Monday, August 24, 2015

5Cs of looming GE

C for clash / C for consensus / C for countdown / C for coffee shops / C for candidates

The general election looks to be mere weeks away, and that would make today around the midpoint of the poll season. In B2, Insight highlights 5 concerns that could shape the campaign.

Aug 23, 2015,

Election fever is running hot, and it is easy to lose track of developments at what could well turn out to be the midpoint of the election season.

This halfway juncture is assuming that speculation about an early-to-mid-September poll day is correct and based on the kick-off point being July 24. That was when the report of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee was released.

Candidate introductions have come thick and fast, not to mention the point-scoring that goes with the territory - recall the comments from the Workers' Party on the shock announcement by Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew that he is leaving politics, and how the PAP retorted they were "crocodile tears".

Then, there has been the ebb and flow, and flow and ebb, of opposition party agreements on staking claims on constituencies to avoid vote-splitting three-corner fights.

So to save a lot of head-scratching, Insight has recapped electoral developments so far that Singaporeans need to know. As there have been so many, we have crunched them into Five Big Concerns (with a nod to the old joke about Singaporeans' five obsessions of car, cash, credit card, condominium and country club membership).

Times have changed, and so have the Cs. Today, as the nation gears up to vote for its future in the landmark SG50 year, the election 5Cs are shaping up as the Clash between the ruling PAP and the onward-marching WP. For example, what part does the latter's saga over troubled town council finances play on the political agenda now?

Then there is the much-vaunted opposition Consensus - what's happening now? And there are the new Candidates, of course. Insight looks at a new theme emerging there.

We also look at the Countdown to what might be a likely date, and fifth, we update you on the all-important election-mood barometer - the talk at the coffee shop.

Countdown: When's the election?

Sept 12, 2015 remains the hot date for the polls.

With Parliament usually dissolved within two months of the release of the boundaries report in past elections, observers expect the custom to hold.

Sept 12 remains the hot date for the polls - Seventh Month celebrations notwithstanding. This is the last Saturday of the week-long school holidays, and schools are typically used as polling stations.

School examinations rule out October and early November as windows for an election, and late November will be packed with global summits involving Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other ministers.

Another popular date, Sept 5, is no longer viable as Parliament should have been dissolved last Wednesday for that to be the case.

The stage looks set: changes to the electoral boundaries were announced late last month, National Day is over, and PAP organising secretary Ng Eng Hen has gone on to declare "we are in election season".

The Elections Department on Thursday announced several changes to election regulation, including the printing of candidates' photos on the ballot slip. This sorting out of the "nitty-gritty", observers say, sends the strongest signal yet that elections will come soon.

The ruling party, observers point out, stands to benefit from calling the elections - which must be held by January 2017 - sooner rather than later. With the swell of national pride after National Day, and outpouring of grief over the death of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who would have turned 92 on Sept 16, the ground looks sweeter than ever for the PAP, whose vote share took a tumble in the last polls.

Political science professor Bilveer Singh from the National University of Singapore believes it makes no sense for the PAP to hold off when a September election is "a very good window to go to the polls and win big".

"Any delay will eventually hurt the ruling part as the opposition would be more prepared, and public goodwill will start to dissolve," he says.

[But, taking advantage of the goodwill of National Day and Golden Jubilee may be seen as unfair and from this opinion piece:
Singaporeans have come to better differentiate party, government, and state. Yes, the PAP government has led Singapore since 1959 when she attained self-government.
However, affection for the country and pride in her reaching a significant milestone in her history are not necessarily going to result in votes for the PAP.
As for the Lee Kuan Yew effect:
The massive unprecedented outpouring of grief for founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew will also not necessarily lead to voters casting ballots for the ruling party without thinking. With his death, Mr Lee has risen above partisan politics. He no longer belongs exclusively to the PAP...
The late Mr Lee is now a national hero — he belongs to every Singaporean. As such, any blatant attempt to exclusively claim Mr Lee for the PAP’s sole benefit will probably provoke a backlash at the ballot boxes, 
The "advantage" to the PAP of leveraging on the national celebratory mood of SG50 and the LKY effect is so obvious, that any and all voters will likely see through or impute such intent that the advantage will become a disadvantage. 

