News analysis

Singapore GE2020: New style of election campaign signals maturing of politics

A campaign in which opponents engage one another civilly during live TV debates marks a welcome change

My favourite moment in a live televised political debate was in the Mandarin segment when Progress Singapore Party (PSP) candidate Leong Mun Wai fired off four questions in rapid succession to People's Action Party (PAP) candidate and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.

The debates, broadcast live on Wednesday in English and in Mandarin, were a forum for candidates from the four bigger parties to engage one another directly.

The debates were each over in an hour, but I think their impact and significance will last long after.

Stripped of rank or seniority, the speakers sat around a table as equals. After opening speeches, each debater had a chance to ask questions of one another.

Challenged by Mr Ong to spell out what differentiated PSP's policies from the PAP's, Mr Leong was quick to respond that they differed sharply on immigration and the use of the Central Provident Fund.

When his turn came to grill Mr Ong, Mr Leong brightened visibly.

He straightened up in his chair and then, without needing notes, rattled off four pointed questions to Mr Ong at breakneck speed to keep within his one-minute time slot: Why is the economy growing but there are no good jobs; why is Singapore's education system No. 1 in the world but not grooming talent for emerging sectors; our reserves are ample but why is the financial burden on citizens growing every year; and why are there so many workers including foreigners who pay taxes in our economy, yet citizens face increases in taxes every year?

Mr Ong jotted the points down as he listened and then replied in 11/2 minutes: Singapore needs foreign talent to bring in investors, but they compete with locals. There are many good jobs here - 80 per cent to 90 per cent of graduates find good jobs within a year after graduation and the unemployment rate here has been below 3 per cent, and only recently has it been more than 3 per cent. Singapore has many emerging industries which are becoming vibrant, and is building its research and development sector. Reserves are money saved by our pioneers, and we can't spend it anyhow. On the fourth point: Budget expenses keep going up, especially in healthcare, so taxes have to rise too.

Both men were short, sharp and to the point. I found Mr Ong in Mandarin most persuasive - able to condense issues into bite-sized explanations using simple, vivid terms so even viewers like me, with less-than-fluent Mandarin, could follow and appreciate his arguments.

Even more than the substance of the points made, I was most struck by the two men's demeanour as they exchanged views. In body language, tone of voice and facial expression, they showed respectful regard and attention to each other.

Two serious individuals, with serious intent, debating each other on serious issues, civilly and respectfully, in full view of the cameras and in front of a nation - never mind that they are political opponents.

For me, that brief exchange was a milestone in marking a maturing of the political process here. The TV debates allow voters to see how ministers stack up against a range of opposition candidates - both veteran and new. As they focused on ideas in the party manifestos, voters can see these proposals being scrutinised. Such debates are also a harbinger of what a political party can offer in Parliament.

As Workers' Party (WP) candidate Jamus Lim said when he summed up the English debate, urging voters to support the WP: "What we are trying to deny the PAP isn't a mandate. What we are trying to deny them is a blank cheque. And that is what I think this election truly is about. So that we can actually have this kind of a debate, not just in a constrained form over a table, but actually in the forum which was designed for this, which is Parliament."


(From left) Mediacorp presenter Tung Soo Hua moderating a live televised political debate in Mandarin with the PAP's Ong Ye Kung, PSP's Leong Mun Wai and SDP's Bryan Lim. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

MATURING PROCESS

The PAP, as the party in power, is maturing when it is secure enough to give opponents space to debate it on policy points, and trusts that voters will be able to sieve out good candidates and ideas from poor quality ones. It need not then seek to discredit opponents by highlighting "character" defects.

The opposition is also maturing, when it can field candidates of better calibre. Graduates from illustrious universities are now found across the political spectrum, not just in the PAP. Just from my alma mater alone - Cambridge University - are Ms Hazel Poa in PSP's West Coast GRC team, Mr Benjamin Pwee in the Singapore Democratic Party's Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC team (both are also former civil servants with the Administrative Service), and Ms He Ting Ru in the WP's Sengkang GRC team.

Even as opposition parties recruit such candidates, the PAP is going the grassroots route, including among its ranks many with activist or community organising experience.

 
 
 
 

The result is an interesting leavening of talent across the partisan divide and a levelling of the political competition, as both sides can now offer candidates of similar education and professional qualifications.

MORE LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

Another hallmark of a maturing political process: The fact that this election is being fought on a more equal footing.

Unlike in the 1990s, the PAP is no longer playing its incumbency to its partisan advantage. Many PAP candidates do fortuitously announce government-funded constituency projects around this time. But there is no longer any threat of withholding government funds for upgrading or constituency projects from opposition-supporting precincts or wards. Instead, it is understood that government-funded projects will carry on, regardless of whether a PAP or opposition candidate is elected in a constituency. (But if the PAP loses power, of course, all bets are off.)

The redrawing of electoral boundaries has been more rational and less inexplicable, preserving opposition battlegrounds. While Punggol East, which the WP held from 2013 to 2015, disappeared, its absorption into a new Sengkang GRC can be explained by the growth of the eponymous HDB town. A group representation constituency, rather than a single-member seat, also gives the WP a potentially wider arena to establish a stronghold.

Another element the PAP used to its advantage in the past was surprise - calling snap elections that back-footed opposition parties. Not this time: Singaporeans have been expecting an election for months, with the only variable being the public health situation, given the pandemic. A July polling date had been speculated on for weeks before it became reality.

This moving towards a more level playing field has been a hallmark of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's electoral style since he led the PAP into his first election as PM in 2006.

As the fourth-generation or 4G group of leaders steps up to lead the PAP, I, for one, am cheered that they appear to want to continue the trajectory towards a fairer, more equal electoral battleground. It takes moral backbone for an incumbent party to eschew the institutional advantages at its disposal. What is even more heartening this time round is not just how a once-uneven playing field is being tilted right, but how the political combatants are behaving towards one another.

There is an absence of the verbal mudslinging that characterised many elections in the 1990s and 2000s. A brief moment when it looked like the PAP was dusting off its old playbook - going on the verbal offensive, asking WP chief Pritam Singh if he agreed with the views of a writer branded by the PAP as disloyal to Singapore - stopped as suddenly as it had started.

Perhaps the 4G leaders, who understand younger Singaporeans better, know that many voters are put off by such campaigns that make the PAP come across as bullying. To be sure, voters will want to know if any candidate - opposition or PAP - is of questionable character or lacks integrity. But voters can also see through attacks that demonise an opponent's character based on very little.

Instead, opponents have engaged with one another largely civilly when they meet on the campaign trail, during TV debates, in their public statements and when online.

The TV debates were gentlemanly - leading some to consider them tame and dull.

But the substance was anything but, leaving many viewers to wish more time was allocated so speakers could engage more in the cut and thrust of debate.

GE2020 is being described as an unprecedented election for being held in the middle of a global pandemic. It is thus the first election without physical rallies, to reduce the risk of spreading disease. Instead, parties are organising virtual rallies and online dialogues, which have an equalising effect. Door-to-door campaigning goes on, subject to social distancing rules limiting groups to five people and that people have to maintain a safe distance from one another.

What was a setback is also an opportunity - for politics to mature, for elections to be fought on a more equal footing, and for candidates to engage respectfully and treat one another on the campaign trail as equals in battle.

Just how voters will respond to this very virtual election is another question altogether.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2020, with the headline 'New style of election campaign signals maturing of politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe