13 May 2011

Reflections on General Election 2011

The current generation is footloose, trying its luck, looking for fun and games, according to the ruling People's Action Party ("PAP").

A more realistic assessment of the sentiment on the ground was given by the PAP candidates who contested in Aljunied group representation constituency ("GRC"), when reflecting on their loss: there was deep resentment, unhappiness, anger, and pent-up frustrations against the PAP government, and a growing cry from the heart.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew warned the electorate of Aljunied GRC that if they voted in The Workers' Party, they would have five years to live and repent.

In contrast, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminded PAP candidates that they were servants of the people, not their masters.

A candidate, together with his party, who is elected to parliament is accountable to the electorate; the electorate is never accountable to the candidate or his party.

Track record
For the purpose of a general election, the relevant track record of any party is its track record since the most recent general election.  For the purpose of the 2011 general election, PAP's track record is not that belonging to the era that brought the country from third world conditions to first world.  It does not mean that Singaporeans do not value the accomplishments of the first generation of political leaders; instead, this general election is not about those accomplishments.

Senior Minister (immediate past Prime Minister) Goh Chok Tong said that PAP's improved share of the vote in the general election 1997 and 2001 ― the party secured 61.0 per cent of the valid vote in 1991, 65.0 per cent in 1997 and 75.3 per cent in 2001 ― vindicated his policies, many of which are still in effect today.  The results of general election 2001 held in November, when the tragedy of 9/11 World Trade Center was still fresh in the minds of the electorate, should be disregarded as being anomalous.  Otherwise, PAP's smaller 66.6 per cent share of the valid vote in general election 2006 would have to be interpreted as a rejection of its policies.  But whose policies, inasmuch as Mr Lee Hsien Loong took over as prime minister in August 2004?

Group representation constituencies
The politics of GRCs were dealt with in previous posts [link] and [link].

Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo, who was contesting in Aljunied GRC, may have been a victim of the GRC system that was created by PAP.

Distinction between government and party
A reader wrote to The Straits Times noting that some individuals were given senior positions in National Trades Union Congress ("NTUC") after they resigned from the civil service prior to contesting as PAP candidates in the general election.  According to NTUC president John de Payva and NTUC secretary-general Lim Swee Say (who is concurrently a Minister in the Prime Minister's Office), NTUC's shared efforts with PAP had enabled the PAP government to grow the economy and strengthen the society.  Was NTUC working with PAP or the government?

As in past general elections, the electorate was told that it must expect PAP to look after PAP constituencies.  It is unclear what a PAP constituency is because PAP has never got, and will not get, 100 per cent of the votes in any constituency.  If PAP (the party) wishes to look after constituencies where the majority of the voters voted for PAP, that is its prerogative.  It is, however, wrong for the PAP government to look after such constituencies ahead of the constituencies on the basis of which party the majority of its people voted for.  An elected government has a moral obligation to look after every citizen and every constituency in the country regardless whether the citizen or the constituency voted for or against the ruling party and regardless whether the citizen resides in a constituency where a majority voted for or against the ruling party.

Upgrading or public refurbishment programmes
Apart from the government's moral obligation to look after every citizen and every constituency in the country, many or most of the upgrading or public refurbishment programmes are funded by public funds, not funds raised from within the respective constituencies.

Many of the programmes serve broader needs of the people and the country, and are not specific to the respective constituencies.  For example, the planning of the mass rapid transit system takes into account population distribution and concentration, not whether or not the majority of citizens in the relevant constituencies voted for or against the ruling party.  The creation of the newest river in Singapore, running along Bishan Park, presumably has something to do with the country's water catchment programme; if it is purely for aesthetics or enjoyment, it is an extravagant expenditure.

Many of the programmes are developed by government agencies such as Urban and Redevelopment Authority, Housing and Development Board, National Environment Agency and Land Transport Authority.

