In the new normal of personality politics, General Election 2015 was a lesson for those who believe in the power of communication and brand strategy, and those who take the concept of unpolished, authentic leadership all too literally.
Last week, Singaporeans had front-row seats to the "heat and clash" of politics, a phrase which founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once used to describe Singapore's desire for political competition. In GE2015, the People's Action Party (PAP) saw a 9.8 percentage point surge in votes, retained Potong Pasir and wrested Punggol East from the Workers' Party (WP). The opposition, on the other hand, was, in the words of political pundits, "shell-shocked".
The case for storytelling for brands and organisations is well established. At the crux of a great story lies a narrative which is both compelling and consistent. I shall venture to explain three key factors in communication (among others) that contributed to the PAP's win.
PAP's manifesto, themed "With you, for you, for Singapore", was carefully leveraged on the mood of the day - the electorate's desire for consultative, servant leadership, confidence in the PAP's track record of more than 50 years, and a keen sense of consciousness of the socio-political uncertainties in the region.
From the onset, PAP established itself as an underdog, a position that the opposition had embraced in GE2011. The party demonstrated how much it listened, acted on feedback and asserted that despite doing so, there was more to be done. It was a message that appealed not only to PAP supporters, but also struck a conciliatory tone with fence-sitters.
The party demonstrated how much it listened, acted on feedback and asserted that despite doing so, there was more to be done. It was a message that appealed not only to PAP supporters, but also struck a conciliatory tone with fence-sitters.
In contrast, the opposition had decided early on to take its people's movement further by contesting all 89 constituencies.
The first phase of GE2015 saw the opposition parties put forth policy alternatives while hammering away at the establishment with critiques on the cost of living, the country's wealth gap and foreign immigrant inflow. To these attacks, there was no immediate response from the PAP.
It was only after the party had entrenched itself as a servant leader that the PAP upped the ante at the midway mark of GE2015. As a curtain-raiser to what was to come, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is anchor minister for Jurong GRC, launched a point-by-point rebuttal to the opposition's policy alternatives. The next day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong led the party into high gear with his milestone rally at noon, followed by precision strikes from PAP big guns in the evening.
Resembling a military campaign, the PAP Government blanketed national sentiment with air cover, "With you, for you, for Singapore". The country remained receptive to such a manifesto, as it embraced Singapore's achievements and promise early on during the Golden Jubilee celebrations.
There were boots on the ground during the campaign period with the slog and sprints from house-to-house visits; and finally, there was a responsive team of social media guerillas, which was much less visible in GE2011, when opposition supporters were more active online.
DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT VOTES
A second factor that could have contributed to PAP's win was the astute way in which it harnessed its portfolio of brand personas in the party. Not to be bogged down by tactical potshots, PM Lee focused on laying out a compelling vision for Singapore as the country moved towards a more uncertain future, while calling for a strong mandate to form the fourth-generation leadership team.
The anchor ministers for Nee Soon and Holland-Bukit Timah GRCs, Mr K. Shanmugam and Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, led the offensives against the opposition's seeming deficiency in character and accountability - from the mismanagement of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), to the ouster of Mr Chiam See Tong by Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan.
Specific to the contest for Punggol East SMC and Aljunied GRC, PAP focused on the AHPETC issue, with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, anchor minister for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, and Mr Charles Chong, candidate for Punggol East, leading the charge.
In the battle for the people's minds, Mr Tharman focused on the merits of PAP policies and the flaws of the opposition's, while Mr Lim Swee Say, anchor minister for East Coast GRC, tackled sensitive topics such as Singapore's foreign immigrant policy. By having a set of clearly defined roles for its members, PAP was not only able to rise above the fray, but it was also able to respond quickly to opposition attacks without distracting the electorate from the big picture.
OPPOSITION OWN GOALS
A third factor that cost votes for the opposition was some "own goals". At the strategic level, WP did not live up to its vision for a "First World Parliament".
Watch WP chairman Sylvia Lim suggest that protests be allowed on the streets of Singapore to enable our riot police to "practise". And when questioned by Law Minister Shanmugam about impropriety in AHPETC, the party's Mr Pritam Singh responded: "Well, minister, if you were my resident, I will answer you."
In another blunder by the opposition, the people's movement in 2011 had been allowed to escalate in 2015 to one which aimed to displace the Government - at a time when voters were clearly not ready for it.
In this election, voters were treated to a compelling narrative, a coordinated campaign, and a brand portfolio strategy on the part of the PAP that leveraged on candidates' different brand personas.
•The writer is head of public and analyst relations in Asia Pacific for Tableau, an American data analytics firm.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2015, with the headline 'Good communication strategy powered PAP win'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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