Some readers of my website have emailed me to ask what I think about the coming General Election (strongly speculated to be on September 12). Presumably, they are most interested in my prediction of the outcome. Will the PAP do better, or worse, than in 2011? Is it possible that with the ‘feel good’ factor reaching its peak after the Golden Jubilee celebration in August, plus all the goodies that the government has been handing out so generously, the PAP will win a landslide victory? How will the opposition, with new parties coming on the scene, fare? Will they spring surprises? Will they win more seats in Parliament? etc etc.
Now I have to say right from the start that it is notoriously difficult to predict the outcome of any general election in any society anywhere in the world (except North Korea!), given the extreme volatility of election politics. No forecaster can claim prescience. Time and again, this force called ‘the ground’ has proved its mercurial nature. Time and again, pollsters have been proved wrong. Hence, any crystal-ball gazing for GE 2015 will be just that—a diversionary fun exercise that need not be taken seriously.
But since a number of readers have taken the trouble to write in to ask, I suppose I owe them an answer. But it comes with a strong caveat. My answer, far from being a prediction, is simply an extrapolation based on what we already know from our observations of the pre-election groundwork done by the incumbent leadership. This extrapolation is necessarily incomplete, because we don’t know and can’t foretell the behaviour of the voters until election day itself.
Obviously the election outcome will be influenced by both the Knowns and the Unknowns. I will deal separately with both these factors as they come to mind, all the time aware that I’m using a broad-brush approach that cannot answer the specific questions mentioned at the start.
The PAP has learnt hard lessons from GE 2011, and has worked assiduously to avoid making the same mistakes. For instance, since 2011, they have ensured that bitterly contentious issues such as the infamous foreign talent and ministerial salaries controversies, will never, ever surface again. Indeed, they have gone much further, to provide all kinds of material benefits to the people, to sweeten the ground for 2015. Hence we can say with some certainty that this GE will not be anything like its highly charged, explosive predecessor that had resulted in the shock resignations of Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong, and the PM’s public, tearful apologies to the people.
This is the first GE without the participation of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. In the light of certain controversial incidents involving Mr Lee in previous general elections when the PM had actually to intervene with quick decisions to contain the damage, the campaigning in this GE will be relatively incident-free. For instance, there will be nothing remotely resembling the astounding ‘Aljunied incident’ in 2011, when Mr Lee, in his characteristic blunt and forthright manner, roundly scolded, indeed, cursed the Aljunied voters, and the PM had to quickly call an urgent press conference midway through the campaigning, to dissociate his government (in the gentlest manner possible) from Mr Lee.
Again, years back, in another GE, the PM had to handle the ‘James Gomez Incident’ very carefully, despite Mr Lee’s rage and insistence on punishing Mr Gomez. What had happened was that this opposition member had accused the PAP of ignoring his application form for participation in the coming election, when, unknown to him, a surveillance camera had caught him calmly putting the filled form into his sling bag, instead of submitting it. The PM, aware of the surge of sympathy for Mr Gomez despite the apparent dishonesty, had to act quickly early on in the campaign, to stem this alarming tide of support for an opposition member.
The PAP will project an image of a benign, confident and well-mannered leadership (a far cry from the old portrayal of aggressiveness, arrogance and elitism) even in the face of outright belligerence by the opposition, because they know it will work better with an electorate that has become more alert, discerning and critical. Whatever lethal criticisms, barbs, slings and accusations they already have in readiness to launch against the opposition will be packaged in this gentlemanly guise. It is a shrewd psychological strategy, because should the opposition indulge in acrimonious mud-slinging, the PAP will be seen, by contrast, to be on high moral ground, with the true leadership qualities of self-control, dignity and magnanimity.
To woo young voters, the PAP will cast off the old fuddy-duddy image that has become unpalatable to this hip, social media generation. In an unprecedented ‘if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em’ strategy, some of the younger PAP candidates on the campaign trail will make a real effort to show their empathy and solidarity with the younger generation, even going so far as to adopt their gung-ho language, bold mannerisms and uninhibited style. After GE 2015, it is likely that the PAP will have forever abandoned its longstanding but now millennially irrelevant, staid, formal, prim and proper demeanour.
The PAP will go all out to capitalise on the ‘feel good’ factor. They will do so subtly and delicately, never directly or blatantly. For instance, in their urge to remind the people of recent government largesse, such as the generous Pioneer package, the PAP will go about it in an indirect, nuanced way, keenly mindful that a newly sophisticated electorate does not like to be told to be grateful, or to feel that they have been bribed in any way. Throughout the campaigning, the PAP will treat the voters with kid gloves. And of course, they will try to maintain, as long as they can, the sweet afterglow of the Jubilee celebration euphoria.
