Thinking Aloud

What's at stake this jubilee GE

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Results of next election could set country's course for next 50 years

It has been one week since the rousing National Day Parade at the Padang - the climax of this year's Golden Jubilee celebrations.

Singapore is into the first week of her next 50 years and, as is typical of this small nation in a hurry, people have moved on with their lives.

For political parties big and small, that means moving on to their next big project - the coming general election (GE), which looks set to take place as early as next month.

What do these polls have to do with Singapore's next 50 years? What is at stake not just for the parties contesting , but for everyone who calls this place home?

Elections can be fractious affairs and there are some, such as musician Jeremy Monteiro, who dread their impact on national unity. That is why, in a Facebook post dated Aug 4, he called for a temporary halt to campaigning during the National Day week, as otherwise it would be "like the whole family has gotten together for a big reunion and certain members of the family are trying to jockey for favour and power instead of putting aside all feuds and disagreements just so this can truly be a lovely family celebration".

But not everyone shares his dread of the hustings. Many young voters, for example, especially those casting ballots for the first time, are excited about exercising their right as citizens to select their representatives in Parliament.

Whichever side of the fence you are on, the fact is that elections are but means to an end, and that end must be a better Singapore, a brighter future for all who call this place home. Whether you speak to People's Action Party (PAP) or opposition politicians, they will tell you that is why they are in politics.

What will it take to build a better Singapore? I woke on Aug 10 to reflective posts on Facebook about how the first 50 years will be a hard act to follow.

Yes, in many ways, they will be and yet there is so much more that Singapore and Singaporeans can do, and be.

Reflecting on Singapore's past should give her citizens confidence in their future, precisely because so few countries in the world have pulled off what they, their parents and grandparents did. And, if Singaporeans did it once before, they can surely do it yet again.

In December 1965, just four months after a painful Separation from Malaysia, Mr Lee Kuan Yew spoke to Pasir Panjang residents and the title of his speech was "You can't keep a good people down". It is one of 33 speeches in a new Straits Times Press book, Vintage Lee, that will be out in bookstores at the end of this month.

"You know," Mr Lee said in that luncheon speech, "there's a great deal of strength and stamina in this place. It is the human beings - the skill, the versatility, the expertise, the drive, the relentless pursuit of success and performances - that have made this island what it is. And all those qualities are there unchanged. But now, with independence comes independence of action, opportunities to create the conditions for the eventual success of what we want: survival in South-east Asia, a very turbulent part of the world, as a separate and distinct people, not absorbed or swallowed up."

Today, as she marks 50 years of nationhood, Singapore not only has independence, but she also has wealth, a well-educated population and a good reputation abroad. What remains unchanged is a need for good, strong leaders to take the country forward.

But what makes for good political leadership today, in a post-GE 2011 political climate dubbed "the new normal"?

That is the question voters will provide the answer to when they cast their ballots this year.

Will they choose renewed PAP dominance that sweeps in on a tide of patriotism generated by the jubilee celebrations and lasting gratitude for Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March?

Or will they reinforce the opposition ranks in the belief that more balance in Parliament is good for the country?

The PAP is certainly hoping for the first but also well prepared for the second.

That is clear from two ministers' responses this week as they introduced a new line-up of candidates for their constituencies.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said this election is about the team of Cabinet ministers that will lead Singapore well beyond the next five to 10 years.

While the PAP has always seen it as its responsibility to build this team, it is also "our collective desire", he said, referring to Singaporeans' wish for a strong leadership team for the future.

"This is one of the things that has kept Singapore stable and strong - a team which has got stability... integrity, the ability to look ahead into the future and to execute for the present," Mr Teo added.

When asked about succession planning, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who is also the PAP's organising secretary, said this GE is about bringing in "the next half" of the fourth-generation leadership, after the 2011 polls saw the entry of four new ministers into Cabinet. But that is provided voters find the PAP's candidates up to the mark, he added.

"If the country feels that the candidates we put up can measure up to those responsibilities and capabilities required of ministers, then we would have the succession plan. Ultimately, succession depends not only on the Prime Minister and the incumbent Cabinet ministers. Succession depends on Singaporeans' choice," he said.

That marks a distinct change of tone from the past, when top PAP leaders would tell voters to back their candidates because they were of ministerial calibre. At the same time, the PAP leadership is taking no chances with its high-potential candidates, choosing not to field them in wards contested by its strongest opponent - the Workers' Party (WP).

Former top civil servant Chee Hong Tat is in the slate for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, whose team is helmed by Dr Ng; while Mr Ong Ye Kung, a member of the PAP team in Aljunied GRC that lost to the WP in 2011, is now in the Sembawang GRC team led by National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan.

That recognises the new political reality which Mr Ong summed up thus: People no longer want total dominance by one party in Parliament and "therefore ministers can lose their seats".

May GE 2015 - the first general election of Singapore's next 50 years - be a well-fought one.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline 'What's at stake this jubilee GE'. Print Edition | Subscribe