GE2015: Likeability: The tipping factor

Viswa Sadasivan
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong greets his supporters outside the nomination centre, ahead of the general election, on September 1, 2015

Viswa Sadasivan is Editor-in-Chief for Inconvenient Questions, a former Nominated MP of the Singapore Parliament and a former TV current affairs host. The views expressed here are his own.

Being likeable is not difficult, is it? Yet, why is it that I am finding so many politicians appearing unlikeable during the rallies – even those I know to be reasonably nice people. Quite sad, actually.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not talking about those who try very hard to show care and concern and end up looking totally plastic. Neither am I talking about the politicians who are clearly too well prepped by spin doctors and end up smiling awkwardly, raising their voices at inappropriate moments, speaking broken English (ostensibly to connect with the crowd), showing off their mastery of multiple languages, or in some cases even crying.

What our politicians need to come to terms with is: your audience may not all have strong academic credentials, but we are not dumb! We can tell a worthy politician from a ‘wayang king’ (‘drama king’) or a charlatan. Nobody likes being talked down to, patronised or, worse, treated like an idiot. And the more you come at us with highly curated speeches delivered in a rehearsed fashion, the higher the possibility that we won’t just like you less, but actually start disliking you.

And this is the reality, guys – whether you like it or not. If I like you I am more inclined to believe what you say, and even make excuses for you when you fumble or stumble. If I don’t like you, here’s what will happen. My mind will build barriers to shut out what you say – no matter how correct your facts and figures are and regardless of how polished your presentation. In fact, if I don’t like you, I will find reasons to dislike you every time you say or do something. To believe that the human mind (especially

when it interfaces with the heart, which does happen every now and then) thinks and behaves rationally all the time is a dangerous assumption.

In these hustings I have sensed that likeability has become a distinctly more important quotient that the electorate value and are seeking in candidates and party leaders – a lot more than in the previous GEs. And I have been following our all our elections closely since 1984, when I was just a rookie broadcast journalist. This is probably because we are quite tired of bureaucratically crafted speeches that spew little more than facts and figures and platitudes. We want more than just the CVs of the candidates; we want to see their character and personality and know what they stand for. I am seeing a more discerning and mature electorate this time. Delightful.

So, what is this likeability quotient – let’s call it LQ, shall we? I think it mainly centers on three factors:

authenticity, being human and humane, and competency and conviction.

We value

authenticity because there is just so much rehearsed pitches and double talk. There is simply too much noise. We want clarity and honesty. We want to see people who are the same on and off stage and who speak from the heart. We want people who are comfortable being who they are and prepared to expose their vulnerabilities.


human is about having the capacity for human emotions - fear, joy, sadness, anxiety, anger, apprehension – and being comfortable showing it. Increasingly, we shun those who lack plain human decency. I am seeing too many politicians having this almost-permanent smirk on their faces when explaining something, talking about their adversaries, and especially when others are trying to make a point. I find this absolutely deplorable. Hey, if you are upset or angry – just show it. No need to be cocky about it. It is much more acceptable to show outright displeasure or anger. Being humane is just as important because we don’t want as our leaders people who can’t empathise, sympathise or show compassion. No matter how smart or competent you are, why should we elect you if you rejoice in inflicting pain on others and or in seeing them squirm? I don’t see why we can’t expect a strong but clean fight in an election. We want a leader who treats his adversaries with decency. Human dignity is important. Nobody likes to see a dying horse being flogged!

It’s hard to sustain likeability if you have the above qualities but can’t demonstrate

competency. Competency goes beyond technical skills or domain knowledge. It is about having the ability to read the situation accurately and come up with solutions that allow us to achieve the desired outcome, and not just the desired output.

And increasingly when choosing a leader, we want to see competency going hand-in-hand with the ability to persuade and get a buy-in. This requires

conviction – a deep belief in and commitment to what you are preaching, especially when the idea is original and the territory uncharted. This, for me, is the single most important factor that distinguished the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew – his conviction in the face of the many uncertainties and trials we faced as a nation. I find this sadly lacking among the candidates in this GE, especially on the PAP side.

In this election campaign, three rally speeches stood out for me. They each brought to sharp relief the qualities I have highlighted, making them likeable enough for us to be moved by them and follow them, regardless of whether we fully agree with everything they say or even disagree with them.

SDP Secretary-General

Dr Chee Soon Juan’s first rally speech had a huge impact not only on the thousands present at the event but also the many more who watched the recording of it as it went viral. Part of this can be attributed to the curiosity that we have about this much-maligned opposition politician for whom this is the first GE he is contesting in after 15 years. What is interesting is that, for me, this rally speech had the power to convert several people who had previously viewed him negatively or even seriously disliked him. Simply put, he came across authentic, reasonably knowledgeable, and very human and humane, with an indefatigable conviction for what he believes in. I am sure the facts he asserted or even his arguments were debatable for many, but the other qualities he exuded defined him and how he was received. It wasn’t so much what he said, but how he said it. By this, I am not talking about rhetoric or eloquence, but clear articulation with conviction, and being critical of his political opponents without resorting to vitriol or suspending decency.

Similarly, when I did

an exclusive interview with him for IQ, the same qualities came through. Even though I asked him questions he was clearly uncomfortable with – such as what he had to say about the allegation that he orchestrated the exit of Mr Chiam See Tong from the party (SDP) the latter formed – he responded honestly and with dignity. When criticizing the PAP he was not disparaging or disagreeable.

The second rally speech that was outstanding for the reasons I highlighted was

that by DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam. He was, in so many ways, the quintessential political leader – visionary, caring and committed, supremely articulate, conveying his knowledge in a simple yet not simplistic way, inspirational. Above all, he was decent in the way he criticised his political opponents. As always, he didn’t see the need to make caustic or disparaging remarks to put down the opposition. DPM Tharman was also willing to openly acknowledge that the government could have handled some things better. Like Dr Chee Soon Juan’s speech, I am sure there are arguments there that we may not agree with, but his manner and approach took precedence. More than his compelling mind, his heart and gut took centrestage.

Unlike the case with Dr Chee, DPM Tharman already has the benefit of being liked for his authenticity, his fairness and decency, his competency and quiet conviction. This rally speech rode on that advantage and served to reinforce it. That’s why I feel that this is a speech that helped to tilt the balance in this GE.

The third rally speech that was quite outstanding and served as a further point of inflection for the ruling party’s campaign was the

one delivered by PM Lee at the lunchtime rally in the UOB Plaza on 8 September. In both substance and style, this speech enhanced the Prime Minister’s already strong likeability on the ground. He presented himself more as a national leader and statesman than as the Secretary-General of the PAP. It helped very much that he steered clear of the AHPETC issue. His criticism of issues and arguments raised by the opposition was delivered in a straightforward and dignified manner, and with a dash of irony when he said that a strong PAP is needed to make the opposition work harder.

Like DPM Tharman, PM Lee’s willingness to acknowledge that we have a long way to go in addressing issues and the need for all of us to work together (possibly including the opposition) seemed to have a positive impact on the audience. His references to the work done by the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew went down well because they were tastefully delivered and didn’t look like an election tactic. In fact, it was inspirational even for this crowd, which tends to be cynical. More than anything else, what stood out in this speech was the PM’s conviction in his belief and his passion for his country and people. This was refreshing.

Elections and especially General Elections are great opportunities to provoke thought and introspection in a people. A GE need not be just a time for swords to be crossed and to contest ideas and ideals. It is an excellent opportunity to unify a people and unite a nation. For this, we need compelling speeches that go beyond rhetoric and that stir emotions. We need leaders who can deliver these speeches: leaders who command attention… leaders that we truly like.