Today is Cooling Off Day, after a memorable eight days of election rallies.
As prescribed by the Elections Department, this 24-hour period is to allow voters time to consider the issues raised at the General Election in an objective and rational manner before heading to the polls. Implemented at the last General Election in 2011, the constant refrain of the Government is that it is critical for the electorate to ‘vote wisely’.
But what does ‘voting wisely’ really mean? Is there only one way to ‘vote wisely’? And if so, what way is this?
To answer these questions, let us turn to the annals of history as The Thought Experiment is wont to do. As mentioned in our previous article, it was established that only a Government with a strong mandate from the people could have brought Singapore to where it is today. However, it was also shown that the People ‘s Action Party’s (PAP’s) share of the votes had declined considerably over the past decade, from 75.3% in 2001 to 60.1% in 2011.
With these facts and figures in mind, it comes as no surprise that Singaporeans are constantly being exhorted to ‘vote wisely’. For the PAP, this undoubtedly means voting for them to continue as Singapore’s Government. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the PAP’s lunchtime rally at UOB Plaza on September 8, Singapore is ‘finished’ if the Workers’ Party (WP) ever becomes the Government. The WP is currently Singapore’s largest Opposition political party.
Such statements made by PAP candidates are not uncommon. Even as early as Nomination Day on September 1, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan – the current Environment and Water Resources Minister – lambasted the fiscal policies put forth by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), stating that it would ‘set Singapore on the road to Greece’. The SDP is the Opposition party contesting in the Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency (GRC). Dr. Vivian is defending the ward from the SDP for this current General Election.
It is important not only to consider the surface meaning of these statements, but also the underlying core ideology from which such statements arise. And that is this: the PAP is currently the only party with a proven track record of running the Government successfully. Ergo, the PAP and not the Opposition knows what is best for Singapore. It therefore follows that a wise voter should recognize this and vote for the PAP.
The PAP is not wrong to have such a core ideology. Their track record and the success of Singapore are incontrovertible facts. Compared to the PAP in this regard, the Opposition has relatively little to show for its efforts. We must therefore conclude at this stage of the reasoning process that a voter who votes for the PAP is indeed, ‘voting wisely’.
However, this begs the question: Is a voter who does not vote for the PAP voting unwisely?
To answer this pertinent question, we must bring to light the second core ideology which incites PAP candidates to adopt such an attitude to the Opposition. This core ideology is one that was started by the PAP’s (and Singapore’s) greatest leader, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. While Mr. Lee Kuan Yew passed away earlier this year, it is not an overstatement to say that the successful Singapore of today is the legacy he left behind to all Singaporeans. This core ideology can be clearly seen in several quotes he made throughout his life, of which two compelling examples are reproduced here:
They say people can think for themselves? Do you honestly believe that the chap who can’t pass primary six knows the consequence of his choice when he answers a question viscerally, on language, culture and religion? But we knew the consequences. We would starve, we would have race riots. We would disintegrate.– Lee Kuan Yew, The Man & His Ideas, 1997
“They say, oh, let’s have multiparty politics. Let’s have different parties change and be in charge of the Government. Is it that simple? You vote in a Division Three government, not a Division One government, and the whole economy will just subside within three, four years. Finished.”
– Lee Kuan Yew, Today, Aug 15 2008
Do you detect some similarities with the Prime Minister’s speech?
While few PAP politicians other than Mr. Lee Kuan Yew have dared to make statements of similar strength, this second ideology can clearly be seen from the actions and statements of today’s PAP candidates. It is this ideology that made Lawrence Wong – the current Minister of Culture, Community and Youth – feel it was ‘his duty to highlight to Singaporeans’ in a national televised forum that Dr. Chee Soon Juan, the Secretary-General of the SDP had been charged for lying, misleading the public and being held in contempt of Parliament in 1996 for making a written submission to a Select Committee in Parliament based on false data. It is this ideology that has led to measures like the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system and Cooling Off Day.
And the second ideology is this: It is the Government and not the people which knows what is best for Singapore. Therefore, certain measures must be implemented to ensure that the Government continues to have a strong mandate and ability to run Singapore. Where such measures fail, pains must be taken to ensure that the results of elections do not derail the vision the Government has in place for Singapore’s future.
