5Cs of looming GE

At what looks to be the midpoint of an election season which kicked off with the boundaries review report in July, Insight's Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh highlights five concerns that could shape the campaign.

The PAP unveiled its Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC team in a coffee shop on Aug 12, 2015.
The PAP unveiled its Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC team in a coffee shop on Aug 12, 2015.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Clash: PAP v WP on what election's about

One major C is the clash over what GE 2015 is about, as the two major parties in Singapore's political scene - the People's Action Party (PAP) and the Workers' Party (WP) - vie to set the election agenda.

The ruling PAP has sought to put town council management front and centre, insisting the election is about putting in place the right leaders to take Singapore forward.

The WP is on the defensive on its town council record, but comes out fighting on another tack - its call to voters to elect more opposition to ensure a more responsive government, and checks and balances.

That town council issue is, of course, the Aljunied-Hougang- Punggol East Town Council's (AHPETC) troubled finances. The Auditor-General has found serious lapses in the financial statements of the WP-run town council.


For the PAP, it is the gift that keeps on giving. Its MPs repeatedly throw up the AHPETC saga as a sign of the WP's shortcomings and its lack of transparency and accountability.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong spoke of "Third World town councils in opposition wards", while Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the PAP's focus in Aljunied GRC for this election is to "go in and sort out the mess that's in the town council".

The WP stressed that improvements have been made, and took aim at lapses in financial compliance by the People's Association and its grassroots organisations.

But Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam insisted in Parliament last Monday that while the accounts of all government departments are reliable and public funds accounted for, AHPETC's finances are in a sorry state, arising from failings on the part of the WP. "There's no remotely similar problem in government," he said.

The town council argument has presented two opposing views to the people, says Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute senior fellow Terence Chong. "The first is that the WP has mishandled the town council and should be booted out, full stop," he says. "The other is that the WP faced a system and climate that made it difficult for them to run the town council smoothly."

The PAP's AHPETC strategy may pay off, as it has stressed time and again that an MP has to be able to serve residents in their estate, say observers.

This comes into play in the party's claim that the polls are about picking a leadership team for the future. "It's not about how many opposition members there will be," says Mr Teo. "The Constitution guarantees there will be at least nine opposition members in Parliament. So the key issue at hand is that team for the future."

WP chairman Sylvia Lim has rebutted Mr Teo's statement: "It's up to Singaporeans to decide, whether they are satisfied with constitutionally guaranteed NCMPs (Non-Constituency MPs), or whether they would like to have elected MPs governing their constituencies."

Another issue rearing its head is transport, which came under the spotlight with the shock announcement by its minister, Mr Lui Tuck Yew, that he is leaving politics. Commuters have fumed over train breakdowns. Last year, there were 12 MRT delays lasting over 30 minutes - a four-year high. In the first half of this year, there were seven.

But any election-season agenda- setting has been mired in point- scoring rather than the issue of train breakdowns. WP chief Low Thia Khiang said he was disappointed that Mr Lui was stepping down, as he had done a good job.

On the view that Mr Lui's departure would take the heat off transport and help the PAP, Mr Low said he would "be very disappointed with the PAP if they allow a minister to resign in order to take the heat, because they are supposed to function as a Cabinet, as a team".

But the PAP's Mr Teo called it characteristic of Mr Low to "squeeze the most political mileage out of anything".

Consensus: A united opposition plan unravels

It looked too hunky-dory to be true. And so it proved.

The opposition, comprising a disparate mix of election success and failure, not to mention ideologies and personalities, looked to have reached a historic consensus on avoiding three-cornered fights.

Such fights tend to split the vote, tipping the scales in favour of the People's Action Party (PAP), so opposition parties usually try to come to an agreement on overlapping claims on constituencies.

This time around, after two pow-wows, and some to-ing and fro-ing, it seemed like "opposition unity" had finally been achieved, with nine opposition parties likely to contest in the polls in straight fights against the PAP.

Now, this has fallen into disarray. The National Solidarity Party (NSP) has gone back on its decision to leave MacPherson SMC to the Workers' Party (WP), just a week after announcing its decision to relinquish its claim.

