By Bertha Henson
So it was the Dance of the Seven Veils after all.
After six national broadcasts on how Singapore can emerge from the COVID-19 crisis better, stronger, faster, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the unprecedented move of going on television to announce that he had President Halimah Yacob’s go-ahead to dissolve Parliament and call for an election.
While the “live” announcement was a departure from past practice of issuing a press statement, the content wasn’t. Word that the election would be called in Phase 2 had been swirling for a couple of weeks.
The speculation had some basis: If not now, when? A canny government wouldn’t wait for a second wave of infections to surface now that people are enjoying their freedom so lustily. Better now than be held responsible for a spike in numbers because of the easing of circuit breaker measures. Better now too while the government can still demonstrate its leadership, with the multi-ministerial task force continuing to front the fight against the virus at press conferences and the National Jobs Council in the midst of creating jobs. PM Lee in fact made a point of stressing that work will go on, and that businesses and people will still get the support promised. (Have you got your $600 yet?)
You can say that the government is turning the COVID-19 outbreak into a favourable opportunity for the People’s Action Party. After the ministerial broadcasts on television, the scale of the challenges this small country faces both economically and geo-politically has been hammered home. The subtext, which became explicit in speech No. 7 (by PM), was the need for “capable government, with the strong backing of the people, to do all that needs to be done on your behalf, and see us through these tumultuous times”.
If this was a party political broadcast, PM Lee could have continued with: “That’s why you should vote for the PAP.”
The PAP has set the bar high as usual, as no opposition political party would be able to challenge the PAP’s technocratic prowess when it comes to policy initiatives, especially on the economic front. For opposition parties which have been prepared to campaign on certain platforms, like the GST and CPF, the COVID-19 episode would have knocked some of the wind out of their sails.
You can even say that the campaigning rules for this election favours the sober, staid approach of the PAP. Television broadcasts and small group chats are better platforms for the PAP to explain policies and approaches. Not many of them can equal the opposition politicians in terms of the level of fire and brimstone in rally speeches, nor in crowd-pulling power.
It is actually a good time for the PAP to talk about a total dominance of Parliament, so that the government can get down to the business of governing rather than engage in divisive politics with opposition MPs. You can expect its candidates to talk about being on the “hinge of history’’, tackling the “crisis of a generation’’ – work that demands the full attention of any responsible government. They could also say, explicitly or implicitly, that in any case, there will be a guaranteed maximum of 12 opposition members in the chambers, even if they are Non-Constituency MPs who do not have the vote of the people. So the political structure has made space for those who hanker for more checks and balances. NCMPs, by the way, also have voting rights in Parliament.
The 4G's show
Opposition politicians should quit grumbling about the timing of the election. There’s a certain naivete in attacking the undoubted power of the leader of the government to call an election when he pleases – unless they want set timings like the American system. Far better that they focus on a coherent campaign platform that takes people’s attentions away from the current pressing issues of job security and employability. That would be tough unless they want to engage the PAP on the issue of foreign workers taking jobs that should go to locals. (Point to note: Manpower Minister Josephine Teo has just announced that employment agencies will also have to abide by fair employment guidelines, plugging a loophole in the framework).
The COVID-19 outbreak also presents the opposition an opportunity to assess the performance of the 4G leaders in tackling the outbreak. If the election was called a month earlier, in the confusion over the use of masks, rising numbers of local cases and the massive contagion in foreign worker dormitories, the PAP might have a tougher time deflecting criticism. In any case, it is still likely that the opposition will pry open the chinks in the government’s COVID-19 armour, with criticisms about policy flip-flops and inconsistent messaging.
And this brings me to what the Prime Minister did not say in his speech. He did not mention the younger 4G leaders whom I thought would be taking the PAP through this election. How they tackled, and will tackle, the crisis has been viewed by some as a rite of passage, yet even Heng, their leader, has advised that people should look forward and that any post-mortem could come later.
I look forward to the 4G stepping forward unambiguously in this election.
Bertha Henson is a veteran Singapore journalist who now lectures at NUS. The views expressed are her own.
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