Then again, maybe voters on average are that dense.]

Clash: PAP v WP on what election's about 

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh

One major C is the clash over what GE 2015 is about, as the two major parties in Singapore's political scene - the People's Action Party (PAP) and the Workers' Party (WP) - vie to set the election agenda.

The ruling PAP has sought to put town council management front and centre, insisting the election is about putting in place the right leaders to take Singapore forward.

The WP is on the defensive on its town council record, but comes out fighting on another tack - its call to voters to elect more opposition to ensure a more responsive government, and checks and balances.

That town council issue is, of course, the Aljunied-Hougang- Punggol East Town Council's (AHPETC) troubled finances. The Auditor-General has found serious lapses in the financial statements of the WP-run town council.

For the PAP, it is the gift that keeps on giving. Its MPs repeatedly throw up the AHPETC saga as a sign of the WP's shortcomings and its lack of transparency and accountability.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong spoke of "Third World town councils in opposition wards", while Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the PAP's focus in Aljunied GRC for this election is to "go in and sort out the mess that's in the town council".

The WP stressed that improvements have been made, and took aim at lapses in financial compliance by the People's Association and its grassroots organisations.

But Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam insisted in Parliament last Monday that while the accounts of all government departments are reliable and public funds accounted for, AHPETC's finances are in a sorry state, arising from failings on the part of the WP. "There's no remotely similar problem in government," he said.

The town council argument has presented two opposing views to the people, says Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute senior fellow Terence Chong. "The first is that the WP has mishandled the town council and should be booted out, full stop," he says. "The other is that the WP faced a system and climate that made it difficult for them to run the town council smoothly."

[There are two neighbouring farms far from the nearest town. The road to the farms was a dirt road, uneven, full of holes and puddles. One of the farm owner approach the other about paving the road. The other farm owner declined as his farm was not operational. So the first farm owner went about paving a new road at his own expense, parallel to the dirt road but on his land as without the cooperation of the other, he could not improve the common road.

A few years later the other farm owner re-started operations on his farm and found the dirt road inadequate. He asked to use the first farm-owner's road.

Should the first farm-owner allow it?]

The PAP's AHPETC strategy may pay off, as it has stressed time and again that an MP has to be able to serve residents in their estate, say observers.

This comes into play in the party's claim that the polls are about picking a leadership team for the future. "It's not about how many opposition members there will be," says Mr Teo. "The Constitution guarantees there will be at least nine opposition members in Parliament. So the key issue at hand is that team for the future."

WP chairman Sylvia Lim has rebutted Mr Teo's statement: "It's up to Singaporeans to decide, whether they are satisfied with constitutionally guaranteed NCMPs (Non-Constituency MPs), or whether they would like to have elected MPs governing their constituencies."

Another issue rearing its head is transport, which came under the spotlight with the shock announcement by its minister, Mr Lui Tuck Yew, that he is leaving politics. Commuters have fumed over train breakdowns. Last year, there were 12 MRT delays lasting over 30 minutes - a four-year high. In the first half of this year, there were seven.

But any election-season agenda-setting has been mired in point-scoring rather than the issue of train breakdowns. WP chief Low Thia Khiang said he was disappointed that Mr Lui was stepping down, as he had done a good job.

[So here's an interesting scenario: What if Lui Wong Kan Seng, Mah Bow Tan and Raymond Lim contests in Aljunied? Lui can say, "vote for me. Even Low Thia Khiang says I did a good job!"]

On the view that Mr Lui's departure would take the heat off transport and help the PAP, Mr Low said he would "be very disappointed with the PAP if they allow a minister to resign in order to take the heat, because they are supposed to function as a Cabinet, as a team".

But the PAP's Mr Teo called it characteristic of Mr Low to "squeeze the most political mileage out of anything".

Consensus: A united opposition plan unravels

It looked too hunky-dory to be true. And so it proved.

