Sunday, February 3, 2013

Parties fight to be 'on your side'

Feb 03, 2013
Sunday with Warren Fernandez Editor

Voters will judge who they most trust to speak for them and realise their dreams

By Warren Fernandez Editor

Stunning. Shocking. A tipping point. And even the beginning of the end of the ruling party.

Such sweeping conclusions flowed freely after the larger- than-expected swing to the Workers' Party (WP) in the Punggol East by-election last Saturday.

Even WP chief Low Thia Khiang seemed taken aback and moved quickly to dial down expectations. Sounding sober and sensible, he pronounced that the Government was "competent" and needed time to show results - hardly the kind of statement you might expect from an opposition chief fresh from a big election victory.

Now that we have had a week for the heat of the hustings to cool, allow me to offer five thoughts on the by-election and what it might mean for politics going forward.

- The writing was on the wall for the PAP. After all, one of its MPs, whom it had elevated to the high office of Speaker, had made an ignominious exit. After years of holding itself to a higher standard of virtue and integrity - and trumpeting this somewhat too loudly and too often - the People's Action Party (PAP) found itself in an invidious position, with one of its political stars falling from the firmament.

Under the circumstances, the party should have expected a drubbing when it faced voters at the polls.

After all, little else was at stake in a by-election. And the ward had been won with just 54.5 per cent of the vote in 2011, which could be overturned given the small size of the constituency.

Despite these drawbacks, some in the PAP camp took heart from the fact that the WP had not suffered much of a setback when its man in Hougang had also resigned under similar circumstances. The parallel, however, was a weak one, since Hougang is a WP stronghold and its voters fiercely loyal to Mr Low.

A four-cornered fight also lulled the PAP camp into believing that the opposition vote might be split, giving them an edge. This gave rise to what one PAP activist called a "hopeful bias" in the party's reading of ground sentiments. It led them to conclude that the seat could be won, albeit narrowly. This set the party up for a fall. It points to the critical importance of political players keeping it real when they go into an electoral battle.

- There's no winning without a fight.
During the hustings, the PAP's new face chose to go it alone. Even when the leader of his party, the Prime Minister no less, turned up to show his support, Dr Koh Poh Koon decided to campaign on his own, in what seemed like a strange way to demonstrate his independence.

It contrasted starkly with the WP's show of unity and force, with its full slate of MPs and NCMPs working the ground and pounding on doors.

No doubt, the PAP strategists were seeking to avoid mistakes of the past, when senior leaders joined the campaign but ended up riling voters with off-the-cuff remarks. Voters have also been put off by heavy-handed campaigning.

Yet, no political party can hope to win if it goes into battle in such a hold-your-firepower fashion, shying away from deploying its big guns to greatest effect.

At election time, voters want to be wooed. They want to see candidates taking them seriously, and slogging to make their best pitch for their ballots.

- Politics may be local, but all elections are national. Another misleading sideshow was the vacuous debate over whether the contest was about local or national issues. Every election is about both. Given Singapore's small size, national issues often have a local impact.

Indeed, most residents reporters spoke to revealed that their top concern was a national - and perennial - issue, namely the high cost of living, including for housing, transport and health care.

These worries played out locally, with residents unhappy about the shortage, and cost, of childcare, as well as hawker and market fare, all of which stemmed from national policies to allocate such amenities. This sets the framework within which the local MP, whatever his party, has to operate and do his best.

Against this backdrop, the charge by the WP chief that the PAP had lost its way and no longer cared about the concerns of Singaporeans struck a chord.

His solution: send more opposition MPs to Parliament to make the PAP pay attention and "work harder". In a by-election, with little to lose, that must have seemed like a no-brainer to many.

- Voters want "someone like me". Mr Low's broadside called for an answer. Recognising this, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spent much of his rally speech the following night seeking to assure Singaporeans that the PAP under his charge had not changed, and that his party has always been "on the side of Singaporeans". This made a difference, or the swing to the WP might well have been larger.

Voters plumped for the WP's "daughter of Punggol" Lee Li Lian instead of the PAP's "son of Punggol made good" because she connected better, and seemed to be more "on their side". While Dr Koh had impressive credentials and was touted as a future political office holder, voters were not swayed. When it came to picking their MP, they preferred "someone like me". Parties will have to take note of this and find candidates who can pull in the votes.

[PAP should have known better. Chiam See Tong was contesting Mah Bow Tan for Potong Pasir, wen Lee Kuan Yew, spoke up for Mah, extolling Mah's straight-A results, scholarship and university qualification, and deriding Chiam's attainment of his law degree at age 40. Voters chose Chiam because Chiam was every man. Mah was an elite which by definition, few could identify with. This "Someone like me" lesson is taking a long time to be learnt.]

- Politics constrains policies. The past weeks make clear that, as a society, we now seem to be in a curious place politically. Most people - including the WP's Mr Low, if you take what he says at face value - still want the PAP in power for now, since an abrupt change in government could put Singapore's hard-won prosperity at risk.

But many are clearly angry with the ruling party, because they feel it has taken them for granted. They want it to do more - or "work harder" - to deliver on its promise of giving Singaporeans good, affordable, reliable and ever-improving public services, from housing to transport and health care.

That's quite a tall order, not least since many voters want First World standards, but at Third World prices. But, like it or not, political players will have to accept that years of success have raised expectations.

Truth be told, though, the PAP's challenge runs deeper. The party has long stood for social equality for people of all races and backgrounds. In its own mind, it is the party that fought for meritocracy, independence from foreign control, and rallied the people to build today's Singapore so that they would be beholden to no one.

Yet, ironically, it has allowed itself to become cast as aloof and elitist, disconnected from the average man's concerns. It has its work cut out to shake off this pernicious perception.

No doubt, PAP leaders will prefer to focus on getting policies right and delivering results. They are right to do so. But, alas, their ability to do that will also depend in no small part on the political battle shaping up between their party and the WP.

This contest turns on three key questions: Who speaks for the common man in Singapore? Who can best give voice to his hopes and desires? And, who will he trust most to help realise those dreams?

Whoever wins that battle, wins it all.

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