COMMENT: Singapore politics one year after GE2020

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh speaking in Parliament on 2 September 2020. (PHOTOS: Parliament screengrabs)
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh speaking in Parliament on 2 September 2020. (PHOTOS: Parliament screengrabs)

SINGAPORE — Two images pop up every time I think about GE2020 – for very different reasons. One shows Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh talking to the camera on the last day of election campaigning and the other is that of Finance Minister and the man who was designated to be the next Prime Minister, Heng Swee Keat, fumbling his speech on Nomination Day.

They show how an opposition party has managed its leadership renewal smoothly while the ruling party has stumbled, fallen down and stumbled again as the race for prime ministership continues to be muddled. One year after GE2020 and Singapore has still not got the one thing that it always gets right; political succession is still stuck in the mud.

The Workers’ Party (WP) video shows a lonesome and tired Singh walking into a desolate room that resembles an election war studio with video cameras and empty chairs lying about to remind viewers of the battles fought. After thanking voters, party supporters and grassroots workers, he gets up from his chair, puts his right fist on his left chest and recites proudly the first line of the Singapore Pledge. In the background, voices speak in unison to complete the lines.

The video, screened less than two hours before Cooling Off Day, hit where it mattered the most: the heart. The presentation was impeccable, the backdrop fitting and the message simple and direct.

Singh continued to impress with his speeches in Parliament. Hardly missing a beat, he argued without losing his sense of balance but always maintaining that his party would do good for Singaporeans and Singapore. On occasions when he locked horns with heavyweights like PM Lee Hsien Loong, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and DPM Heng, Singh was unflappable and on message.

He hardly missed his boss, Low Thia Khiang, who handed over the party’s secretary-general job to him three years ago. Singh’s biggest test came when he and his team went into GE2020, knowing fully well that he had to fill big shoes. The results turned out to be a great endorsement, with WP increasing its majority in every consistency it fought and adding the icing on the cake by knocking out a Minister and a Minister of State by winning its second GRC at Sengkang.

On the other side of the fence, we saw Heng stumbling and speaking incoherently on Nomination Day. Many were sad to see the chosen one grasping for the right words with some asking if the man can be our next PM. He was like a man lost in the political wilderness.

Then came Heng’s bombshell announcement nine months after the GE that he was stepping out of the leadership race. He gave his short runway as the reason. “This year, I am 60…When I also consider the ages at which our first prime ministers who took on the job, I would have too short a runway should I become the next Prime Minister,” he said then.

What was left unsaid was if the PM’s decision to remain in power until Singapore is clearly on track to cast aside the burden of COVID-19 had played a part his decision.

The first shoots of a 4G leadership strategy to take a softly-softly approach in dealing with Singh and WP are emerging. The recent parliamentary debates on Housing & Development Board’s policy of making sure that public flats will reflect the racial mix of Singapore's population and whether Free Trade Agreements, especially that with India, are a back-door entry to foreigners, saw the new leaders tackling the ball rather than the man.

National Development Minister Desmond Lee tried gently to get Singh to agree that his party’s posture in its manifestos since 2006 that the housing ethnic policy should be scrapped still applies. But Singh weaved in and out by saying that it was a long-term goal. Second National Development Minister Indranee Rajah played the bad cop by pushing Singh to take a stand. Are you for or against the policy? A simple yes or no answer would do, she pushed. Singh was again at its unflappable best by not giving a direct answer.

The 4G leaders know that if this good-cop-bad-cop approach were to prevail it will depend on their assessment of the voters, especially that of the younger ones, on what kind of leadership they want for Singapore. GE2020 showed that they want leaders who are fair, bold and gentle. They saw these qualities in abundance in the WP team that defeated the PAP heavyweights in Sengkang GRC.

As for the People’s Action Party’s leadership, they look for people who are able to speak truth to power, treat opposition politicians with decorum and listen to Singaporeans’ problems with an eagerness to solving them.

GE2020 changed at least one narrative – that voters won’t rush to embrace the ruling party when there is a crisis. They sent a signal to the establishment that its handling of COVID-19 crisis could and should have been perfect. That is the kind of high standards of governance they want. Even a slip cannot be tolerated.

Not acting on criticisms of the overcrowding at dormitories, the confusion over the use of Sinovac, the slow progress of vaccination numbers, especially among older Singaporeans, are showing up a lack of leadership surefootedness. Deep inside, Singaporeans know that they are living in a COVID oasis as they see and read about the horrendous pandemic conditions in the neighbouring countries. The issue is that they want a perfect system, something they have been brought up to demand.

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong has hardly put a wrong foot forward as he has become the public face in the battle against COVID. He exudes confidence and communicates clearly and with a permanent smile on his face. His speech on race at a recent forum again put on display a politician who is prepared to move slightly away the establishment’s line of thinking.

The 4G leadership knows that hardliners in Cabinet are waiting to pounce on them if they stray too far away from PAP’s ideology. It is this game they must win if Singapore is to enter a new era of governance and politics.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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