Cool heads rule as election campaign heats up

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (right) during a visit to Sheng Siong supermarket in Serangoon North Avenue 4 last Thursday. Both candidates are part of the People's Action Party team that is contesting in Ang Mo Kio GRC.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (right) during a visit to Sheng Siong supermarket in Serangoon North Avenue 4 last Thursday. Both candidates are part of the People's Action Party team that is contesting in Ang Mo Kio GRC. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
National Solidarity Party candidate Cheo Chai Chen (centre), who is contesting in MacPherson SMC, was an MP for Nee Soon Central from 1991 to 1997 when he was with the Singapore Democratic Party.
National Solidarity Party candidate Cheo Chai Chen (centre), who is contesting in MacPherson SMC, was an MP for Nee Soon Central from 1991 to 1997 when he was with the Singapore Democratic Party. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Singapore Democratic Party candidate for Holland-Bukit Timah, Prof Paul Tambyah (left), believes strongly that access to healthcare is a basic human right. With him is teammate Chong Wai Fung (right).
Singapore Democratic Party candidate for Holland-Bukit Timah, Prof Paul Tambyah (left), believes strongly that access to healthcare is a basic human right. With him is teammate Chong Wai Fung (right). ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBI
Mr Wong Chee Wai of the Singaporeans First party at its rally last Thursday, with an interpreter for those who cannot hear.
Mr Wong Chee Wai of the Singaporeans First party at its rally last Thursday, with an interpreter for those who cannot hear. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Singapore People's Party candidate for Hong Kah North SMC Ravi Philemon on the campaign trail last week.
Singapore People's Party candidate for Hong Kah North SMC Ravi Philemon on the campaign trail last week. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang tries to get the attention of five-year-old Joanne Lim at the New Upper Changi Road Market and Food Centre. Looking on are (from left) East Coast GRC candidates Gerald Giam, Mohamed Fairoz Shariff and Daniel Goh, and F
Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang tries to get the attention of five-year-old Joanne Lim at the New Upper Changi Road Market and Food Centre. Looking on are (from left) East Coast GRC candidates Gerald Giam, Mohamed Fairoz Shariff and Daniel Goh, and Fengshan SMC candidate Dennis Tan. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Reform Party candidate M. Ravi, who champions human rights and wants the death penalty abolished, is contesting in Ang Mo Kio GRC.
Reform Party candidate M. Ravi, who champions human rights and wants the death penalty abolished, is contesting in Ang Mo Kio GRC. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Mr Harminder Pal Singh holds up the Singapore Democratic Alliance pamphlet at a rally for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC in Pasir Ris Park.
Mr Harminder Pal Singh holds up the Singapore Democratic Alliance pamphlet at a rally for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC in Pasir Ris Park. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
People’s Power Party candidate for Chua Chu Kang GRC, Ms Low Wai Choo, greeting supporters at Bukit Gombak Stadium.
People’s Power Party candidate for Chua Chu Kang GRC, Ms Low Wai Choo, greeting supporters at Bukit Gombak Stadium. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

Some voters find it hard to decide which party to support, with no single issue to focus on

Thousands of voters have turned up - armed with mats and drinks - to rallies islandwide to listen to candidates from a record 10 political parties fighting these polls.

The campaign has also heated up online. Over 650,000 people in Singapore have put up five million posts or comments on Facebook since July 24 about the election.

If anything, there is more discussion than ever on politics, with fierce debates between supporters of the PAP and those of the opposition online and off.

But as far as the parties are concerned, there seems to be a distinct lack of engagement on policies, says retiree Nelly Chong, 65.

She has attended rallies for four consecutive nights but remains undecided about whom to vote for.

The Nee Soon GRC resident went for rallies by the PAP and Workers' Party - the two parties contesting in her constituency, and one by the Singapore People's Party.

"I find that they are talking about different things. Sometimes the PAP will say something about the WP but the WP will say something else about the PAP," she tells Insight. "I don't know if I will go for any more rallies but I haven't decided who to vote for so we will see."

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) political scientist Alan Chong says that the first half of the campaign has been marked by the lack of a single focus.

"It actually feels like they are talking past each other," he says of the political parties.

Might this lack of engagement be deliberate? What does it say about the campaign strategy of the parties - especially that of the two leading teams in white and blue?

