COMMENT: Singapore, we deserve an 'A'

Fist bumps have replaced handshakes on the campaign trail as Singapore prepares for a general election, even as it recovers from a major coronavirus outbreak
Opponents politically, but citizens of Singapore all the same.

by Bertha Henson

I have been totally wrong about the Singapore electorate.

I thought most voters would do as citizens elsewhere did, giving the incumbent political party an overwhelming victory in the election because of this phenomenon called “flight to safety’’. This was why, I thought, the People’s Action Party (PAP) kept insisting on a “strong and clear mandate” as it was confident enough to think that the vote would be heavily tilted in its favour.

Political observers and pundits have said much the same: that the PAP offered a safe harbour to those of us in this small sampan, who worry about a potential capsize. Look, they said, at how Singapore voted in 2001, after the September 11 attacks in New York.

Those same pundits, myself included, will now start dissecting the reasons for the 61 per cent vote for the PAP, which the Prime Minister described as “a good mandate’’ but which I would say was probably far below general expectations.

I will do the same but not before offering an apology to the Singapore voter, whom I thought was still trapped in the idea that only bread-and-butter issues mattered and that a good life can only be delivered by a dominant PAP in power. I thought they would imbibe the PAP’s jobs, jobs, jobs line, so worried they were about their livelihoods, that all other cares and concerns are thrown to the wind.

Worse, I had believed that they would be enamoured of the PAP’s line that the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) system would give voters the best of both worlds: an opposition voice and a functioning PAP MP at the grassroots level. It now seems that voters prize their vote too highly to fall for the gambit of having NCMPs even with voting rights (by the way, this will not encumber the legislative process anyway).

GE2020 Supporters of the Workers' Party revelling at Hougang Avenue 5 on polling day. (Photo: Don Wong for Yahoo News Singapore)
GE2020 Supporters of the Workers' Party revelling at Hougang Avenue 5 on polling day. (Photo: Don Wong for Yahoo News Singapore)

My own prediction was for the PAP to achieve between 65 per cent and the 70 per cent vote share of GE2015, but for the Workers’ Party (WP) to keep the Hougang single seat and Aljunied GRC, with a possible win in Sengkang GRC.

I did not want the PAP to have a clean sweep in Parliament, because I’m worried about how it would use this mandate. A strong Government should be accompanied by a strong Parliament, which can restrain possible excesses, ask uncomfortable questions and put a brake on legislation that preserves the PAP dominance, even if it declares them to be in the national interest.

There have been too many examples over the past five years of the consequences of giving close to 70 per cent of the vote to the PAP. They can be tracked right back to the beginning of the 13th Parliament, which set about revising some aspects of the elected presidency and devaluing the role of an elected MP by giving NCMPs the same voting rights they have.

I have no doubt at all that the PAP genuinely believes that it puts people at the centre of its policies. I think it also wishes everyone else would just shut up while it gets on with the business of running the country. But even its much vaunted efficiency has come into question over the years, with the last example being the implementation of the electoral process yesterday. Even if it swears that it has the voters’ interest at heart, the extension of voting hours smacked of the high-handedness of the PAP.

I don’t know how much of a role young voters played in this election. My guess is that most do not want to keep seeing an overbearing PAP berating Singapore’s miniscule opposition. In fact, the PAP’s various rows with opposition MPs in Parliament, as well as its detractors outside, go against the grain of the political correctness of the millennial generation.

I wager that even older Singaporeans, themselves the beneficiaries of the Singapore system, have started to think so. It is a sense of people losing control of their own country, subordinating themselves to a power structure which, while benign, is too entangled in all aspects of our lives.

The PAP leaders’ habit of pointing to the electoral process as an example of how it is accountable to the people only serves to advance the message that the electorate is powerless in-between elections. I have always thought this was a dangerous game to play, to tell the people that if they don’t like this or that policy, they can show their dissatisfaction at the polls.

The PAP’s jobs mantra might well have worked if this was the 80s or 90s, because the Singapore voter was keen on greater material well-being. We still had some way to go. I think the PAP’s success in bringing about a higher standard of living has led instead to the expectation that it was the PAP’s job, anyway, to produce more jobs. That this surely cannot be a matter to be negotiated via an election. The voter has set a baseline so to speak, and was looking at non-material aspects, among which was a sense that they mattered as much as the PAP in the past as well as in the future of this country.

The PAP should lead, but with the people – and not so far in front of them. The PAP should learn to persuade and temper its cold rationality with empathy. Sometimes, it should also display more humility, instead of always giving itself a distinction in its report card. The Prime Minister is right that this is not a “feel good’’ election – the people don’t feel good at all.

I have said many times that I wish this election had been more about setting a vision, especially one that would set the 4G leaders apart from their predecessors. If the outbreak had not happened and if the PAP had not seized what it thought was a good opportunity to hold an election, I wonder if a whole new manifesto would be written, one that is more attuned to the wishes of a changing population.

Instead, the PAP focus was on continuity, not change.

The PAP might want to take the voters’ message to heart. The voters do not want more of the same – they want change. And that change must come from inside the PAP. The PAP might give itself a B in its report card, but for the country as a whole, I think we deserve an A.

Majulah Singapura!

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

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