As for who is the Government, I’ll let a third quote from Mr. Lee Kuan Yew do the talking:
“I make no apologies that the PAP is the Government and the Government is the PAP.”
– Lee Kuan Yew, Petir, 1982
As you may already have guessed, the two ideologies of the PAP are really one and the same: The PAP knows what is best for Singapore. Not the Opposition, and not the people.
This was the state of Singapore’s politics before 2011. Subconsciously, Singaporeans integrated the constantly advocated message that the Government knew what was best for Singapore. For many Singaporeans, the General Elections were basically a rubber stamp exercise to ensure that the best people to run the Government and Singapore – the PAP – remained in office to continue their good work.
But what about Singaporeans who felt otherwise? Singaporeans who felt that they had fallen through the cracks of the supposedly ‘best’ policies crafted and implemented by the PAP? They saw the GRC system and understood that it formed a considerable barrier to the Opposition, while allowing the PAP to easily push new blood into Parliament as they rode on the coattails of established anchor ministers. They saw how PAP wards received critical HDB upgrading works way ahead of their Opposition-held counterparts. They saw Opposition politicians being sued by PAP leaders into bankruptcy. They saw no separation of powers between the Executive and Legislative branches of the Government. And they were afraid to vote according to their personal beliefs – the belief that their votes could effect change. Changes in the political situation of Singapore. Changes in the way decisions were made that affected all Singaporeans.
Enter the General Elections of 2011 (Does this sound familiar?). All of a sudden, the PAP found itself beset on all sides as Opposition parties fought them not only in the long-held Opposition wards of Hougang and Potong Pasir Single Member Constituencies (SMCs), but in all the SMCs and GRCs save one. With the advent of social media, viewpoints and opinions alternative to the PAP’s were shared at lightning speed (pun intended), spreading like wildfire across the nation.
Like a bear coming out of hibernation after a cold hard winter, the electorate found itself politically awakened. Hot button issues like immigration and rising costs of living stoked the voters’ emotions. After having gone without the meat offered by a lively General Election for so long, the electorate was hungry. On the morning of 8 May 2011, for the first time in Singapore’s political history – a GRC fell out of the PAP’s grasp and became an Opposition ward.
What was the most powerful message delivered to voters that day? It was the vindication of those who believed that their vote mattered. It was a testament to upholding the ideals of democracy. And it was a sign to the PAP that the times had changed. The only question is, was it for better or worse?
The PAP would like nothing more than to return to a Parliament filled solely with its party members. It has, to its credit, instituted the Nominated MP (NMP) scheme and the Non-Constitutency MP (NCMP) scheme in an effort to have a more diverse Parliament. However, the NCMP scheme can be misconstrued as yet another subtle message to the voters that it is still the PAP that knows best, and not the electorate. It is clear, however, that voters are not satisfied with the NCMP scheme – they want a true Opposition in Parliament – an Opposition that wins their seats in a fair contest with PAP candidates.
Bearing all that has been said above in mind, I return finally to the initial question posed at the beginning of this article: Is a voter who votes against the PAP voting unwisely?
The answer is simple: It depends. The General Election of 2011 rekindled in every voter a sense of the power he or she wields – the ability to topple Goliaths and raise up Davids with a simple cross on a piece of paper. And not only that – people realised that the votes carry a unique language all their own – the ability to communicate what issues were important to them, and which candidate or party had earned their trust. Seen in this sense, the power of a vote is phenomenal. A voter who willingly abuses this power is voting unwisely. And this holds whether or not the voter votes for the PAP.
It is clear from government policy and the comments made by PAP politicians that the PAP believes voters are not capable of voting wisely if they are not given a push (some may say herded) in the right direction. These pushes, as we have shown, come in all forms, from bringing the dark histories of Opposition politicians to light during the election season to implementing a GRC system that allows 81 out of 87 Parliamentary seats to be won with only a 60.1% share of the vote. In its reasoning, the PAP points to other countries whose politics have become gridlocked without a clear majority by any one political party, and believes that such a system is unworkable for a small and vulnerable country such as Singapore.
