University Hospital, Dr Paul Tambyah, was a hit with the online crowd when he spoke at a Singapore Democratic Party rally. The election commentaries by a bright former administrative officer, Donald Low, in his Facebook were circulated virally. For the first time, we saw those working for the government or who used to work for it speaking out openly.

When PE came along nearly four months later, the tide got bigger. A former long-time government MP (Tan Cheng Bock), a former civil servant (Mr Tan Jee Say) and the former CEO of an insurance co-operative with links to government had all thrown their hats into the ring to challenge what many suspected was a government-endorsed candidate (Dr Tony Tan).

If there was one quality they were all trying to portray, in varying forms, was their independence from the establishment. Overnight, closeness to government was no more a badge of honour or a sure-fire way to victory at the polls .

As a weary-eyed Singapore tried to digest the significance of the nail-biting result, another hard truth emerged: The genie is out of Singapore's political bottle.

How wrong Dr Tony Tan was when he spoke of a new normal in Singapore politics just weeks before he squeaked in with a 0.34 percentage point victory to be Singapore's seventh president. That new normal has become the old normal in just a matter of weeks.

An obedient population fed on slogans like Many More Good Years and A Swiss Standard Of Living are fighting back as they find daily challenges like inflation, overcrowding, long hours at work just becoming unbearable. And they are showing their angst at the ballot box.

Not in a mindless way, mind you.

They are analysing the candidates carefully. A friend had narrowed his choices to two candidates, undecided as to whom he should vote for until he was walking to the polling station. Both had better credentials than the other two, but after he read all the government statements about what the President cannot do, he decided to choose the one that he felt would stand up for the Singaporean in a crunch.

PM Lee's urgent task

The man left carrying the baby is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He has his work cut out.

His first and immediate task is to come out with an action plan on the online media. Not to control it, as one young grassroots man had the audacity to suggest during a chat on the eve of the elections, but to work with it. In his National Day rally speech, Mr Lee showed that he was thinking about it when he called for the government and people to engage in a rational, open and meaningful debate in the online space.

Ignore the "cowboy towns" and work with only the moderate sites? Allow young civil servants to engage the online community? Or let established and respected bloggers come out with projects on their own to occupy and grow a relatively untapped middle ground in the online space?

Whichever way the government decides to go, it has to act fast.

The Presidential Election again showed how effective a medium the online world has become. A PR firm, Bell Pottinger, found out that Dr Tan Cheng Bock was the most digital savvy candidate with Mr Tan Jee Say a close second. Dr Tony Tan did not even feature in the top-line results.

Temasek Review and respected blogger Mr Alex Au endorsed Dr Tan Jee Say. Says Mr Au in his blog: "When he speaks of conscience, he means it."

How PM deals with the genie will decide the kind of political system that will emerge in the next few years. There is still a view among the establishment types that the government must not be populist and that what it needs to change is its style of communication.

I have yet to hear somebody articulate, either publicly or privately, another option: The popular route. It is not that this path has not been tried. How Mr Khaw Boon Wan got through his health means-testing policy without any real backlash can be made essential reading material.

And finally, the most difficult task: A re-look at every policy that is grounded in the ideology of the old. The arguments for high growth, anti-welfarism culture, control of media, one-party system, a Chinese-only Prime Minister...they all need to be re-examined in the context of the signals the voters are sending.

The double whammy of the results of the General Election and Presidential Election demand nothing less.

P N Balji, who was a journalist for more than 35 years, is now a media consultant.