The opposition, comprising a disparate mix of election success and failure, not to mention ideologies and personalities, looked to have reached a historic consensus on avoiding three-cornered fights.

Such fights tend to split the vote, tipping the scales in favour of the People's Action Party (PAP), so opposition parties usually try to come to an agreement on overlapping claims on constituencies.

This time around, after two pow-wows, and some to-ing and fro-ing, it seemed like "opposition unity" had finally been achieved, with nine opposition parties likely to contest in the polls in straight fights against the PAP.

Now, this has fallen into disarray. The National Solidarity Party (NSP) has gone back on its decision to leave MacPherson SMC to the Workers' Party (WP), just a week after announcing its decision to relinquish its claim.

It later said on Facebook that calls, e-mail and WhatsApp messages to the WP to sort out their conflicting claims went unanswered: "There is no respect for fellow comrades in the cause."

The NSP's about-turn has led to the resignation of its acting secretary-general Hazel Poa, showing further cracks within the party, which has this year seen a flurry of departures. She said she "strongly disagreed" with the party going back on its initial decision to bow out of MacPherson.

This is the first "resolved" claim that has disintegrated so far, but could more lie ahead? 

[Note: On the day this was published, Steve Chia changed his mind about contesting in MacPherson and so it is back to a straight fight between PAP and WP. Pity. I wanted to see how NSP stacks up against WP. Or if they have disintegrated into the same level as all the other opposition parties.]

Over in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, there is consensus now, with the Singapore People's Party (SPP) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) planning to send a joint team in to face the PAP.

But just how long the strange bedfellows will stay together is uncertain. Already, there is talk that both parties are each still hoping to secure a larger share of the five-man team, and although they both claim to be cooperating well now, their shared history is murky.

The DPP's secretary-general is Mr Benjamin Pwee, who in 2011 stood on an SPP ticket but lost in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. He quit the party a year later, citing differences over the leadership style and direction.

For political scientist Derek da Cunha, the NSP's U-turn in MacPherson hammers home the point that "there is no such thing as 'opposition unity'". "I have never felt that it was a realistic notion, given the vast difference in capabilities and resources across the various parties," he says.

"The WP is the only full-fledged opposition political party. I would use the term 'political party' very loosely for the other entities that project themselves to be in opposition to the PAP."

This is not the NSP's take. A statement by the party says: "This decision made by the central executive committee is final, and reflects our view that maintaining opposition unity requires mutual respect and a spirit of compromise on the part of all parties."

As for the WP - the only opposition party with elected MPs in Parliament - it seems to care less for claims of opposition unity, say observers.

Right after the changes to the electoral map were announced, the WP announced that it would stand in five group representation and five single-member constituencies. And it has stood its ground, refusing to back down on any of its claims on these constituencies.

This is no surprise, observers say, as the WP still remains the most viable and tested opposition party here in the eyes of voters.

Dr da Cunha tells Insight that Singapore might well be headed in the longer term for a consolidated two-party parliamentary system between the PAP and the WP.

"There is a strong possibility that the general election would likely confirm this two-party parliamentary system," he says.

[That we will head towards a two-party system is almost inevitable. But whether it is two equal parties is less clear. It may be that WP will be a satellite to PAP, providing a faux alternative, winning more seats when the PAP does badly, and fewer when the PAP does well. BUT the WP candidates will not stand for being shadow cabinets (if at all) forever.WP cannot stay as co-drivers, they must move forward and that means making a serious bid to take over the government. And that is at least 10 years down the road. 

This coming GE, they are contesting for 28 seats. If they take all 28 seats, they would still not be able to block even a constitutional amendment. So the GE after that, maybe they take 40 seats. Now they can block constitutional amendments, but not simple bills. So 2 GEs later, maybe they will try for 45 or more seats to take control of Parliament and gain the right to rule. 

But the above is predicated on a straight line progression from their current 7 seats to 28 seats to 40 seats and then to parliamentary majority. It is unlikely that they will win all 28 seats. I fear they may simply hold onto their 7 seats. The pendulum having swung, swings back.]

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