As PAP meets stronger opposition, will the debate be civil?
By Chua Mui Hoong
The long-awaited Writ of Election issued yesterday puts Nomination Day on April 27. The minimum nine days of campaigning will run from April 27 until May 5. May 6 will be the mandated Cooling-off Day, when no campaigning is permitted.
Singaporeans go to the polls on May 7.
But, in fact, the informal campaigning began weeks ago, with political parties introducing their candidates.
As GE 2011 officially gets under way, a swirl of questions abounds. Just how big a deal is this General Election? What is this General Election about? And what kind of election campaign will this prove to be?
The first two questions have to be taken together. The short answer: This General Election is a big deal.
It is a big deal to the incumbent People's Action Party (PAP), which has staked its leadership renewal on the result, saying it is likely that the next prime minister is among the slate of 24 new candidates it is fielding this time.
The PAP manifesto says this election is about 'securing our future together', as dark clouds gather on the horizon: Political turmoil in the Middle East playing havoc with oil prices, an uncertain recovery in the West and the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan.
The PAP tends to consider every election as critical to Singapore's future - because as the governing party intent on being returned to power, it needs and seeks a mandate from the electorate that gives it the constitutional and moral authority to govern through its five-year term, and allowing it to make decisions for the good of Singaporeans even if these prove unpopular in the short term.
This emphasis on the gravity of elections is principled and correct, and voters must give the election the serious attention and consideration it deserves.
But GE 2011 is a big deal not only for the PAP. It is a big deal for the opposition as well, marking its coming of age in Singapore's young political history.
It is true that many opposition parties are still personality-driven and unable to work together. But there is a leap in quality of candidates, some of whom have academic credentials equalling those of the best PAP candidates. It is not only the Oxbridge and Ivy League credentials of candidates like Chen Show Mao, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Tony Tan Lay Thiam, Hazel Poa, Benjamin Pwee and Jimmy Lee which mark the opposition's maturing.
It is the sheer fact that so many capable people who have made a success of their careers are willing to enter opposition politics. This means their spouses and families, close friends and possibly their employers all have to support their decisions.
Singaporeans above 40 will remember the days when opposition candidates were dismissed as bicycle thieves, mavericks with axes to grind or were deemed to have some deep-seated character flaw. Those careless with their words also risked being sued for defamation; and if they lost, being ruined financially by the resulting damages. That risk remains, but this is clearly no longer a deterrent to many people with so much to lose.
Just as it takes a whole village to raise a child, it takes a whole eco-system of people around one opposition candidate to support his or her entry into politics.
What this tells me is that the barriers to entering opposition politics are falling. A psychological barrier has been breached this General Election, and more good candidates are likely to step forward next time.
Whether good credentials translate into higher votes or more seats for the opposition, however, remain to be seen.
If there is going to be more competition in the political system, it is better for all parties concerned to learn the art of engaging civilly with one another sooner rather than later, and better for them to practise competing for votes in a rational, civilised manner that appeals to voters' better selves, without appealing to emotions or resorting to inducements.
The next question on people's minds is what kind of campaign this will turn out to be. Debates on the finer points of party manifestos are expected. But with the PAP remaining the only party in a position to make policies as it is expected to be returned to power, debate on policy options proposed by the opposition will remain as sideshows to some, entertainment to others, and leave many cold.
What many people are wondering is whether the PAP will continue its trajectory of going for a more gentlemanly campaign style.
The 2006 General Election was the first led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. As political campaigns went, it was notable for its civility and attempts at fairness. As I wrote back then, there was less gerrymandering, less use of the carrot and stick approach towards voters and a less harsh tone in politicking. The only discordant note struck was the attack on opposition candidate James Gomez.
This General Election so far has the same hallmarks of civility, less overt gerrymandering and no explicit use of the estate upgrading carrot. The PAP has also posted its possible line-up of candidates for all constituencies on its website. It reserved the right to make last-minute switches, of course, but even this level of disclosure is unusual for a party known to hold its cards close to its chest and make use of every incumbent advantage possible, including the element of surprise.
One question is whether the PAP will revert to its old strategy of singling out one opposition candidate to attack on his motivation, character or political views. Past targets included Francis Seow in 1988, Jufrie Mahmood in 1991, Tang Liang Hong in 1997 and James Gomez in 2006.
But in the 2006 General Election, the hardball tactics stopped mid-campaign. PM Lee acknowledged that some people thought the attacks on Mr Gomez were 'overkill'. Two days before Polling Day, the PAP decided to 'refocus' the campaign back to issues that mattered.
If that preference prevails, then maybe GE 2011 will be hardball on issues and policies, not on personality.
In the heat of campaigning, as candidates counter each other's viewpoints, it is all too easy to lose track of what really matters. Which is that GE 2011 is truly about Singapore's future. It is about jobs and homes and the cost of living. It is also about the nature of the political system and how political parties engage with each other in a modern democratic system.