COMMENT: Voting for an MP or PM-to-be?

Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and PAP candidate for East Coast GRC, seen during a walkabout in Simei on Friday (3 July). (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and PAP candidate for East Coast GRC, seen during a walkabout in Simei on Friday (3 July). (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

by Bertha Henson

I think Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Heng Swee Keat’s move to East Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC) from Tampines GRC was a big surprise to East Coast voters.

I know it was for me. To have the prime minister-in-waiting as part of the slate is a big deal. How big a deal?

Heng said he did so because he wanted “continuity” – a favourite word of his – in the ward, since two People’s Action Party (PAP) veterans, Lim Swee Say and Lee Yi Shyan, were stepping down. In other words, he was downplaying the move.

But to have him anchor a team against what was supposed to be a strong Workers’ Party (WP) slate in their familiar stomping ground is a risk. What if the PAP slate polled less than what it did in the 2015 General Election? What does that say about his pulling power; that the leader of the 4G couldn’t get as many votes as a run-of-the mill PAP slate elsewhere? Or, gulp, what if voters preferred the WP?

When the 1991 GE brought four opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) into the House, and the PAP share of votes dipped to 61 per cent, the new Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong actually held a by-election in his own ward the next year to refresh his mandate. He forced the Marine Parade GRC voters to realise that the contestants included the Prime Minister’s team in a four-way contest. The PAP team won handsomely with almost 73 per cent of the vote.

So how many votes a candidate, who was a minister or heavyweight in the past government, gets in his or her constituency is important. It is a perception thing: If you carry a big load in government, then you should do so with strong home base support – that’s the mandate for the individual.

The GRC concept complicates matters. We all suppose that the anchor person in the slate would “pull up’’ the votes, when the truth is, we don’t know. Political party representatives at counting centres will have a better idea, since they can tell how the votes went at the precinct level and all that needs doing is matching the precinct against the area the candidate was in charge of in the past five years. The next step is to compare the tally with the votes of the other members on the slate. This is why we sometimes hear about who is supposed to have “pulled the votes up’’ or “pulled the votes down’’ in a GRC.

Will Heng pull the votes up? Before any election, brand new candidates or “transferees” have little interaction with the voters that they say they will be taking care of. Such candidates would have to depend on the party brand, or the coat-tails of the anchor man, to gain votes.

Staking a claim

Heng is an anchor man who is a transferee. Like every minister seeking re-election, he has been walking the ground in East Coast GRC and talking about an East Coast plan which has raised voters’ expectations.

But we all also know that the DPM is supposed to move into the top job some time after the election. Is this cast in stone? I don’t think so.

One of the factors must surely be whether his team wins – and wins handsomely. It would be tough for the PAP and the 4G leadership to stick to script if voters have decided to re-write it.

Heng is no orator nor political philosopher; he is better with figures and finances. Not for him the colourful turn of phrase or even the snazzy one-liner. Yet this should not stop him from demonstrating clearly that he is the country’s next leader. I wish he would go beyond talking about the four budgets he proposed, because he is not just the Finance Minister, he is Deputy Prime Minister.

He missed an opportunity to showcase his thinking and priorities when the row about the 10 million population figure surfaced. He said he didn’t say it, much like he was on the witness stand. Far better if he gave his views clearly on how Singapore’s infrastructure can support a growing population and the trade-offs that will have to be made. In other words, take the bull by the horns.

Instead, I’m afraid that Vivian Balakrishnan has closed the door rather too firmly by declaring during Wednesday’s televised debate that “we will never have 10 million... we won't even have 6.9 million.. the government doesn’t have a target for the population’’.

Of course, the government doesn’t have a “target’’, but it will have to do some population projections if it wants to plan long-term. Is Dr Balakrishnan saying that Singapore would not have 6.9 million people by 2030, when we’ve already hit 5.7 million today? This issue will come back to bite the PAP one day.

I thought the COVID-19 outbreak had laid bare all the vulnerabilities of Singapore, like its dependence on foreign workers, whether our safety nets are really reaching out to those in need and how to close the class gap. Instead, PAP’s manifesto is Budget lite.

While it is true that the top priority should be jobs, shouldn’t the next generation of leaders be using this tumultuous period to look at the kind of Singapore we want, much like how it wants people to use this “down time’’ to pick up skills? Is the GE2020 vote only a vote for jobs, jobs, jobs or also an endorsement of our future leaders?

On the other hand, I wish Heng had not gotten himself involved in this rigmarole surrounding the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme, and had taken the higher ground.

Earlier today, he spoke about the NCMP scheme, stressing that this guaranteed opposition voices in Parliament, contrary to the WP’s claim of an opposition “wipe-out’’ in this pull. To me, the NCMP scheme is simply a tactical measure used by both the ruling party and the opposition when it suits them.

Parliament has expanded the NCMP scheme to 12 members and given them voting rights, and the PAP is making much of this magnanimity while ignoring the fact that voting rights or not, NCMPs have no chance of influencing legislation. On the other hand, the WP which says it is opposed to the NCMP scheme in-principle but accepts the seats anyway, appears to acknowledge that the scheme gives their members a higher profile.

Truth to tell, I think the NCMP scheme is not worth the attention of voters. They should simply elect whoever they want. There is no need for the PAP to publicise the NCMP scheme, if it is confident of winning all seats.

To those who complain that citizens do not have a hand in picking our Prime Minister because of the parliamentary system, this GE provides that opportunity. In fact, that same opportunity presents itself to voters who have 4G ministers vying for their vote.

Heng and his team must recognise this, if they want to count on at least this citizen’s vote.

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

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