It is indeed true that a One Party System that works best for Singapore, and not multiparty politics. However, more trust should be placed in the electorate of today to vote wisely in the interests of Singapore. Singaporeans are more educated, more well-informed, and more aware of their rights as citizens. The Government may still know what is best for Singapore, but it does not mean that the electorate does not know how to look after its own interests.
Here are some of the ways The Thought Experiment feels the ruling party can do to carry Singapore’s politics forward, not backward:
- Fearmongering: There is no need to instill unnecessary fear in today’s voters by charging that Opposition parties wish to eventually run the Government or pursue political office for their own ends. There is nothing wrong with this – the PAP itself started out as an Opposition party and went on to run the Government when it had convinced the electorate of its ability to do so. The electorate is smart enough to know that the Opposition in its current state is clearly unable to form and run the Government. To constantly indulge in such scare tactics is to alienate and insult the informed and prepared voter.
- Uncalled for remarks: There is no place for personal attacks in clean politics. Being the Government, the electorate holds the PAP to a high standard of conduct and manners, higher than the standard ascribed to the Opposition. PAP candidates should welcome issues and proposals put forth by Opposition candidates (for that is their job!), and concentrate on explaining in a constructive manner the strengths of the PAP’s policies as opposed to those fronted by the Opposition. To become defensive and put down the Opposition harshly is unbecoming of any politician in our ruling party.
- Destructive Analogies: The usage of analogies to carry out political jabs is, while entertaining, ultimately not of any benefit to Singaporeans. Likening the Opposition to a ‘casino ship to nowhere’ and a ‘rooster that believes its crowing makes the sun rise’ will only lead to empty potshots fired back and forth across the two sides. Singaporeans today are more educated and aware of the pertinent issues they and other Singaporeans face, and they want to see a robust, objective and constructive debate about the issues relevant to them, not watch a schoolyard fight between adolescents.
- Politicisation of the Executive: The electorate of today is intelligent enough to recognize a carrot or a stick when it sees one. Pork barrel politics such as withholding HDB upgrades from Opposition wards should be avoided to prevent public outrage. At the same time, the Executive arm of the Government should take great care not to engage in actions that can easily be seen by the electorate as politically motivated. Seeing is Believing, and this holds true for the concept of Separation of Powers when it comes to how Singaporeans see their Government. Some examples of such behaviour:
- HDB prioritising PAP wards over Opposition wards for HDB upgrades
- HDB leasing 26 commonly-used sites to the Peoples’ Association and removing it from the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council’s control after Aljunied GRC was won by the Opposition
- The lack of cooperation between grassroots organizations under the Peoples’ Association and Opposition-run Town Councils
The Bottom Line:
Let me reiterate an important fact: There is absolutely no doubt that the PAP is the best party to run the Singaporean Government. However, this does not mean there is no room for improvement. The PAP has always maintained that it is there to serve Singaporeans. To serve the current electorate better, the PAP must understand that the relationship between the electorate and the elected requires mutual trust. This is the reason why the PAP’s vote share has plunged in the last decade – it has begun to lose the trust of the people it serves.
How can the PAP regain back this lost trust? The PAP must learn to be secure in the good work it has done. At the same time, it must be careful not to rest on its laurels and count on blind faith from the electorate to keep voting them into power.
Why must the PAP do this? Because the game has changed since 2011: The electorate desires an alternative voice in Parliament, and so it follows that going forward, there will be more Opposition MPs in Parliament. This is a reality that the PAP has yet to accept, to its detriment. The PAP still believes that it should be the sole party in Parliament. This can be seen in Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s speech on 26 August, where he said that ‘The PAP is its own check’, and that the ‘Opposition is seducing the people’.
Meanwhile, Ong Ye Kung, one of the PAP’s candidates for Sembawang GRC, called for Singaporeans to remain united regardless which political party they supported. While The Thought Experiment wholeheartedly agrees with Mr. Ong in this respect, it is also our opinion that the PAP should practise what they preach and lead by example, at both the General Election and in Parliament.
If the PAP is truly here to serve Singaporeans, it must recognize that it will have to work with the Opposition for the betterment of Singapore. The longer the PAP fights against this new political landscape, the longer it tries to instill in voters that the PAP is Singapore’s only saviour, the worse off both the PAP and Singapore will be.
Polling Day is only hours away at this juncture. Will you vote wisely?