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COMMENT: GE2020 – Singapore’s day of decision and the challenge of a generation

·15-min read
People seen voting at Chung Cheng High School on 10 July. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
People seen voting at Chung Cheng High School on 10 July. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

By Cherian George and Donald Low

Cherian George and Donald Low argue that the Sengkang Dividend from last Friday’s General Election can only be realised if leaders and citizens step forward to support a more participatory and deliberative democracy.

An election doesn’t just distribute seats to victorious candidates and bequeath legitimacy to the governing party. It also creates new opportunities that political actors and the wider public may seize or ignore, widen or block. This contentious process will dominate Singapore politics in the days, weeks and months following Singapore’s July 10 general elections.

Some of it will occur in public: now that the people have spoken, multiple interpreters will compete to have the final word on what those 2.53 million crosses really meant. But much of the action will take place in the shadows, as elites jostle for influence behind the scenes, and millions of Singaporeans make private decisions about whether and how to participate in the country’s democratic life.

In a piece we co-wrote three days before Polling Day, we warned that Singapore might be headed for a period of political disaffection and disillusionment, with many citizens feeling alienated from the political system, and the ruling party becoming more irritable and irascible. Our prognosis has not changed fundamentally. We know this view is not in tune with the hopeful tenor of the times. Commentators across the political spectrum are calling the GE result a good outcome, while PAP politicians have tried to be gracious in their initial public comments.

There is an old saying that nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. But ideas alone, no matter how compelling, are not enough; they cannot be transformative without action. Influential individuals in the PAP need to muster the moral courage to push for change; peers need to support them; and the small number of decision-makers at the top must finally give their nod of approval.

As for the wider public, much depends on whether the attentive voter who enthusiastically sought out the latest party videos and dissected every campaign message is now willing to metamorphose into an active citizen, prepared to scrutinise boring government Bills and volunteer at the grassroots, for example. All these steps go against the grain of Singapore’s political culture, so we are not holding our breath. There is every chance that the government will respond to GE2020 just as it did to GE2011 — correcting policy failures without reforming its politics. It may once again convene managed conversations while restricting the space for public discourse and whipping up populist nationalism against critics. As the PAP starts soul-searching, influential voices are already advising it to focus narrowly on livelihood issues and ignore the calls for political diversity and fairness.

The Sengkang Dividend

Raeesah Begum (left) and Jamus Lim, Workers’ Party candidates for Sengkang GRC, seen on walkabout in Anchorvale Link on 2 July 2020. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)
Raeesah Begum (left) and Jamus Lim, Workers’ Party candidates for Sengkang GRC, seen on walkabout in Anchorvale Link on 2 July 2020. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)

But, yes, the results of GE2020 open up opportunities for positive political and policy reforms and a maturing of Singapore’s democracy. The Workers’ Party (WP) win in Sengkang GRC, in particular, is significant beyond the obvious fact that it’s the first time that the opposition has secured two GRCs.

First, Sengkang, together with the swing in the PAP’s vote share toward 1991 and 2011 levels, underlines Singaporeans’ desire for a “diversity of voices in parliament”, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged in his post-election press conference. This signal is clearer now than in 2011. Voter discontent in GE2011 had mostly to do with “bread-and-butter” issues, particularly housing affordability, public transport reliability, weak social safety nets, and the angst caused by relaxed immigration policies. Although we both argued at the time that these policy lapses were intimately related to groupthink within an overly dominant executive, the PAP told itself that it did not need to fix its approach to governance, only its policies. It responded to the GE2011 debacle with a slew of technocratic solutions in the key vote-losing policy areas. But for all the “new normal” hype, the government quashed moves towards a more inclusive or diverse political system. In GE2020, on the other hand, the PAP entered an electoral battlefield softened with the largest outlay of bread and butter in the republic’s history. Indeed, the COVID-19 packages were widely expected to give the PAP an unassailable competitive edge. Compared with 2011, it will be much harder this time to resist the conclusion that many Singaporeans want political change, not just practical help.

