By Nicholas Fang
13 July, 2020
As the dust settles on Singapore’s 13th General Election, the time is ripe for some soul searching, not only by political parties as they evaluate the outcome of a bruising campaign, but also by the electorate.
The nine days of campaigning and the preceding months of posturing and positioning by the various parties have thrown up some interesting lessons which could be useful for politicians, particularly those from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), in light of the electoral results.
Holding an election during a global pandemic was inherently challenging.
But there was a range of factors that could have contributed to the reduced level of support for PAP, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noting that its vote share of 61.2 per cent was a “clear mandate” but lower than what he had hoped for.
Covid-19 was certainly a key factor because of the threat it posed to health and jobs. It also posed logistical challenges for polling.
Extra procedures were implemented to protect the health of voters, leading to longer queues on Polling Day and unhappiness among some of those affected, and an unprecedented extension of voting time.
The virus outbreak also meant that more campaign activities were shifted online and on to broadcast media, removing the traditional physical rallies and reducing the intensity and volume of door-to-door campaigning.
This favoured parties such as the Workers’ Party (WP), which had superior social media strategies and content development capabilities to churn out emotive videos, political memes and infographics that conveyed their messages in a steady stream direct to their target audiences.
The Progress Singapore Party and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) also caught the attention of Singaporeans, whether via the personalities they presented, or through their tactical focus on certain issues or constituencies.
All in, this meant that the PAP faced stronger challenges than in 2015 on numerous fronts.
That being said, it was still surprising to some observers that the level of support for the party and incumbent government had slipped to almost 2011 levels, off the back of the SG50 bump in 2015.
[LKY can only die once? We have to wait another 50 years for SG100? Or at least 25 years to SG75? 75 not "milestone" enough?]
In the aftermath of the results, PAP’s Mr K Shanmugam noted that voters have sent “clear messages” and it would be wrong for the party not to understand these messages. He did not elaborate.
What could these messages be and how would the PAP respond?
BRAND OF POLITICS
In the lead-up to Polling Day, there were indications that PAP would stick to certain tactics from its playbook which have been part of its strategy in previous elections.
There was the letter by Dr Tan Wu Meng questioning WP chief Pritam Singh’s support for playwright Alfian Sa’at, the focus on SDP’s use of “falsehoods” during the campaign period, and the ruling party’s seemingly hamfisted statements, which included analogies of spouse abuse, and one calling on the WP to make clear its position on candidate Raeesah Khan’s earlier comments on social media.
While based on certain fundamental party principles, these actions seemed to draw the ire of some segments of the population.
There was criticism of so-called “gutter” politics, tit-for-tat retaliations, personal attacks and the use of legislation such as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act in what were perceived to be attempts to stifle criticism of the establishment.
Whether justified or not, the criticism seemed to reflect sentiments from certain quarters, especially younger voters, that such a style of politics was not appreciated.
The WP’s win in the new Sengkang Group Representation Constituency with Ms Khan on a slate of relatively young candidates up against a PAP team with three political office holders seems to show that voters were willing to back up their criticism with actual votes.
[Or there were other reasons.]
In comparison, some of the other parties have chosen not to engage aggressively at every opportunity, giving the impression of dignity and staying above the fray.
Going forward, with a leadership transition to the fourth-generation team, could the PAP change its playbook to counter this perception of heavy-handedness?
The recent elections also showed that, from a public relations perspective, the PAP could benefit from a clearer communications strategy to ensure it is not on the back foot when it comes to getting its messages and narratives to its target audience.
For example, the Ivan Lim debacle represented numerous missed opportunities to clarify its position on supporting its candidates and on its core values as represented by its selection criteria. Instead, what was presented were mixed messages from its office holders, and a hasty retreat by Mr Lim even before Nomination Day.
The party seemed to lack a coherent communications plan that also provided for crisis management, which is an essential element of any sound strategy to enable quick and effective responses to any challenges that arise.
At the same time, the best communications are those that are predicated on truth and authenticity. In this internet age, it’s not hard for one’s words to be reasonably measured against one’s past deeds.
WHAT NEXT FOR SINGAPORE POLITICS
The results of the 2020 elections have raised some questions about the future of politics in the country.
The incumbent PAP and the Opposition face an increasingly complex and complicated local and international environment.
Incidentally, PM Lee’s move to recognise Mr Singh as the official leader of the Opposition is significant as it signals a desire on the part of the ruling party to provide the Opposition with resources and support to do its job, in essence to build a stronger and better opposition.
While seemingly counterintuitive from a party seeking to improve its standing compared to its opponents, it is the right thing to do in the interests of the country and its people, who will benefit from a better quality of opposition.
This move is deeply welcome at a time when there is a need for a united front to deal with the challenges ahead, for the good of the country and not political expediency, as the longer-term ability of Singapore to survive and thrive is under threat.
That being said, we are also seeing some trends in society that could impact the political landscape in years to come.
Younger voters have a different focus, and while bread-and-butter issues will never disappear from the list of priorities, there may be a need for political parties to engage this demographic with language that they understand, on topics that they are interested in, and on the platforms where they engage.
Beyond engagement, the ruling party may have to think deeply about how to win back both the hearts and minds of voters, if it does not accept a downward trend in its popularity and the loss of more constituencies as an inevitable future trend.
The rejection of some of the more “old-school” tactics may go some way to winning over an electorate that seems more enamoured with ideals such as fair play, and politics conducted with graciousness and respect.
This may sound naïve and idealistic when compared with the way politics is conducted in many countries around the world, but Singapore has often prided itself on being exceptional. This might be another area we should strive to be so as well.
Indeed, if politics in Singapore can have a unifying effect, this would be very beneficial to a small country which can be rapidly and severely impacted by social division and unrest.
While only occurring once every five years or so, elections are an occasion to explore diverse views, have a conversation involving different perspectives and insights, and to remind ourselves of the fact that our society is not completely homogenous, and that there is a need for understanding and empathy if we are to get along and progress together.
This goal cannot be achieved by political leaders alone — citizens need to recognise that we can and should demand the best out of our politics and politicians.
This can be done through regular discourse and debate in the intervening years between elections, and through our vote in elections themselves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nicholas Fang is a former journalist and Nominated Member of Parliament. He is currently managing director of Black Dot, a strategic communications consultancy, and Black Dot Research, a market and social research agency.
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