Tembusu Forum: Singapore voters looking for sincerity and magnanimity

From top left, clockwise: Mr Viswa Sadasivan; Prof Tommy Koh; Asst Prof Walid Jumblatt Abdullah; and Dr Gillian Koh

Singapore’s political landscape after the recent polls signals a maturing democracy, said panellists at a forum to discuss the 2020 General Elections.

One indicator is the designation of Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh as the Leader of the Opposition – a landmark move in Singapore’s post-Independence history.

Rather than view the opposition as “a black mark to be scrubbed out”, the People’s Action Party (PAP) is acknowledging them as part of the political landscape, said Dr Gillian Koh, Deputy Director (Research) and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at NUS.

“The Government is…systematically recognising the opposition’s role to present alternative policies,” she noted at the Tembusu Forum webinar, titled “GE2020: Facts, Analysis and Lessons Learnt”, held on 1 Sep.

Voters’ desire for political diversity has been gaining steady momentum, she noted.

“In past IPS post-election surveys, there was a clear trend that the higher the socioeconomic class of the respondents, the more likely he or she would support the idea of political pluralism in Singapore, which we read as a proxy for support for the opposition movement as either a check and balance on the PAP government, or a route to greater diversity of voices in Parliament,” she said.

Such views are becoming more prevalent across Singapore. “Even among conservative voters, who would be of lower socioeconomic status, they were supportive of greater diversity,” noted Dr Koh, citing earlier survey findings from 2015. 

The recent election held in July saw the PAP’s vote share slipping to 61.2 per cent – down from 69.9 per cent in 2015 – and the WP gaining ground from six to 10 elected Members of Parliament. The results surprised many, as political pundits had expected a “flight to safety” effect with voters backing the PAP in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

The topic of how the PAP could win back votes in the next election was a key discussion point at the forum which was hosted by Professor Tommy Koh, NUS Tembusu College’s Rector and veteran Singapore diplomat.

It boils down to how the PAP behaves, observed former Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan. “The ball is in the PAP’s court – it needs to show magnanimity, sincerity and authenticity. If it can do so, it can win back the votes it has lost,” he remarked.

Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah from Nanyang Technological University added that the PAP’s fourth-generation leaders, led by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, will have to find ways to reconnect with people.

“I hope the PAP has an honest soul searching… that goes beyond thinking that (the results were because) they had bad PR (public relations efforts) or that the WP did better videos.”

Difference between GE2011 and GE2020

Giving his take on the 2020 election results, Mr Sadasivan said voters are now more discerning. They are signalling to the Government that they would not be won over by technical policymaking abilities alone. They are also looking for a more consultative style of governance.

Unlike the challenges of the past, the issues confronting Singapore today are also not problems that the Government can easily solve with policy tweaks. This makes it more unpredictable for the PAP, he added, drawing a comparison between GE2011 and GE2020.

In the 2011 election where the PAP’s vote share hit a post-Independence low of 60.1 per cent, the polls were headlined by hot-button issues such as the influx of foreigners, and housing and transport infrastructure not keeping up with population growth.

By 2015, when the next election was called, the Government had largely addressed these issues with policy shifts. It had ramped up the supply of public housing, calibrated the inflow of foreign workers, and invested in renewal programmes for the public transport network.

This, coupled with “leftist policies” such as the Pioneer Generation Package and Medishield Life, as well as the passing of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, resulted in “a landslide victory in 2015”, said Mr Sadasivan, chief executive officer of crisis communications firm Strategic Moves and a member of the NUS Alumni Advisory Board. 

While voters in the past were more willing to accept the Government being “rough and tough”, this was premised on the authorities being able to offer solutions and solve problems, he added, describing this as Singapore’s unique social contract.

The fundamental difference between 2011 and today is that the issues Singapore now grapples with – from the global pandemic to the intensifying tensions between the United States and China – are not within the Government’s power to solve. This, in turn, means that the old social contract needs a re-thinking.

“So people are not prepared to give you that much latitude in leveraging your power. What it means is that you will have to move towards a more collaborative governing style – more collaborative in Parliament and in politics,” he said.


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