COMMENT: Dear PAP, here's how to win back the youth vote

The Workers' Party (WP) supporters in Hougang Ave 5 celebrating after sample counts are announced on 11 July 2020. (PHOTO: Don Wong for Yahoo News Singapore)
The Workers' Party (WP) supporters in Hougang Ave 5 celebrating after sample counts are announced on 11 July 2020. (PHOTO: Don Wong for Yahoo News Singapore)

by Sean Lim

It must have been a disappointing weekend for the People’s Action Party (PAP) as they saw their vote share fall and lose yet another GRC to the Workers’ Party (WP) in this year’s general election (GE).

But as a young voter, last Friday’s (10 July) GE result is a goldilocks outcome. The PAP remains in power as a ruling party we still trust, yet the data is strong enough to signal that we want to change the way politics is conducted.

Many young voters were upset by the PAP’s response to the Raeesah Khan episode. The party continued to use heavy-handed tactics to undermine its opponents, which in this case, was questioning the Sengkang WP candidate’s suitability to contest in the election.

I thought with the fourth generation leaders at the helm, they would conduct the GE more sensibly with refreshing strategies, away from gutter politics of the past. But it was disappointing to see them rely on old methods which I felt made the campaign toxic.

Older Singaporeans might just tahan and let the PAP get its way. It was worse many years ago, according to these voters. The mud-slinging and character assassination were more intense, such as the comparison of exam results of Singapore Democratic Party’s Chiam See Tong and PAP candidate Mah Bow Tan by the late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, and the deploying of the votes-for-HDB-upgrading scare tactic to sway Singaporeans into supporting the PAP.

For younger voters like me who do not have the institutional memory of elections held in previous decades, we want to see a new normal in local politics with clean and equitable play, not gutter politics. I don’t think younger voters can accept “politics is dirty” as an excuse. We expect to see the PAP as the dominant power who can take the high road and be magnanimous.

The PAP’s dominance in opposition wards

That’s why I feel that we should put an end to the PAP’s dominance of municipal activities in opposition-held wards. The PAP should not behave as if it is the incumbent there.

During my final semester in school, I was part of the Class Notes team led by veteran journalist Bertha Henson. She was the instructor for an election reporting module I was in and the website, which covers both reporting and research on Singapore’s electoral, parliamentary and political scenes, was part of class work.

Together with my classmates Gwen and Ethan, we were assigned to write a story on the PAP in Hougang and Aljunied, where WP is the incumbent. I was aghast to find out how entrenched the dominance of the PAP was in the opposition wards, especially at the community level with its network of People’s Association (PA) committees, community centres and PAP Community Foundation (PCF) kindergartens. They are usually headed by grassroots advisers, who tend to be the defeated PAP candidates at the polls.

Then there is a contest involving banners and posters. I observed how grassroots adviser Lee Hong Chuang’s portrait – the PAP candidate who lost in GE2015 and the recent election – was plastered on Residents’ Committee notice boards. In contrast, photographs of former Hougang MP Png Eng Huat were hardly seen and the town council notice boards were mainly announcements of WP events and schedules of maintenance work.

There were banners tied on poles marked with the PA logo and bearing a large portrait of the grassroot adviser, as if to remind residents of the PAP’s omnipresence. The appearance of large party flags and logos at the PAP branch offices further drove home this point.

I also discovered that elected WP MPs are not allowed to use community centres to organise constituency events for their residents, while unelected grassroots advisers could do so.

Another observation which puzzled me was the Meet-The-People Session (MPS). I decided to drop by Png’s and Lee’s MPS on a Wednesday evening in February – yes, they were held on the same day of the week at about the same time.

I found it hard to understand that an unelected grassroots adviser could conduct his MPS in a brightly-lit kindergarten with proper facilities while Png, as an elected MP, had no proper venue to conduct his MPS. His weekly MPS are conducted under a void deck with makeshift tables and chairs, with little privacy for the MP and residents when they converse. I thought an elected MP should be accorded with more dignity.

I rang up Victor Lye, a grassroots adviser from the WP-held Aljunied GRC and also the defeated PAP candidate in the same constituency for the 2015 and 2020 GEs, to find out more about how the PAP operated there. He was not forthcoming with his answers.

My observations of the unlevel playing field in the opposition wards were disconcerting and young voters expect more gracious behaviour from the PAP candidates. If they had lost a constituency, they should try to wrangle it back at the next election fairly.

During the GE campaign, WP candidates told voters that if PAP candidates were to lose, the latter would return as grassroots advisers. Hence, residents would be served by two parties, the WP assured. Png had told me that the PAP’s MPS in his constituency did not bother him and I only understood later the reason for his comment.

The PAP has said it would engage in soul-searching following the loss of 10 seats to the WP. It is known to be a responsive party after it suffers an electoral setback.

In the aftermath of GE2011, the PAP government curbed the inflow of foreign workers into Singapore. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, then Education Minister, also conducted the “Our Singapore Conversation” in 2012, which is a national dialogue to engage Singaporeans on their hopes for the country.

Shortly after the final result of the GE was announced, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that WP chief Pritam Singh would be given the official title of “Leader of the Opposition”. It is a right step, and I am confident that the PAP will find a way to win more support from the younger voters, and hopefully transform the political scene for the better.

Sean Lim recently graduated with a political science degree from the National University of Singapore. The views expressed are his own.

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