It later said on Facebook that calls, e-mail and WhatsApp messages to the WP to sort out their conflicting claims went unanswered: "There is no respect for fellow comrades in the cause."

The NSP's about-turn has led to the resignation of its acting secretary-general Hazel Poa, showing further cracks within the party, which has this year seen a flurry of departures. She said she "strongly disagreed" with the party going back on its initial decision to bow out of MacPherson.

This is the first "resolved" claim that has disintegrated so far, but could more lie ahead?

Over in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, there is consensus now, with the Singapore People's Party (SPP) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) planning to send a joint team in to face the PAP.

But just how long the strange bedfellows will stay together is uncertain. Already, there is talk that both parties are each still hoping to secure a larger share of the five-man team, and although they both claim to be cooperating well now, their shared history is murky.

The DPP's secretary-general is Mr Benjamin Pwee, who in 2011 stood on an SPP ticket but lost in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. He quit the party a year later, citing differences over the leadership style and direction.

For political scientist Derek da Cunha, the NSP's U-turn in MacPherson hammers home the point that "there is no such thing as 'opposition unity'". "I have never felt that it was a realistic notion, given the vast difference in capabilities and resources across the various parties," he says.

"The WP is the only full-fledged opposition political party. I would use the term 'political party' very loosely for the other entities that project themselves to be in opposition to the PAP."

This is not the NSP's take. A statement by the party says: "This decision made by the central executive committee is final, and reflects our view that maintaining opposition unity requires mutual respect and a spirit of compromise on the part of all parties."

As for the WP - the only opposition party with elected MPs in Parliament - it seems to care less for claims of opposition unity, say observers.

Right after the changes to the electoral map were announced, the WP announced that it would stand in five group representation and five single-member constituencies. And it has stood its ground, refusing to back down on any of its claims on these constituencies.

This is no surprise, observers say, as the WP still remains the most viable and tested opposition party here in the eyes of voters.

Dr da Cunha tells Insight that Singapore might well be headed in the longer term for a consolidated two-party parliamentary system between the PAP and the WP.

"There is a strong possibility that the general election would likely confirm this two-party parliamentary system," he says.

Candidates: New-old and the new-normal

The People's Action Party's slate of new faces and the opposition's likely new candidates are on two ends of a great divide.

The PAP's is a story of continuity. Even as party leaders speak of new blood and renewal, the faces joining its ranks still come from a formula that has served the PAP well: former civil servants, business high-fliers.

In previous elections, the opposition was at times seen as a "misfits corner", attracting people from outside the system, but a new breed has emerged.

Call it the new "normal" - career people and academics now make up the ranks of the opposition.

The PAP line-up could be termed "new-old"; many new faces but based on the old paradigm of Singaporeans who succeeded within the system and now want to do their part for their country.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan says "they very much fit into the mould and expectations that Singaporeans have come to expect of a typical PAP candidate".

"While there has been the effort to portray them as success stories of the Singapore system, we have not yet got a sense of how different they will be and how will they be able to contribute to aspiration for greater political diversity", adds Associate Professor Tan.

The line-up now includes top guns from the public sector like former chief of defence force Ng Chee Meng and former second permanent secretary at the Ministry of Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat. Private sector heads like Mr Saktiandi Supaat, executive vice-president at Maybank, are also regular features.

The party's sterling slate is to be expected, says political science professor Bilveer Singh: "The PAP has the best political machinery, access to the best brains, leaders and experienced individuals."

But the opposition this time around is likely to offer up candidates who can hold their own, including young professionals who feel politics is a force for much- needed change.

The Workers' Party (WP) has built on the Chen Show Mao effect - referring to its high-flying corporate lawyer MP - by attracting professionals who have succeeded academically and in their careers.

They include tenured National University of Singapore sociology professor Daniel Goh - who has said the Marxist-conspiracy arrests in the 80s helped spark his political awakening - and Mr Leon Perera, an Oxford graduate who runs his own consultancy.

Academic and medical doctor Paul Tambyah, meanwhile, is joining the Singapore Democratic Party for the coming polls.

