GE2015: A more sporting PAP this election?

The People's Action Party's S. Iswaran pointing out something to Reform Party leader Kenneth Jeyaretnam.
The People's Action Party's S. Iswaran pointing out something to Reform Party leader Kenneth Jeyaretnam.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Two moments grabbed my attention this morning during Nomination Day.

I was in the office, monitoring the live streaming reports filed by my colleagues from The Straits Times at nine nomination centres across Singapore.

One photo of the People's Action Party's S. Iswaran pointing out something to Reform Party leader Kenneth Jeyaretnam caught my eye. He looked like he was pointing out a mistake. The posture was also revealing: Mr Iswaran was friendly, smiling, and Mr Jeyaretnam, back to camera, looked like he was paying close attention.

Intrigued by the possible back story, I rang a party contact from West Coast GRC, where both Mr Iswaran and Mr Jeyaretnam were candidates. Within minutes, I was on the phone with Mr Iswaran, who told me a member of the PAP team had noticed that the RP hadn't indicated whether the members were contesting as independents or as a party. The form had already been signed by the Commissioner of Oath.

The PAP team promptly pointed out the mistake to RP, which managed to get the form properly filled in, and to have the Commissioner of Oath at the centre approve it. As nomination forms are sworn documents under oath, it wasn't just a matter of correcting the form. It meant getting it endorsed and signed under oath. There was time pressure too, as nominations open at 11 am and close at noon. The RP team got the form fixed in time.

 

Mr Iswaran said: "It was grounds for disqualification. But we felt it was important to point this out and give them opportunity to rectify the mistake in good time. We are not looking to win by default on a technicality - we want a fair fight."

Another PAP contact told me a similar thing happened in another constituency: the PAP team saw that the opposition team's form had omitted the name of the constituency being contested. This was pointed out and fixed.

Is the PAP going into this General Election in a more sporting mood, I wondered.

Another moment that caught my attention was a video of Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC candidate Ng Eng Hen speaking to supporters after nominations had closed and candidates were confirmed. This was at Raffles Institution, where a large group of Workers' Party supporters were present to support WP candidates contesting Aljunied GRC and Sengkang West single member constituency.

Dr Ng had to raise his voice above the jeers of the WP crowd. He not only raised his voice, he also rose to their taunts and directly addressed them, angling his body to face them, and punching his hand in the air for emphasis.

"Year by year, we will improve your lives. Even if you jeer against us, we will improve your lives! And the more you jeer, the more we will improve even more - because we believe in Singapore. We will educate your children, we will find you good jobs, we will take care of you when you are old. Because this is what PAP promises - for all Singaporeans!"

For those of us old enough to have covered past elections, the sight of a PAP minister promising to work even harder to care for opposition supporters was a slightly surreal one. The tone was combative, but the words reassuring.

Is this the same PAP who threatened - then carried out the threats - of putting opposition wards at the back of the queue for estate upgrading? Who used withdrawal of municipal facilities to try to coerce voters?

If we take Dr Ng, Mr Iswaran and the other PAP teams that reportedly helped opposition candidates get their forms right, at face value, then this might be an electoral contest more based on fair play, with candidates trying to ensure everyone is lined up at the starting line before the gun goes off.

The way the PAP announced candidates in advance, and avoided surprises, also suggests the era of ambush politics is over - at least for this election.

An electoral contest based on more sporting principles of fair play would certainly be welcomed by voters.

It also got me wondering if this election will sound the official death knell of the policy of denying opposition wards access to services.

This has long been a plank of PAP strategy during elections. After the 1991 election, the PAP embarked on a policy of treating opposition wards differently. It scaled down kindergarten services provided by its charity arm.

It put opposition wards at the back of the queue for multi-million dollar estate upgrading programme for Housing Board estates. This votes-for-upgrading strategy was used to good effect in 1997 and 2001, helping to boost the PAP vote share to 65 and 75 per cent respectively - but it also created simmering anger at the PAP's unfair politics. By 2006, PM Lee Hsien Loong said there was a need for a rethink on how to win back opposition voters.

This time round, when I asked the PAP's Nee Soon GRC candidate K. Shanmugam at a press conference what would happen to the many constituency plans being announced, if a ward fell to opposition hands, he was quick to explain that government plans for the constituencies would likely go on as planned, no matter which party's candidates was elected. No more threats to deny government plans to constituencies that choose the opposition.

But the MP of an area can "fight" for plans and influence their implementation, he added. The ability to do so, and the extent of the MP's influence, would depend on the relationship he or she has with government and other agencies carrying out the project.

The PAP has moved away from its hardball stance of denying opposition wards access to municipal improvements and facilities. It is instead going into active wooing mode.

It is now telling voters, especially opposition supporters: "Look, we want a contest. We will even help the opposition candidates so they don't mess up their forms, so there is a contest. And you can jeer against us if you will. The PAP will be here to stay, and it intends to improve your lives."

Corny? A little. Fairer? Rather.

Let's hope the hustings too will be fairer, devoid of threats directed either at voters or opponents, and stripped of egregious personal attacks from both sides.

muihoong@sph.com.sg