After GE 2015, there will be a clear line-up of the new generation of leaders, led by those already recruited, trained and given senior positions in the years following GE 2011. These new leaders will not be overshadowed by the older leaders, in the same way that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had towered over Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong, but be given more leeway to develop their own styles. This is because the present PAP leadership realises that the Lee Kuan Yew era is effectively over, with massive changes taking place not only in Singapore but the world. If the younger leaders decide to move towards a political loosening up, the Lee Hsien Loong administration will not interfere, knowing full well that they can never be as effective as the late, powerful, inimitable Mr Lee. Moreover, if they are seen as resisting change, they will get bad press in the international community, for instance, being seen as the only political pariah in ASEAN now that even the long recalcitrant Myanmar regime has accepted sweeping change. Through all these, whatever behind-the-scenes differences they may have, the PAP will project the image of smooth transitioning, continuity and unity.
In short, the whole approach of the PAP in GE 2015 will be motivated by the need to be seen as moving with the times, as possessing calm strength, unruffled goodwill and cheerful friendliness. If to a skeptical electorate, this is no more than an artificially induced election ploy, it will still serve the PAP well should the opposition come across as disunited, unfocused and fractious.
The unknowns, in contrast to the knowns, could comprise a whole range of unsuspected issues that have been simmering under the surface, just waiting to burst forth in full force once the election campaign begins. They could prove to be the imponderables that could wreck whatever prediction has been made based on the knowns. However, even if they are beyond our knowledge, we can still have an idea of where they could come from. Here are a few examples:
The most significant unknown involves the new, young electorate, the Internet bloggers, a sizable number who will be voting for the first time. These young Singaporeans like to see themselves as independent-minded individuals, disdaining to be swayed by any political blandishments and persuasions from either side of the divide. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they have no sentimental connection with the past. When they attend the campaign rallies, it is more to express this liberalising confidence of youth rather than to listen seriously to the speeches of the campaigners. When they fill in the ballot paper on Election Day, it will be with the intoxicating sense of a coming-of-age rite of personal affirmation.
A notable unknown could be that group of silent, disgruntled Singaporeans, across all ages, educational levels and socio-economic strata, who for one reason or another, feel they have been left behind, that their lives and prospects are worse now than before, that it is futile to talk to their Member of Parliament, write to the press, etc. Their disgruntlement could be based on just one personal incident or grievance, which is enough for them to want to switch loyalty. It is this group that will feel a secret sense of gleeful, retaliatory pleasure when the various campaigners (including top politicians) come a-calling and a-wooing with plentiful smiles and handshakes. Just how many of this silent, angry group are out there?
A tantalising thought concerns the number of new citizens who are eligible to vote for the first time, and whose vote, predictably, will go to the governing party that has kindly given them their citizenship. The unknown, of course, is just how many of such voters there are, and whether they will affect the voting pattern in any way.
At this stage, there are still many unknown aspects of the challenge that will be posed by the opposition. Will they be caught up in competing with one another, to their own detriment? Or will they manage to forge a unity out of their diversity, that will be their best hope against the PAP?
In sum, the fluid, complex interplay of the Knowns and Unknowns about GE 2015 listed above, will make it very difficult to predict its outcome.
The only thing that one can say with any certainty is that there will be one thing uniting the PAP and the opposition: their common use of a certain election strategy that may even make the campaign speeches of one side hardly distinguishable from those of the other.
This is the strategy of calculated, rehearsed humility and amiability that will make both sides avow, with heartfelt feeling, that it is not for themselves that they are doing this or that. We can already hear their avowals: it is for the people, it is for the good of society, it is for the good of Singapore. We will hear, in abundance, homilies, platitudes and rallying cries about the desire to ‘serve the people’s interests’, to ‘care for the forgotten ones’, to ‘make sure that the voices of Singaporeans are heard’, to ‘safeguard the future of our children and our children’s children’, and so on, ad nauseam.
We will also hear, in similar abundance, accusations, sideswipes and innuendos, about how the other side cannot be trusted to do the same. And through all these, the bored crowds may raise a mighty yawn that says, ‘Haven’t we heard all this before?’ or ‘Can’t anyone say something different, creative, inspiring?’ I suppose this skepticism is universal, an essential part of our human nature. It pervades the entire political arena in every country in the world, gathering greater momentum and energy during an election. Politicians like to say that developing a thick, durian-type skin is part of their work.
At the time of this writing, there are some weeks to the start of GE 2015. There are not likely to be major surprises from either side, beyond the expected presentation of new faces, announcement of political manifestos, friendly walkabouts, the pressing-the-flesh, kissing-the-baby routines. There will be nothing that will shake the scene, as the different parties cruise towards the start of the campaigning.
The only scene-shaker, a very unlikely one, would be an event of a sudden, cataclysmic or apocalyptic nature, such as a terrible act of terrorism on Singapore soil, causing widespread destruction and loss of lives, making world headlines. This kind of event would have the effect of everyone rallying behind the incumbent government, since it would be the only political party with the resources to deal with the crisis. But, as mentioned, this would be a most improbable event, that need not be factored into any deliberations about GE 2015.
Ultimately, through all the surmises and speculations regarding the coming election, the only clear crystal-ball reading is that GE 2015 will not be like the astonishing, rambunctious, shock-filled GE 2011. Indeed, by comparison, it may even be bland and boring. But then again, who knows?