How are voters to choose? And what surprises might lie in store as Polling Day approaches?

CONTAINMENT

The PAP is defending 80 seats in Parliament, the Workers' Party seven, and there are two new seats created to cater to population growth, making for a total of 89 seats up for grabs at the coming polls.

How each party chooses to fight for these seats depends on what its end game is.

For the PAP, a key question going into this campaign must surely be how best to contain the patch of blue that had grown rapidly in the eastern part of Singapore, from just one seat in the opposition stronghold of Hougang to six after the loss of Aljunied GRC in the May 2011 General Election, to seven when Punggol East also fell in a by-election in 2013.

Nationally, the PAP's vote share fell 6.5 percentage points from 66.6 per cent in 2006 to 60.1 per cent in the 2011 General Election.

But in the wards contested by the WP, the PAP's vote share fell further. In East Coast GRC, for instance, it suffered a 9-percentage-point swing against it, setting that constituency up to be the front line of the battle between white and blue this time round.

One thing is certain: The PAP may have been caught by surprise by the tide of anger and frustration that swept its Aljunied GRC team out of Parliament in 2011, but it is not letting its guard down again.

That is why it has effectively been preparing for this election for the last four years, by engaging Singaporeans and crafting and timing policies with these hustings in mind.

Its shift to the left in social policies began before 2011, as Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has been taking pains to remind voters, but the pace at which the PAP moved to address key sources of unhappiness picked up significantly after the 2011 General Election.

Since then, the Government has slowed the growth of the foreign workforce, cooled the housing market, launched more than 100,000 new public homes and put more buses on the roads. It also moved to address concerns over healthcare costs, first by introducing the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package and then rolling out universal healthcare insurance.

The success of these measures is apparent in how much cooler the temperature is this time round.

Asked about it at a press conference yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: "I would be hesitant to put a temperature on it but I think cooler is better."

That also explains the lack of a single issue for voters to coalesce around - not a bad thing for the PAP, since what united voters last time round was anger at public transport and housing woes due in part to large inflows of foreigners.

So how are the combatants facing off in this campaign?

The PAP went on the offensive first by shining the spotlight on the lapses in financial management at the WP's Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council.

Did that contribute to the WP's decision for all seven of its incumbent MPs to stay put to defend their seats? That defensive strategy may well reflect Mr Low Thia Khiang's own cautious approach and his preference for holding onto the gains of 2011 rather than taking a risk by sending one of his team members to fight in another GRC.

Similarly, the PAP has fielded a team of new faces and one veteran backbencher to challenge the WP's "A" team in Aljunied GRC, choosing not to risk any office holders in a bid to sway voters to its side.

These moves by both PAP and WP are "highly defensive, seeking to contain rather than attack", says National University of Singapore Associate Professor Reuben Wong.

They have led political observers to term this a "status quo" election, with no big gains expected on either side.

As for the town council issue, which had been in play for nearly two years before the hustings, the two sides attacked each other's positions during the first three days of the campaign.

PAP leaders said the issue was not just poor financial management but the integrity of the WP leaders.

WP said the episode showed the PAP to be a bully because it used government machinery for political purposes.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim even upped the ante by declaring that if WP leaders had done something wrong, they were prepared to face criminal charges.

By day four of the nine-day campaign, the fire had cooled.

The WP declared it had said enough on the matter. Its goal after all is not to persuade voters on the basis of its town council management prowess, but to convince them of the need to bring in more opposition voices to form a credible check on the PAP government.

Yesterday, the PAP also signalled it wished to move on.

PM Lee said "enough has been spoken" on the town council issue and he would leave it to voters to decide. He then refocused the PAP's campaign on what he sees is at stake at these polls, namely the future of Singapore.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan believes that is because the probing attack by the PAP has served its purpose of putting the WP on the defensive.

In particular, it may well have sown the seeds of doubt among voters in other constituencies contemplating a WP team that would run their town council, he says.

ROUND TWO

If the first half of the campaign seems to have ended in a stalemate, what is likely in the second half?

PM Lee's key message in this second half seems to be a call to voters to think carefully about their vote since their future is at stake as it is the PAP Government that does the long-term planning for the country.

"This is the nation we are aiming for. A future where tomorrow is always better than today, that the young can live lives better than their parents. We are saying, we can do this together with you," he said at a press conference at the PAP headquarters yesterday.

SMU's Associate Professor Tan says this is not unexpected since the PAP's track record is by far the best and long-term planning is what the party excels at.

"The PAP needs to plug away at its strengths and avoid being perceived to be engaged in negative campaigning," he says.

With all seats contested, the PAP has been at pains to remind voters not to live dangerously by voting for the opposition if what they want is a PAP government.

But there are still issues of national concern that have not yet been addressed, says RSIS' Associate Professor Chong.

One is the growing discontent among the professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) as they face increasing competition from skilled foreigners, he says.

Prof Wong agrees, noting that when someone in his 40s loses his job, it is very difficult for him to find a replacement. "This group can grow and if not addressed this election could become the big problem in the next GE," he says.

There could also be further surprises in the electoral battle itself.

Thus far, there has been most interest in the PAP and WP fights in the east, particularly in East Coast, Marine Parade and Aljunied GRCs.

Aljunied will likely stay blue and the question there is whether WP could further entrench itself with a a stronger vote share.

Marine Parade and East Coast could come close but it is difficult to see WP winning the seats from the PAP, given the strength of the PAP teams there, unless there is a national swing against the PAP.

The newly created Fengshan SMC ward is a different story.

Carved out of East Coast GRC, it is the one seat most analysts agree is most within the WP's reach.

Both PAP and WP have fielded rookies to contest the seat.

At the last general election, residents in Fengshan gave strong support to the WP team and the balance could further tilt towards the blue team this time.

But there could also be a few surprises in the central and western parts of Singapore - in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, Mountbatten SMC and Sengkang West SMC.

Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan, who is leading the opposition team in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, is making his electoral return after 15 years in the wilderness. His first rally speeches were well-received.

Prof Wong notes that the SDP team being fielded at Holland-Bukit Timah is a strong one.

It also includes Professor Paul Tambyah, a senior consultant for infectious diseases at National University Hospital (NUH).

But he does not think that the SDP has enough going for it to win the ward, noting that the party garnered just under 40 per cent of the vote in 2011.

"It would mean an 11- to 12-percentage-point swing. If SDP can move it up a notch to 45 per cent, that would be already a big achievement," he says.

In Mountbatten, PAP incumbent Lim Biow Chuan faces off against Singapore People's Party's Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss for the second time. He won 58.55 per cent of the vote in 2011 in a handy victory but is not taking things for granted.

Residents in Mountbatten say that Mr Lim has been working hard in the area. Retired businessman Kho Kok Chew, 73, who lives at Block 6, Jalan Batu, off Mountbatten Road, says that Mr Lim is a common sight in his estate.

"He is always walking around the HDB blocks," says Mr Kho. "I did not see the opposition parties walking around here consistently."

Similarly, Sengkang West could be a dark horse for the WP, featuring another rematch. This time it is between PAP's Lam Pin Min and WP's Koh Choon Yong.

Dr Lam beat Mr Koh in the last election, winning 58.1 per cent of the vote, and many residents say both candidates have been pounding the ground in the area.

When asked about whether the fight will be a close one, Dr Lam says: "There's always this concern about the (amount of) support compared with the last elections, but I think ultimately our aim is to win regardless of the margin."

Even if these wards do come close, or even fall, no one really doubts that the PAP will form the government when the votes have been counted.

Indeed, that is what opposition parties, including the WP, are counting on.

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser says "the WP is making a big push for its key message that there needs to be a strong opposition presence to check on the PAP".

"The approach may have gained some traction since it does not involve a regime change," he adds.

But questions remain: Beyond this election, what next?

For the PAP, will the people accept the argument that Singapore can only progress if there is only one strong party in power, as was the case in the last 50 years?

Or will people start to accept the opposition's alternative narrative, that Singapore needs more checks and balances as the PAP's dominance has alienated the people it is supposed to work for.

Will the tide in favour of alternative voices build momentum for more opposition seats? Or has the PAP managed to stem the flow?

We will know for sure on Sept 11.


An earlier version of this story said that over 650,000 people in Singapore have put up five million posts or comments on Facebook since Aug 31 about the election, when the data had actually been pulled on July 24. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2015, with the headline 'Cool heads rule as election campaign heats up'. Print Edition | Subscribe