Chua Mui Hoong

The four-letter word at the heart of politics

President Tony Tan Keng Yam addressing Parliament on May 16, 2014. -- ST FILE PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
President Tony Tan Keng Yam addressing Parliament on May 16, 2014. -- ST FILE PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

‘Tis the season for love in politics, it seems.

On Friday, President Tony Tan Keng Yam opened the second session of the 12th Parliament with a speech that startled folks like me (whose job it is to track such stuff) with its touchy-feely tone. Singaporeans, he said, should embrace one another as fellow citizens working together to make this an endearing home. Yes, endearing.

And we should treat immigrants and foreigners in our midst with graciousness and fellowship. Yes, fellowship.

Singaporeans form the heart and strength of the nation, he said.

Watching Dr Tan deliver the address as it was broadcast live, I swear his serious demeanour softened and his voice dipped at some of these words.

It was enough for my colleague, political editor Lydia Lim, to liken that address to an invitation from a man to his wife to renew wedding vows.

And yesterday, Professor Chan Heng Chee wrote about the need for love in politics. Yes, love. When I first read the article, I did a double take. Those who know Prof Chan know of her trenchant wit and sharp mind (and tongue). She was once a hard-headed, hard-hitting political science academic who tore the People’s Action Party to shreds (intellectually at least) with her books and writings on the PAP’s grassroots politics and Singapore as an administrative state.

And here she was, writing in The Straits Times’ Opinion pages, saying: “Singaporeans believe they are not valued and appreciated in their own country. Singaporeans want reassurance from their leaders and love. Yes, love. “Singaporeans are looking for more than just a transactional relationship with their political leaders. The old politics of using good arguments to persuade or deliver the public goods and services will not suffice.

“Singaporeans young and old are looking for more from political leaders. They want to know that politicians too share their joys and sorrows, and indeed, even feel their pain. They will wonder of those in power: ‘Do you understand my situation? Do you empathise with my situation?’ Compassion and communication are critical at this juncture in Singapore politics.”

And the week before that, another academic, Professor Kishore Mahbubani, marshalled the four-letter word again in a commentary. Warning that Singapore must prepare for a political crisis, he said: “The best way to protect Singapore in a political crisis is to persuade our people to love Singapore more than their political or sectoral interests.”

Love trumps money, he argued, and is a better motivator.

Why is political rhetoric getting all emo?

One answer is that politicians and commentators are responding to the mood of the people. Feelings have been hurt by the high-and-mighty politics of yore, when ordinary people’s grouses were swept aside. Politicians are thus trying to assuage those feelings.

Another answer is that policy fixes are taking too long to materialise, and so politicians are resorting to assurances, the equivalent of murmuring sweet nothings to soothe an irate partner.

I think that would be a tad unfair to Singaporeans and the PAP.

My own view is that the PAP’s wonky leaders (as in policy wonks, not crooked) are redoubling efforts to win hearts, and not just minds.

The PAP wooed the pioneer generation by delivering on bread-and-butter issues and won their hearts.

Today’s citizens don’t give their hearts for good jobs or even good schools. They want to feel cared for, affirmed, valued.

I think Prof Chan is as right today as she was in the 1970s when she berated the PAP for being too dominant, in arguing that it’s time for a politics of empathy and self-worth.

In the 2010s, people want not just good policies from politicians who fix problems. They want good policies, yes, but from politicians who care.

But can the PAP change its DNA from being wonky leaders, to being folksy ones who can love, embrace and endear themselves to voters?

Whatever the outcome, one can’t fault the PAP for not trying.