What will GE15 be won on?

I should preface this article by stating that if we define ‘win’ as ‘being able to form the next government’, then the PAP is almost definitely going to ‘win’ this election. The WP flatly denies wanting to form a new government, and no other opposition party has enough support or a deep enough talent pool to mount a meaningful challenge.

A better approach would be to consider what each political party would reasonably be satisfied with. For the PAP, it would be enough to maintain the status quo. Halt the WP’s momentum to its Hougang-Aljunied-Punggol East turf, and force it to spend another five years agonizing over East Coast GRC. For the WP, victory would mean consolidating its hold over the current constituencies, and winning East Coast – SMCs like Fengshan and MacPherson might be nice to have, but another GRC conquest would prove that GE11 was not a one-off. And for the other opposition parties like the SDP and SPP, the focus is surely on putting up a respectable performance in the GRCs while snatching one SMC away (Potong Pasir, maybe?).

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1. The silver tsunami

The political effects of the Pioneer Generation Package will be felt most acutely in ageing constituencies – Tanjong Pagar, Marine Parade, Ang Mo Kio, Jalan Besar GRCs and MacPherson SMC are likely to see a small vote swing toward the PAP government. The PAP team Tanjong Pagar GRC in particular stands to benefit, with a high proportion of the elderly living in HDB apartments (>90%), who would appreciate the healthcare and cost of living subsidies.

The absence of older voters from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter may also lead predictions to be inaccurately skewed come Polling Day. A particularly emotive speech made by an opposition candidate that goes viral online might end up side-lined by the mainstream media. Or if a WP candidate tried to defend the AHPETC controversy on digital media platforms alone (like by publishing an open letter on the party webpage), the message wouldn’t reach a significant portion of the electorate who rely on broadsheets like The Straits Times or Lianhe Zaobao.

That said the WP is probably the best-placed opposition party to cope with this, being led by someone with an extremely unassuming and authentic persona. Thanks to Low Thia Kang, the WP has a very loyal following that won’t be swayed by a PAP shift to the social left, or by the mainstream media.

2. SG50 and the Singapore Story

The PAP is running a campaign strategy that can essentially be condensed to: Singapore may have changed, but our circumstances have not. We remain vulnerable, trapped in a volatile region and at the mercy of global economic events. Give us a strong mandate so we will be empowered to make the correct, rather than simply politically correct, decisions for the nation. And so we can induct a new generation of leaders to take Singapore to SG100.

In general, the opposition counters: Past success is no indicator of future prosperity. We no longer live in a Singapore of black and white economic imperatives, where giving people jobs and housing justifies taking away some civil liberties. We instead live in a Singapore of murky trade-offs and subjectivity, with no clear way forward – should population growth come at the cost of living space and infrastructural integrity? How should we define merit and ability? Should public housing prices go up or down? Decision-making on these issues should be built on plural consensus, not dictatorial edicts.

I think the election won’t be won or lost based on whether Singaporeans believe Singapore is vulnerable – most people probably take this as fact. Rather, the challenge is for the opposition to use this narrative of vulnerability to their advantage as quickly as possible. Play up the problems with relying on a single political party to serve as a nation’s leadership pipeline. Emphasize how groupthink and internal politicking leads to a lack of intra-party diversity. Co-opt the government’s language of “gambling” with Singapore future by arguing that greater opposition presence is required to create resilient democratic institutions that aren’t dependent on a single political entity.

For the PAP, it’s about swaying the middle ground. If you believe that Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore from an undeveloped backwater to a modern metropolis, then you’re going to vote PAP regardless. The challenge is to provide a fresh take on tired and well-worn messages from previous General Elections. People no longer buy into the myth of a uniformly incompetent opposition, that appear only when elections come around. A quick check of Parliamentary statistics will show that WP MPs participated meaningfully and enthusiastically in the political process.

In order to win big, the PAP will have to dream big. And this will mean being able to inspire a concrete vision of how Singapore will be like in the next decade. The PAP manifesto is actually fairly decent when it comes to laying out long-term goals for Singapore – I particularly like the phrase “a meritocracy of skills, not a hierarchy of grades”. But the massive problem is that manifestos don’t win votes. Rally speeches, televised dialogues, and media sound bites do. It doesn’t sit well to see ministers like Lawrence Wong snipe at Chee Soon Juan on live television, or for PM Lee to assume that the opposition’s arguments are always riddled with fallacies and insecurities – as if the PAP has a monopoly on truth.

Simply put, people attend opposition rallies because it is an exercise in escapism; a window into a utopic Singapore of equal opportunity and limitless aspiration. Conversely, people don’t attend PAP rallies because no one is going to get excited about supporting the status quo.

