Third time's the charm for PM Lee?

Eleven years after taking the helm as PAP's secretary- general and Singapore's prime minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong seems to have come into his own as the star and poster boy for the men and women in white. Solo campaign pictures of a smiling Mr Lee ar
Eleven years after taking the helm as PAP's secretary- general and Singapore's prime minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong seems to have come into his own as the star and poster boy for the men and women in white. Solo campaign pictures of a smiling Mr Lee are plastered across the country like never before.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Lee Hsien Loong has become the poster boy for the PAP. Li Xueying looks at this strategy and whether it will pay off.

The man who in an alternate universe might have been a top research mathematician may well be pondering some numbers now.

In 2006, in his first general election as prime minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong's People's Action Party (PAP) scored 66.6 per cent.

The vote share dropped to 60.1 per cent at his second general election five years later.

What about this general election, his third leading the men and women in white into electoral battle? Third time's the charm, say those who predict that an emotional year - replete with tears for Mr Lee Kuan Yew and cheers for Singapore's Golden Jubilee - will favour the ruling party.

Others, including those managing expectations for the PAP, say that the status quo, or a lower vote/seat share, is more likely.

If the ruling party does do well, a large part of its success can be attributed to the personal appeal of its general. At this midpoint of the campaign, one strategy deployed by the PAP is clear - to bank on PM Lee's popularity and likeability.

Eleven years after taking the helm as the party's secretary-general and the country's prime minister, the 63-year-old seems to have come into his own as the star and poster boy for the men and women in white.

Solo campaign pictures of a genial, smiling PM Lee have appeared across Singapore like never before, prompting one opposition politician to grumble that the posters would prompt voters to vote in a certain way.

Last Thursday, when Mr Lee went to greet commuters at Ang Mo Kio MRT station during the morning rush hour, his presence created such a stir that SMRT staff had to ask Public Transport Security Command officers to help manage the crowd. At one point, as many as 20 people were waiting in line to shake his hand and snap a picture with him. Several asked for his autograph.

Mr Lee has also been deftly working the virtual ground, with regular updates - quips and anecdotes, photographs that he took, policy announcements - on his Facebook page that boasts more than 846,000 followers. He also tweets and posts on Instagram.

With him spearheading the social media charge, the PAP has come a long way from 2006 when younger MPs, those belonging to the generation of post-65ers, tried to connect with Internet-savvy Singaporeans through a blog which they updated - by posting their Parliament speeches.

Among his Cabinet ministers, Mr Lee - the oldest in his team - has grasped and embraced the new politics of personal connection best.


The transformation is also note-worthy for a man whose predecessor had to publicly urge to soften his image.

During his last National Day Rally speech as prime minister in 2003, Mr Goh Chok Tong critiqued his then Deputy Prime Minister's "no-nonsense, uncompromising and tough" public persona.

"I've told Loong that he's got to let his softer side show," said Mr Goh then. Since then, Mr Lee has clearly worked hard to bond with Singaporeans, especially in the past four years. During the 2011 General Election, he apologised for his Government's mistakes and, after the polls, promised that his party would evolve to accommodate more views and participation.

The Government launched Our Singapore Conversation, a platform for Singaporeans of different backgrounds to come together to discuss their vision for the country in the years ahead.

Whether such efforts have satisfied citizens' aspirations to have a say in important decisions is debatable. The forging of a new social compact remains a work in progress.

But PM Lee's personal popularity is such that many Singaporeans - even those critical of the PAP - seem to make a distinction between the party's policies and politics, and the man himself.

Last Tuesday, at a press conference to kick off the PAP's campaign, Mr Lee spoke of the importance of personal bonds in reaching out to young voters.

He said: "Basically, they are looking for a human connection - not abstract policies - a person they can feel they can connect with, they can understand and who understands what they want."

This approach, though, could come at a cost.

Should the PAP perform badly this general election, perhaps losing more seats, would that be seen as a personal repudiation of the prime minister?

Reading the results might not be that simple. Voters look at many issues in deciding how they vote. The fact that the PAP has put PM Lee front and centre of its campaign does not mean voters would weigh up how to vote in a similar fashion.

In 2011, then Foreign Minister George Yeo - despite his personal reputation and standing - fell casualty to Aljunied residents' greater desire to have the more opposition in Parliament. This time round, immigration, cost of living, checks and balances and integrity are emerging as matters that voters are weighing. The desire for more alternative voices and diversity in Parliament also remains strong.

But personality politics has also re-emerged in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era, as something that the PAP needs to consider.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many PAP ministers were more technocrat than politician, at home with policymaking rather than on-the-ground politics.

Now, PAP candidates can no longer rely only on the party's track record of running the country honestly and efficiently to convince voters to support it.

Take its shepherding of the economy. It is accepted political wisdom that the PAP does well when dark clouds loom, such as during the 2001 General Election.

On Friday, Singaporeans are going to the polls with uncertainty in the air, given the stock market turmoil of recent weeks and a slowdown in the Chinese economy.

Yet, as an advantage for the ruling party, it seems to be waning.

People still care about the economy. But there are increasingly diverse views as to the direction it should move.

In the past, it was more straightforward. Key indicators were gross domestic product (GDP) growth, employment rate and wage increase.

The picture is fuzzier now. Is everyone feeling better off? Are some being left behind? Should GDP growth even be the right measure of people's well-being?

With no certain answers, what may make a difference is the person before the voter, and how they connect.

So Mr Lim Swee Say, anchor minister in East Coast GRC, where a close battle between the PAP and the Workers' Party (WP) is shaping up, has spoken of how his team changed its engagement tactics on the ground, quoting American President Theodore Roosevelt: "People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care."

And Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, especially popular among Singapore's chattering classes, invoked his personal brand as he sought to explain why the PAP was pressing home the issue of Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council's entangled finances, a line of attack that sits uncomfortably with some.

"I think you know me. You know my personality, you know my views. You know that I've never been against the idea of an opposition in Singapore. People know," he said. "So when I speak about an issue, it is because I'm really worried. It is not because I'm trying to put an opposition down or the WP down."

In a speech announcing the PAP manifesto, PM Lee also scattered his stardust as he named various ministers who helmed imporant portfolios.

Will all this be enough to swing things in favour of the PM and his team? We'll know by next Saturday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2015, with the headline 'Third time's the charm for PM Lee?'. Print Edition | Subscribe