GE half-time report: No killer goal, back to basics

A supporter blows his vuvuzela as others wave yellow inflateable hammers at the Workers' Party's (WP) rally for Nee Soon GRC at Yishun Stadium on Sept 4, 2015.
A supporter blows his vuvuzela as others wave yellow inflateable hammers at the Workers' Party's (WP) rally for Nee Soon GRC at Yishun Stadium on Sept 4, 2015. ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

It's now more important to avoid missteps and to reconnect with voters

It is half-time in the GE and there has been no killer goal so far.

But it's been a strange match and commentators have had a field day describing what's happening on the pitch.

The team in white has pinned the blue team to one section of the field and all its key players, including its strikers and midfielders, are crowded there.

The blue team would rather get out of that tight spot and play in other parts of the field but they keep having to chase after the ball where the white players are.

Some of them look tired and are beginning to swear in Teochew.

The supporters on both sides are an enthusiastic and knowledgeable lot but they too have trouble sometimes following the game.

It reminds me of an English league football match I watched many years ago when a fog suddenly descended and the crowd started chanting: "Where's the f**king ball!"

Fair half-time match report?

Of course, the GE is not a football game and there is much at stake.

After the first five days of campaigning, it is clear the ruling party does not want to let the Workers' Party (WP) off the hook on the long-running town council issue.

Ultimately, the People's Action Party's (PAP) unrelenting attacks aren't just about exposing the financial lapses that have been uncovered by the Auditor-General's report.

That would be too minor a prize.

It is going for the jugular and framing the issue as one not just about competence, but also integrity and character.

This was how the PM put it last week: "We expect high standards of our political leaders... By the time you have to be put in jail, it's too late.

"To say 'I haven't gone to jail, therefore I have done a good job' - if that's your standard of doing a good job, that's very sad."

Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam put it even more sharply, saying it was about honesty, integrity and transparency.

The WP's counter: The PAP is playing up the issue for a wider political purpose. WP speakers claim the PAP wants to damage the opposition fatally so as to prevent further gains, and it is doing so in its characteristic big bully way, using the full weight of the state machinery to achieve its political aims.

WP chief Low Thia Khiang made this rallying call: "Use your vote to tell the PAP you reject such underhanded ways."

Which argument is winning on the ground? At half-time, it's looking very much like a draw.

That's not surprising because this is a classic case of both sides viewing the same set of evidence but coming to completely different conclusions.

This is a well-known phenomenon that has been extensively studied, especially in the US where people are even more polarised between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

They may be shown exactly the same data but they will draw opposite conclusions.

In fact, the research also shows that if you ask people to believe something that violates their own beliefs, they will devote their efforts to finding reasons to doubt your argument - and they will almost always succeed.

Personal beliefs or biases based on political affiliations almost always trump rational arguments.

For PAP supporters, the debate reinforces their perception of the WP as untrustworthy and evasive.

For WP, it confirms the PAP's high and mighty attitude, bullying its opponents to stamp out even the slightest opposition.

Neutrals?

There might be some conversions, but I doubt the numbers are significant.

Character is a two-edged sword for any party to make an issue of because it also brings to play your own character.

Unless it's so clear-cut to everyone and you don't have to belabour the point.

But if you have to spend the entire half of the game trying to do so, you're really trying too hard.

In the case of WP leaders such as Mr Low and Ms Sylvia Lim, they have been around so long, people have already formed in their minds long ago what their characters are like.

So, what's the second half likely to be? At this stage, I think most people have made up their minds, barring some late unexpected developments.

It is unlikely any party can come up with a brilliant move that will change the course of the GE.

Now, it may be more important not to score an own goal by making a mistake or a misstep - a careless remark, for example, that causes widespread anger - than to try to score a killer goal.

Expect the parties to revert to their traditional messages and pet issues - possession football, if you like.

Indeed this was evident at the PAP press conference yesterday.

Which means that the other silent contest that has been going on long before the GE was called assumes greater importance.

This is the battle to gain every single vote by candidates working the ground and making those house visits and public appearances.

I've followed some of them from the ruling party and the opposition and it's a tiring and demanding slog.

They try to cover as much as possible, meeting as many residents as they physically can.

But because time is of the essence, the contact is usually hurried and minimal.

If at this stage, you are making these personal encounters for the first time, you are way offside.

For those who have been working the ground regularly, meaning in between election years, it's about making that reconnection on the home stretch.

For some of the more hotly contested places, such as East Coast GRC and single-seat wards like Fengshan and Potong Pasir, the results can turn on how well you do this.

Because of the small size of wards here - Potong Pasir has only about 17,389 voters and East Coast, 99,000 - it doesn't take that much to cause, say, a 5-percentage-point swing. That's only about 350 voters in Potong Pasir and 5,000 in East Coast.

They are not huge numbers but a 5-percentage-point swing will change the result in both places.

It's the sort of game where one goal decides the outcome.

And it can happen at the last minute during injury time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2015, with the headline 'GE half-time report: No killer goal, back to basics'. Print Edition | Subscribe