Monday, February 4, 2013

S'pore the real winner in Punggol East by-election

Feb 03, 2013

By Han Fook Kwang Managing Editor

The Punggol East by-election result was a vote for a smooth and stable transition towards greater multi- party democracy in Singapore.

There, I've said it, and the sky didn't fall on me.

But seriously, while quite a great deal has been said about what the result means for the various political parties, not enough is being said about what it means for the country.

So let me count the reasons it was good for Singapore.

First, for those who believe that it is inevitable that politics here will become more competitive and pluralistic, the hope must be that the journey will be a smooth one.

This is new territory for the country and there is no guarantee that it will not be difficult, even unstable and disruptive. Political battles can turn ugly, the wrong people may be elected, and confidence in the country's future seriously damaged.

The early signs though have been encouraging.

This by-election was conducted in as civilised a manner as could be expected in any democracy and the campaigns by the various parties were devoid of the nastiness that often happens elsewhere and sometimes here as well.

Score one for a civil transition.

Second, for those who worry that the political contests will become too divisive for the country's good, Punggol East should provide some comfort.

The victorious Workers' Party (WP) has shown from both its performance the last two years following the 2011 General Election and this by-election that it isn't a party out to upend the status quo.

In fact, the criticism from some quarters is that it has been too nice to the People's Action Party (PAP), with critics lambasting it for not being assertive enough during parliamentary debates, and some even characterising it as PAP-lite.

And what did its secretary-general Low Thia Khiang say the day after its stunning victory?

He cautioned against reading too much into the large swing against the ruling party, adding that his party wasn't ready to form the next government.

"I think we have a competent Government... we need to allow time for the Government to work and I hope, eventually, the policies will take effect on the ground, people's lives will be improved and we have a better Singapore."

Gracious words indeed, though there have been many interpretations of why he made those comments. But they didn't sound like the words of someone who wanted to rub salt into the PAP's wounds.

Of course, Mr Low is a wily politician, and it may be the case that he believes taking this moderate position will yield greater political capital for the party come the next election.

But taking his remarks at face value, his position augurs well for the future if indeed the WP becomes the other party in an eventual two-party system.

In a small city-state like Singapore with no great variations across the country, the two main contending parties vying for the votes of the middle ground are unlikely to differ very much in policies and approach unless they have very different views about what will appeal to voters.

There is hence greater likelihood for the positions of the PAP and the WP to converge rather than diverge wildly on the major issues.

Score two then for a non-divisive transition?

One caveat though - these are early days yet in the WP's ascendancy and while it may seem gracious in victory now, there's no telling how it will change as the political competition intensifies and its numbers grow. It may yet become a different party in due course.

Also, at some point in this transition, the WP must offer itself as an alternative government with a complete set of policies to rival the PAP's. It cannot keep saying it's not ready. Then we might see its true colours.

Third, the hiding that the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance received from voters, managing less than 2 per cent of the votes between them, shows how mature and discerning the electorate is.

They did not waste their votes on these two because they could tell that neither the parties nor their candidates were worthy and up to the competition.

This is one of the best signs for Singapore's transition towards a more pluralistic democracy.

A sophisticated and demanding electorate lessens the risk of it being taken in by smooth-talking politicians with empty promises and who can lead the country to ruin.

There are too many examples elsewhere of this happening to gullible voters for Singaporeans to be smug that it will not happen here.

Punggol East residents showed how seriously they took their votes.

Score three for a maturing electorate which will help ensure a successful transition.

Fourth, a large part of how this transition will turn out depends on how the PAP responds to the setbacks it suffers.

Punggol East was another wake-up call for the ruling party that it needs to make significant changes to hold the political ground against a rising tide of opposition support.

It said it would after GE 2011, but the changes may not have been far-reaching enough.

To be fair, this won't be easy for the PAP, not when it has been in power for 50 years and developed the instincts and habits that go with being so dominant for so long.

To expect it to change quickly and to produce the accompanying results is unrealistic.

I was glad, therefore, to hear Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong say on Monday that one major area the party needs to relook is the type of candidates it fields for elections.

This is a critical area of change for the PAP, more important I believe than any change to policy.

Get the right people in its leadership and the right policies will follow.

If Punggol East results in the PAP undertaking a fundamental rethink of the people it inducts, both to serve as MPs and in the Cabinet, it would be a positive development for Singapore.

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