Some people described Mr Low Thia Khiang's and Mr Chiam See Tong's move to GRCs away from the single member constituencies ("SMCs") which each of them had held for more than two decades as a gamble.  Both moves were courageous, but neither was a gamble.  They had to do what they did because they believed that it was necessary for their parties to step beyond SMCs to GRCs in order to contribute more to the country.  For a more detailed discussion, see [link].  The Workers' Party retained the SMC previously held by Mr Low and won a GRC.  Singapore People's Party narrowly lost the SMC previously held by Mr Chiam and he lost in the GRC his team contested in.

First world parliament
PAP candidates spent much time and energy debating with The Workers' Party about the latter's vision of a first world parliament and whether Singapore would be better off with one dominant party (i.e., PAP) in parliament rather than a two- or a multi-party system [link].  It was a pointless debate during which many inappropriate examples of malfunctioning two- or multi-party legislatures were cited.  Without a two- or multi-party legislature, PAP itself might not have come to power.

In his economic manifesto entitled "Creating Jobs and Enterprise in a New Singapore Economy — Ideas for Change" (15 February 2011), Singapore Democratic Party's Tan Jee Say proposed de-emphasising manufacturing and focusing on selected services.  His proposal was questioned by several PAP candidates.  He was even said to be not qualified to put forward the proposal.  Although Mr Tan's arguments are persuasive from a macroeconomic perspective, the difficulty in implementing it is that not everyone can survive in a service oriented economy.  The heated atmosphere of the general election was probably not the right time to introduce a subject which had profound implications for half a million individuals whose livelihoods depend on manufacturing.

Foreign students in Singapore
Surprisingly, this emotive subject was mostly neglected by the opposition parties.

Municipal matters
A general election is not about municipal matters such as parking, street lighting, public bus services etc.  Neither is it about improving the physical infrastructure because some level of improvements to the physical infrastructure are expected; it serves little purpose to grow the sinking fund in a constituency if not to improve the physical infrastructure.

Despite the swing in sentiment against the PAP, some opposition parties failed to realise or to acknowledge that some people just would not vote for opposition candidates if they were seen to be not credible, or not sufficiently credible to represent them in parliament.  It might have been better to field fewer but credible candidates.  Faces from the past should not have been fielded, especially if they had failed in the past and had done little for the people in a constituency in the past five years.

The outcome might have been different had the more promising and/or more outstanding candidates in the opposition parties been fielded in the SMCs.  Quality counts, as does emotional connection.

Singapore Democratic Party's Vincent Wijeysingha's participation in a forum on gay issues in the past was brought to the attention of the public by PAP's Vivian Balakrishnan.  A candidate's sexual orientation is irrelevant, but not his agenda.  Nevertheless, it was a sensitive issue.

Candidates should polish up their public image and public speaking skills.  The televised forum on 2 April 2011 is instructive.  Candidates should learn from Minister for Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam — he sat upright (not leaning on the armrest nor leaning forward), looked straight into the camera (only occasionally at the moderator or the opposition party representatives) and spoke clearly and confidently.  Some of the other participants should have rehearsed their opening and closing comments until their delivery was natural and flawless; there was no excuse for stumbling over their own prepared comments.  Participants also knew in advance not only the points they planned to raise, but also Mr Shanmugaratnam's probable reply and their own response.  Given the significance of the political forum, they should have rehearsed over and over, preferably with role play.  Finally, there was no room for humility nor lack of confidence; if they did not or did not seem to believe what they themselves were saying, they did not deserve to be believed by their audience.

Speakers at rallies should limit their speeches to three or four main points, even though they might have a dozen or two dozen things that they considered important to communicate to their audience.  Attention span is limited.  Introductions and conclusions are essential to reinforce their points.

Opposition parties and their candidates should keep their focus on the key issues, and not allow themselves to be distracted.  What matters in politics is exploiting the other party's weaknesses.

Some people said that the mainstream media (television and newspapers) were more balanced than in previous general elections in their treatment of the opposition parties.  Others (possibly many) perceived the mainstream media to be still less than balanced in their coverage, presentation, reporting, commentary and editorial, and turned to alternative social media, where cynical and vitriolic comments generally critical of the ruling PAP abounded.  The country in general and PAP in particular would have been better served had the mainstream media been balanced and objective.

This post, originally published on 12 May 2011, was subsequently updated.

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