Thinking Aloud

Hopes for GE2020

PAP and opposition can learn from GE2015 to create a politically more mature environment

ONE week after the momentous result of the 2015 General Election, I have just two wishes for the future political direction of our country.

For the People's Action Party (PAP), I hope the resounding win gives it confidence to go beyond policy shifts, to substantive political change.

For the opposition, I hope the result makes opposition politicians wake up from their slumber to realise that voters now want more from opposition candidates than a reasonable CV, good speaking skills and a friendly social media presence.


First, my hopes of the PAP.

Its strong mandate on Sept 11 should deepen its resolve to move towards more friendly social policies. As many people have remarked, its shift to the left fiscally, in the form of large subsidies in healthcare, eldercare, childcare and the Pioneer Generation Package, have clearly won over many voters.


At the same time, many have voiced their concern, online and in private, about whether the PAP will go back to its rather top-down, authoritarian approach to people management.

PAP leaders have taken pains to call on all its candidates to be humble in victory, and several, like Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who helmed the Our Singapore Conversation series of dialogues, have pledged to consult often, and widely, on policies.

But as an image that went viral last week shows, there is a latent fear of the PAP going back to its bad old ways. It shows a couple of men in a slave galley ship, shackled at the feet, pulling away. One of them tells the other, who is presumably complaining: "Oh shuddup! You voted for it!" To which the complainant whines: "But he said that it's a cruise ship!"

Have voters given their vote to a captain who promised a cruise ship experience, but will use its passengers and crew as galley slaves? The answer to that is, of course, no.

The strong mandate should instead be an opportunity for the PAP to seize the moral and political imperative, to institute reforms to the political process.

This view was voiced by many, including a foreign observer, University of Chicago professor Dan Slater. He remarked in an article on the East Asia Forum: "These latest election results might well lead the PAP to conclude that its combination of open-handed spending and strong-armed social control remains an invincible one.

"But its popularity comes from how much it does for Singapore's people, not from how much it intimidates them.

"If the PAP is a 'philanthropic ogre', as poet Octavio Paz once dubbed Mexico's ruling party, why not just preserve the philanthropy and ditch the ogre routine?"

Prof Slater hoped this will be the PAP's "last authoritarian election" and urged the party to introduce reforms to tilt the playing field to be more even.

I agree with the thrust of these calls. Having secured its strongest mandate in over a decade, at a time when many expected it to suffer further setbacks at the polls, the PAP can use this opportunity to strengthen trust with citizens, by fixing what many critics view as a flawed, even biased, political process.

To be sure, Singapore's elections are clean, hardly influenced by money politics. In this election,

PM Lee and his team fought a studiously fair and clean campaign, in that there was little of the blatant gerrymandering or character assassination of yore. But the way the election is structured gives rise to charges of bias: the PM decides on the timing, electoral boundary changes are done behind closed doors by a small group of civil servants who report to the PM, who is the head of the PAP.

Over the decades, Singapore has learnt to entrust decisions on public transport fares, universal health insurance and screening of controversial films, to citizen-led panels consisting of responsible, respected individuals.

It is time to set up such a panel of non-partisan, respected citizens to oversee the conduct of elections.

An independent commission can decide on timing of elections, oversee constituency boundary changes, and adjudicate on abuse claims.

As many people have noted, the nationwide swing back to the PAP suggests that the party need not have made those boundary changes anyway, and would still have won handsomely.

A party that keeps in step with voters, and is confident of its appeal, does not need to rely on any advantages to beat its competitors.

Unlike with the pioneer generation, the PAP does not enjoy as strong a bond with today's voters. The Edelman Trust Barometer shows trust in government here falling from 82, to 75 and 70 per cent from 2013, 2014 and then 2015. That level of trust in government is high by global standards, but the figures show a downward trend.

Fixing the political system to remove bias can help raise trust in government and faith in the democratic process.

As for the opposition, my hope is that it learns the lessons from GE2015 as well as the PAP has learnt the lessons from GE2011.

The opposition has to contend with a swing of 9.8 percentage points against it. The Workers' Party (WP) fared best, with a vote share in the wards it contested falling 6.8 points to 39.8 per cent.

Some opposition leaders and supporters have responded to the vote swing with a mix of anger

and denial. One opposition leader petulantly likened Singapore to North Korea and China, saying Singaporeans got the government they deserved. (And he presumably got the vote he deserved - 20 per cent).

Even WP leaders were in denial about the town council issue, saying they did not think this swayed voters, or the swing against them would have been higher.

The argument can go the other way: Without performance issues on town council management, the opposition should have done much better, riding on a crest of rising support.

Many opposition supporters took to social media to vent their frustration. Some thought new citizens were to "blame" for the vote swing; many others insulted voters by saying they were cowed or had sold their souls for material benefits (in fact, there were no material inducements to vote PAP this time, unlike in some past elections).

Those feelings are part of the grieving process. But anger, denial and depression all must evolve to acceptance, before opposition parties and supporters can regroup to take a hard look at themselves.

Then they would know what they have to do. The smaller parties have to get their act together, go beyond personality-driven leadership and try to work together.

For the WP, the way to win voters is not by being brazen about its byzantine town council finances, but by being more upfront about its mistakes and correcting them.

To grow to its next phase, the WP also has to become as serious in its policy proposals, as it is about its political posturing. I hope new Non-Constituency MPs Dennis Tan and Leon Perera, who made good rally speeches, will lift the quality of WP's engagement with the PAP in Parliament.

If the opposition can raise its game, and the PAP can introduce changes to the rules to make the election landscape a fairer one, Singapore will have a politically more mature environment in GE2020.

Having secured its strongest mandate in over a decade, at a time when many expected it to suffer further setbacks at the polls, the PAP can use this opportunity to strengthen trust with citizens, by fixing what many critics view as a flawed, even biased, political process.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline 'Hopes for GE2020 ThinkingAloud'. Print Edition | Subscribe