Now that the PAP has rolled out the Pioneer Generation Package and has outlined the 2015 Budget, the government has stolen quite a lot of momentum from the opposition. Any push to create a “fair and inclusive society” will invariably be welfarian and populist, despite how much the PAP hates using those words. And this creates problems for the Workers’ Party, principally because it campaigned for more leftward-leaning policy and tightened immigration restrictions in 2011. Now that the government has co-opted some of these suggestions, what is there left to oppose?
This tactic is of course not new. One of the PAP’s greatest achievements was to divorce its identity from any sort of discernible ideology. We can point to the Greens in the UK and say that they stand for the environment, and for sustainable lifestyles. We definitely can say that the Republicans in the USA value the individual over the collective, and the corporate world over the government. All these parties define themselves based on unyielding ideological markers, which permeate every level of policy-making and rhetoric. The ideological bent to politics is what creates democracies with two dominant parties (Democrat/Republican, Labour/Conservative). One party leans centre-left, the other leans centre-right. And most elections end up being decided by an undecided middle ground that both sides sprint to reach.
But the PAP eschews these conventional political markers. What supposedly defines the PAP? Incorruptibility. Competence. Expertise. Deliberately vague terms that are undeniably good. You could argue that socialism or egalitarianism isn’t the right ideal to strive for, but it’s pretty hard to prove that incorruptibility is a bad trait to have. Wikipedia says that the PAP’s guiding principle is that of “meritocracy”. That could be twisted to mean anything – I could introduce affirmative action policies and call it meritocracy, because it levels the playing field for the less fortunate. I could take away affirmative action policies and call it meritocracy, because it ensures certain racial or socio-economic groups don’t get an unfair advantage. All we know for sure is that the PAP wants to do what’s right for the country, without really knowing what the PAP defines as “right”.
This leads to the opposition having to change tact every time election season comes around. A cheap way in which opposition politicians get around this is by perpetuating the stereotype that PAP ministers are arrogant and out of touch – if you can’t lambaste an ideological stance, lambaste a perceived personality flaw. One tactic that the opposition could employ this time around would be to nit-pick. Rather than take on the PAP across a spectrum of political and social issues, focus on a narrow (and often disparate) set of problems that have yet to be resolved. CPF policy, for instance, might be a target that the opposition attacks. Perhaps campaign for higher NS pay. Maybe look at extending the PGP beyond a single generation. However, I don’t really like this scattershot approach because it seems unfocused and easy to maneuver around. It plays to our government’s strengths when the opposition wants to debate about the minutiae of policy details.
Another tactic would be to launch a big-picture attack on the government. Call out policies such as the Printing Presses Act and 377A as illiberal and regressive. Demand the right to free assembly beyond a small patch of grass in Hong Lim. Remove restrictions on political films, and OB markers on discourse. The problem is that this approach is kind of what the SDP is already doing, and it’s proving quite spectacularly ineffective. Unless the opposition can find a way to prove that the PAP’s authoritarian tendencies lead to quantifiable harm, you won’t win by campaigning on a platform for greater rights and freer democratic processes. In general, Singaporeans tend not to be convinced that their lives will improve if the government’s authoritarian tendencies were curtailed.
I think the best way forward would be for the opposition to use the PAP’s recent largesse against them. Rather than accept the government’s narrative that “we have listened to you after the 2011 election, so you should vote for us in 2015”, the opposition should argue the converse – “it is precisely because the PAP listened to you after 2011 that you shouldn’t vote for them.” After all, if the PAP was simply responding to the fact that so many people voted against them in 2011, then it would make sense to vote for the opposition again in 2015, to force the government into becoming more responsive. The PAP has proven that voting for the opposition in large numbers actually works, even if the opposition doesn’t actually contribute that much in the way of legislation and policy.
Will this work? No one knows. But it could conceivably undercut one of the PAP’s main campaign strategies – to point to key legislation as proof that it is a competent and responsive government. If the opposition can somehow persuade voters that recent legislation is not the product of intrinsic PAP competence but rather the extrinsic threat posed by the Worker’s Party, then they stand a chance for sure.