"This is unprecedented, showing that getting good people is no longer a PAP prerogative. This is good for Singaporeans and Singapore's future as we have good alternative leaders emerging," says Dr Singh.

The WP is likely to field 28 candidates, half of them fresh faces. But it has not formally introduced candidates and is likely to confirm them only on Nomination Day.

Other parties have said they are in no hurry to show their hand. The Singapore Democratic Alliance plans to wait for Parliament to be dissolved and the Writ of Election issued, while SingFirst will wait until Nomination Day.

The PAP's new style of introducing candidates early is a boon for the opposition, says Prof Tan. They can adjust slates depending on how best they think they can take on PAP candidates.

Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat disagrees: "The boundary changes, and overlapping claims over seats, has caused the opposition to rethink its strategy, hence the delay in announcing candidates.

"This will put them at a disadvantage. Citizens need time to analyse these candidates."

Countdown: When's the election?

With Parliament usually dissolved within two months of the release of the boundaries report in past elections, observers expect the custom to hold.

Sept 12 remains the hot date for the polls - Seventh Month celebrations notwithstanding. This is the last Saturday of the week-long school holidays, and schools are typically used as polling stations.

School examinations rule out October and early November as windows for an election, and late November will be packed with global summits involving Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other ministers.

Another popular date, Sept 5, is no longer viable as Parliament should have been dissolved last Wednesday for that to be the case.

The stage looks set: changes to the electoral boundaries were announced late last month, National Day is over, and PAP organising secretary Ng Eng Hen has gone on to declare "we are in election season".

The Elections Department on Thursday announced several changes to election regulation, including the printing of candidates' photos on the ballot slip. This sorting out of the "nitty-gritty", observers say, sends the strongest signal yet that elections will come soon.

The ruling party, observers point out, stands to benefit from calling the elections - which must be held by January 2017 - sooner rather than later. With the swell of national pride after National Day, and outpouring of grief over the death of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who would have turned 92 on Sept 16, the ground looks sweeter than ever for the PAP, whose vote share took a tumble in the last polls.

Political science professor Bilveer Singh from the National University of Singapore believes it makes no sense for the PAP to hold off when a September election is "a very good window to go to the polls and win big".

"Any delay will eventually hurt the ruling part as the opposition would be more prepared, and public goodwill will start to dissolve," he says.

Coffee shops: PAP's new launchpads

A packet of teh peng dangles from the hand of housewife Karen Chan. Her other hand aims a cellphone at an unoccupied table in Boon Lay Market and Food Centre.

"MP lai," she says in a stage whisper. "Election time already."

Microphones stand on the table. Reporters sit knee-to-knee around it. Cameras flash.

Madam Chan, 45, visits the market every weekend. But last Sunday, she stopped to join onlookers as co-anchor minister S. Iswaran introduced the People's Action Party (PAP) team that will stand in West Coast GRC.

Nowhere does election talk flow more freely than in Singapore's humble coffee shops. Complaints are unloaded, predictions made, and rumours gather steam.

This year, coffee shops have also become the PAP's go-to venue to introduce new election teams.

The change in strategy and the early roll-out of new MPs has dominated election talk. "This is how they should have done things from the start. We feel more secure because we know what's happening on the ground, instead of thinking about whether our MP will be a new person we don't even know about," says Boon Lay resident Arthur Ng, 53.

Some, though, accuse the PAP of "putting on a show". Scoffs financial planner Melvin Tan, 33: "How they should do it, is tell the residents first, not the reporters. They can send us fliers, tell us at grassroots events. But now they do these conferences, and they do it in the coffee shop and think that means it's for the residents?"

Lines have been drawn even between friends. Over in Nanyang ward, Mr Mohamad Ramli, 54, says he will continue to vote for the PAP, while his close friend of 20-odd years, Mr Loh S.M., 62, is eyeing Mr Goh Meng Seng's new People's Power Party.

"I met them on their walkabout and I find them very down-to- earth. This election should be about giving the opposition a chance to prove themselves also," Mr Loh says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2015, with the headline '5Cs of looming GE'. Subscribe