3. Checks and balances

It is generally accepted that in a strictly financial sense, the PAP is more than capable of “checking” on itself through institutions like the civil service. We aren’t going to have corruption scandals like 1MDB in Malaysia. But on a political level, Singaporeans just don’t believe that having a single political party can lead to a diversity of opinions and ideas. It will be hard for the PAP to refute the assumption that the 2011 General Election contributed to policies like the Pioneer Generation Package or tighter immigration quotas. The trick will be to convince people that backbenchers are not simply yes-men and women, but rather autonomous politicians who bring unique perspectives to the table. One possibility is to have each backbencher focus on a certain issue when they make public appearances, creating the perception that there is space for discourse within the party line.

The Opposition will have the edge here, especially the WP. East Coast GRC will fall if they manage to prove that there is a substantial difference between having 7 MPs in Parliament, and having 20 MPs in Parliament. There are already hints of this strategy, with Low Thia Kang arguing that he could do little to change things as a single MP in the 1990s, but things completely changed the moment the WP won Aljunied. With one more GRC, the WP might be able to push for greater representation on government boards and committees, and extract more policy concessions from the government. By deliberately targeting only a few constituencies, and articulating what an “acceptable” number of opposition MPs in Parliament would be, the WP will retain many of the middle-ground voters they won over in 2011.

4. The AHPETC “saga”

This is an interesting one. The PAP seems extremely lukewarm about contesting Aljunied GRC. On one hand, they are throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the town council budget deficits in an attempt to put the WP on the defensive. But on the other hand, they are fielding a politically inexperienced team led by a backbencher MP who was going to retire soon anyway.

This seems to serve two purposes: First, pin the most powerful WP politicians within Aljunied, so Sylvia Lim and/or Chen Show Mao cannot lead a charge on East Coast and Marine Parade. Second, spread fear and indecision (also see Point 5) in the minds of voters who are currently in PAP-held constituencies.

With regard to Aljunied GRC itself, any potential gains from this approach will be countered by the relatively underpowered team fielded by the PAP. For all of PM Lee’s broad rhetoric that this election will decide Singapore’s present and future leaders, he is not willing to risk losing one of the party’s superstars in Aljunied. This creates a simple dichotomy: Do residents want to keep the top brass of Singapore’s most credible opposition party in power, or do they want an injection of government funds to keep the balance sheet healthy?

My sense is that a majority of Aljunied residents are willing to give the opposition a second chance, since it is hard to run a GRC town council from scratch, especially given that contractors who would normally tender for PAP contracts might shy away from AHPETC. If the WP proves to be incapable of managing Aljunied GRC yet again, then public opinion will swing back to the PAP at the next election.

After all, the main WP defence seems to be fairly valid – other town councils run deficits from time to time as well, and AHPETC had yet to receive a substantial amount of governmental grants. Also, if the WP has been corrupt and dishonest in its dealings with contractors or when managing town council funds, then the PAP would have taken legal action long ago. By not doing so, the PAP has conceded that AHPETC is being managed legitimately. Considering the PAP has had two decades to perfect their GRC management systems while the WP has had to get up to speed within four years, early teething pains are to be expected.

5. Election Day fear and indecision 

An outpouring of support for a party before Polling Day can sometimes be deceptive. The results of the British general elections this year took observers by surprise, because no one expected such a comprehensive Conservative Party win. Up till then, straw polls and public opinion surveys were suggesting that the race between the Tories and Labour was too close to call.

But when people are confronted with the ballot sheet on the day itself, ideology and idealism take a backseat to selfish interests. Ultimately, voters want to know which party will give them the best shot at becoming richer and successful. And the Labour Party’s campaign self-destructed under the accusation that they would plunge Britain back into debt, and collaborate with the socialist-leaning Scottish National Party (SNP) to gain power.

Back in Singapore, most people agree that for all its flaws, the PAP is still best-placed to lead Singapore in the near future. Yes, many of us (myself included) would like to see a sizable opposition minority in Parliament, to put reasonable constructive pressure on the PAP. But in an unprecedented election where every single constituency is being contested by an increasingly vocal opposition, voters may find themselves contemplating the possibility of a shock electoral outcome. Or the possibility that the WP bankrupt their town council. Or that the SDP will “put Singapore on the path to Greece.”

This fear-mongering is probably going to increase the PAP’s vote share in the West, where support for the ruling party is already strong. But in Eastern Singapore, where the WP and the SPP have been relentlessly working the ground, there is a track record to suggest that opposition leadership will not be disastrous.

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Fundamentally, this election will be characterized by the Opposition accusing the PAP of focusing too much on the past and too little on the present. And it will be one where the PAP claiming that the Opposition has obsessed over national issues to the detriment of its own residents and local support base.

We all know that the PAP is capable, and many voters perceive Opposition politicians to be authentic and charismatic. To achieve victory, it’s time for a party to show that it can inspire during an election rally, and perspire while visiting the heartlands.

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