COMMENT: Now the circus is almost over, how do we vote?

(From left to right): PAP's Vivian Balakrishnan, SDP's Chee Soon Juan, WP's Jamus Lim and PSP's Francis Yuen. (SCREENCAPS: CNA)
(From left to right) PAP's Vivian Balakrishnan, SDP's Chee Soon Juan, WP's Jamus Lim and PSP's Francis Yuen went on a GE2020 debate live on TV. (SCREENCAPS: CNA)

by Bertha Henson

I had great hopes that this election will be different.

I mean different in its content, and not how it is being conducted in non-traditional ways during this COVID-19 outbreak. After all, this “downtime’’ in the face of crisis should mean more radical out-of-the-box thinking rather than just more of the same.

I thought we’d be bracing ourselves to listen to new strategies for the new normal, beyond going digital and working from home. The COVID-19 outbreak highlighted many of Singapore’s vulnerabilities, like how so many households need help because they don’t have enough money put away if breadwinners lose their jobs.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) had a headstart, beginning its informal campaigning via national broadcasts on ways to get the country out of the COVID-19 troubles that loom ahead. This is one of the privileges of being the government. We can’t fault the Prime Minister for picking what he thinks is the best time to hold an election to benefit his party. That too is one of the privileges of being Prime Minister.

But what was presented as the PAP’s manifesto is four already-announced Budgets put together. It makes you wonder if a vote against the PAP will mean a pull back of all the incentives and support that has been promised. It cannot be.

The PAP wants to campaign on the basis of producing jobs. It promises to create 100,000 jobs and training opportunities over one year. It is careful not to over-promise: not all are full-time jobs that can launch a person’s career. Some would be interim jobs or traineeships for the unemployed to pick up skills that they can use when the economy picks up. Nothing was said about jobs after that one year, or the efficacy of the programmes.

In this quest for more jobs, I would have thought we would hear more about wages, foreign workers and ensuring that local PMETs have priority.

Too many missed opportunities

But no, the election campaign degenerated into a circus, with plenty of he said/she said/didn’t say/say wrongly/say falsely and punctuated by POFMA directives, police reports and online petitions. Both the PAP and the opposition parties are to be blamed for the state of affairs, especially the PAP, which is so intent on having the last word that it comes across as lumbering giant with bad English.

There were many missed opportunities to educate voters on the big issues of the day, and they were turned into name-calling and “character’’ issues.

Job creation is important, yes, and I agree with the PAP that there is more dignity in holding down a job than receiving unemployment benefits. But this doesn’t mean that the two cannot go together. The Jobs Support Scheme to supplement employers payroll isn’t forever, while retrenchment is a monster that will rear its head from time to time. Unfortunately, there was no joining of issues.

Allied to this issue of job creation would be whether plans to get retrenched workers, especially middle-aged PMETs, to convert to other professions will actually work. In other words, how efficacious will be the PAP’s efforts to get the country out of an economic rut? What key performance indicators has it set?

PAP’s Vivian Balakrishnan told of some 60,000 foreign workers who have left for home, but nothing about whether their jobs are now redundant or whether they left because headquarters told them to. Could locals have stepped into them? Instead of examining the foreign component in our services and manufacturing industries, we have piecemeal statements on how many work passes should be issued.

Another big issue that almost made it into the campaign discussion was population policy, a big deal in tiny Singapore. It is a hot potato because a bigger population would bring visions of crowded spaces and overloaded infrastructure. Just think about the outcry over 6.9 million people by 2030 that was advanced in 2012. By the way, we are already at 5.7 million now.

The Singapore Democratic Party probably thought it hit the mother lode when it asked for clarification on the supposed 10 million population target which it attributed to DPM Heng Swee Keat.

Let’s leave aside the number or who said it and when. This was a chance to come to grips with how to deal with a growing population and whether we should wean ourselves off our dependency on foreign workers.

Instead, the debate turned on whether Heng had set the target (he said no) and the predictable PAP chorus about SDP Chee Soon Juan’s “dishonesty’’. The PAP then went on the offensive to say that this “fabrication’’ made the whole SDP manifesto suspect. On its part, the SDP quickly declared victory…

Guess what? The population was left none the wiser about the population policy.

Another example: helping lower income workers.

We all know the PAP is allergic to the idea of a minimum wage, preferring the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) where people can move up a wage ladder as they deepen their skills. Cleaners, landscape workers and security guards are on this. It’s a good idea but it also means setting up an infrastructure to licence employers, recognise and certify skills. And PWM looks like a glacier in motion. Who’s next in line and how long before we see that most workers are getting more than $1,300 a month? In five years? Again, there was no engagement on the pros and cons of either model.

We had nine days of campaigning which produced much heat but no light. Maybe I was too optimistic to think that content will be superior. After all, the campaign lasts just nine days and we are already on the eve of Cooling Off Day.

Given the paucity of discussion on issues and policies, the GE then boils down to this: What sort of Singapore do we want?

We shouldn’t be bogged down by personalities and promises of upgrading at the constituency level. Singapore is just too small to afford to bicker over this. We are facing an uncertain future, and many are worried about what tomorrow will bring. But it is wise to remember that this election is not just about the economic future of Singapore. It is also a chance to shape the way the country will be in five to 10 years.

Remember that the PAP has asked for a strong mandate. What does that really mean?

Will it take a 70 plus per cent vote share as a signal that Singaporeans see it as the best party to effect change? Or a resounding “yes” for it to do as it sees fit?

The opposition has called on us to deny the ruling party a blank cheque. Again, what does that mean? Will it then help the PAP write the cheques that will be needed? Or will it simply oppose for opposition sake?

We have heard enough – if you sift the wheat from the chaff of this election campaign – to come to a somewhat informed decision about these questions. This should guide you as you go to polling stations at allotted times on Friday, masks and disposable gloves and all.

Are we to be an extraordinary country in extraordinary times? Your choice.

Bertha Henson is a veteran Singapore journalist who now lectures at NUS. The views expressed are her own.

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