What to look out for in next GE

Fight may come down to PAP's strategic vision for a post-LKY Singapore versus WP's tactical manoeuvres

It doesn't seem that long ago that the general election was held and now another one is round the corner. If the 2011 General Election is still fresh in your mind, it's because the political drama that unfolded became hardwired in the collective memory.

The ruling party lost two ministers, and the founding prime minister and his successor left their positions in Government, as did three other ministers, declaring it could not be business as usual.

How not to remember those stunning developments as if they happened yesterday?

But it is also possible to take a less dramatic view of those events.

That they are part of the change that is taking place in Singapore, one that is neither unsettling or unexpected. After all, it's not normal for a country with this level of education and progress to have its politics completely dominated by one party.

And, lest it be forgotten, even though Aljunied was a painful loss for the ruling party, it still scored a landslide victory nationwide, winning 80 out of 87 seats and 60.1 per cent of the votes.

Viewed from this perspective, no one should be surprised if the opposition makes further gains in the coming general election.

But - wait - this is Singapore, the exceptional country that wasn't meant to be, and which defied the odds to become one.

This other narrative says nothing in Singapore is or can be ordinary, and that includes its politics.

So, the coming general election will see the parties battling which of these two interpretations is the more attractive one to voters.

One holds the promise of continuing Singapore's exceptional performance, the other of exciting changes to come from a more competitive political landscape.

Will the actual campaign be fought along these lines? Of course not. Once the hustings get under way, these abstractions will be left by the wayside, replaced by the cut and thrust of the campaigning. This is especially so when the electorate is still coming to terms with the political transition from the old to the new.

There is a latent desire to have more alternative voices and to diminish the ruling party's dominance. But there is also worry what this might lead to and the uncertainties that follow.

The two co-exist often within the same individual, and can lead him to swing from one to the other.

In a compact city like Singapore, that swing can happen quite quickly over the course of the campaigning, which typically lasts nine days. What might make the swing voter go one way or the other - to risk change or go for the safe, dependable status quo?

That's the key question in the coming general election.

The People's Action Party (PAP) is probably betting that what it has done to fix the policies that caused so much unhappiness in 2011 - housing, immigration and transport - should help stem the opposition tide. It also has one big emotional card to play following the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

There was more than a hint of this in what its organising secretary, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, said last week: "For this GE, for the first time, it will be a GE without Mr Lee. No Mr Lee Kuan Yew to tell us what is a better choice, no Mr Lee Kuan Yew to give comments on the choices that we make. This will truly be a general election where Singaporeans have to decide what is a post-LKY Singapore."

Look out then for a PAP campaign centred on the uncertainties a post-LKY Singapore faces and why it is therefore important to choose the right leaders.

With the jubilee year celebrations in full swing sweetened by the goodies being offered - the Pioneer Generation Package tops the list - the Prime Minister must believe this is as good a time as any to go to the people, assuming the polls will be held next month.

Will he be proven right?

But election campaigns seldom play according to even the best prepared script.

Sometimes, it can take just one sharp move by one party to shift the focus of the contest.

It happened in 2011 when the Workers' Party (WP) gambled and moved its leader Low Thia Khiang out of the safety of his Hougang ward and into the PAP-held Aljunied. When it followed up with the unveiling of star candidate Chen Show Mao, unknown at the time but with strong credentials, the momentum swung in its favour.

The WP is adept at these moves which connect at the emotional level. Which was why it made known last week it intended to contest five group representation constituencies and five single-member constituencies. That announcement raised the pre-election temperature a few notches. If it does contest those 28 seats, it will be the largest number of candidates it has ever put forth in recent years, signalling its intention in no uncertain terms, both to the ruling and the other opposition parties.

Look out for more surprises in who the WP fields and where it will deploy them.

PAP's strategic vision for a post-LKY Singapore versus the WP's tactical manoeuvres?

If it does come down to this, both parties will be playing true to form. Which only leaves one big unknown. That is the voter with the ballot slip on Polling Day.

Look out for unpredictable vote swings as politics here evolve towards a new balance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline 'What to look out for in next GE'. Print Edition | Subscribe