Second, if not for the Sengkang result, the PAP government would not have deemed it necessary to confer WP leader Pritam Singh with the honorific “Leader of the Opposition”, along with a commensurate level of staff support and other resources. Although this comes at the possible expense of opposition unity — since it will deepen the gulf in prestige and interests between the WP and parties with only non-constituency seats, not to mention those with no parliamentary presence — it is an important symbolic gesture. Providing the WP with more state resources acknowledges a loyal opposition’s legitimate role in Singapore’s system of government. This is a step toward correcting the common misperception that the interests of the ruling party, the administration, and state are one and the same — a conflation that remains one of the main barriers in the way of a fairer, more contestable political system.

Third, Sengkang reflected voters’ rejection of, even revulsion at, the attacks on the WP’s Raeesah Khan. The PAP chose to misrepresent Raeesah’s 2018 comments as being “highly derogatory [of] Chinese and Christians”, when they were clearly about unequal treatment of different groups by the system. The vigorous pushback against the attempted character assassination clearly caught the PAP by surprise, even though it should not have — just before Parliament was dissolved, the PAP had engaged in an equally clumsy and racialised attack on playwright Alfian Sa’at, which seemed to work only on its own hardcore supporters and trolls. The attack on Raeesah ended as abruptly as it began. In his final e-rally on 8 July, PM Lee went into damage limitation mode, acknowledging a possible generation gap in the way Singaporeans talk about race. Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam also struck an unusually conciliatory note in post-election remarks about the case. The controversy opens up an opportunity to adjust Singapore’s top-down and punitive approach to conversations on race and religion, as many experts and other thoughtful citizens have long advised.

Fourth, the Sengkang result opens the door to a debate on electoral reform. At the top of the agenda is the unpopular group representation constituency (GRC) system. Even if this was not the intent, GRCs serve as hard-to-breach electoral citadels. If the opposition pips the PAP in an individual ward within a GRC, the advantage is usually cancelled out by sister wards that are solidly pro-PAP. This has long been suspected to be a feature, not a bug, of the GRC system, since GRC boundaries are not drawn by an independent commission. GE2020 provided further evidence of how difficult it remains for the opposition to win a GRC: even a 28 percentage point swing against the PAP in West Coast GRC could not dislodge a PAP team led by two ministers. But the GE results also present the PAP with a dilemma. Aljunied GRC shows that, once breached, citadels are equally difficult to recover. Sengkang gives further cause for pause: there is a limit to how many sitting ministers can be wagered in these high-stakes GRC contests. This, after all, is not a game of cards, and the government will at some point need to do the math. The case for reforming — or even abolishing — the GRC system is further strengthened by GE2020’s evidence that it may be getting redundant as a means of ensuring minority representation. The WP’s victorious Aljunied team had three minority candidates, while the PAP’s best-performing GRC team was anchored by another.

No blank cheque for reform

Prime Minister and PAP election candidate Lee Hsien Loong  speaking to the media at Deyi Secondary School on Nomination Day (30 June). (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
Prime Minister and PAP election candidate Lee Hsien Loong speaking to the media at Deyi Secondary School on Nomination Day (30 June). (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

These significant developments, we stress, present only opportunities for Singapore — not guaranteed outcomes. The optimists may be underestimating how difficult it will be for the PAP government to change its internal culture and its approach to governance. We also anticipate that most Singaporeans will continue to outsource political participation to a small number of activists, while they themselves venture no further than the nearest “Like” button.

We do not lack hope. Indeed, most of our writing on Singapore government and politics has been premised on the possibility and desirability of internal reform. We have also consciously tried to appeal to the establishment’s better angels.

Cherian’s 2017 volume, Singapore, Incomplete, was addressed primarily to supporters and future leaders of the PAP, suggesting how an embrace of Singapore’s multicultural and political diversity could strengthen both the party and the nation. “[A]nyone rooting for the PAP to remain relevant must hope that reform-minded leaders will emerge in the fifth-generation leadership, and perhaps even in the fourth,” the book argued. “Political reform may not be in the short term interests of current PAP leaders who have grown comfortable with the status quo, but if they do it soon and manage it right, it will help their successors secure Singapore’s long-term interests.”

Donald’s 2014 book, Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, made the case for political and policy reforms that were well within the PAP government’s ideological range. In a recent article on the coronavirus pandemic, he noted that Singaporeans are “justifiably proud of their strong, competent government”, but that “the biggest cognitive threat a decision-maker faces is not disunity; rather it is the tunnel vision that comes from ‘being in the trenches’ for too long”. He argued: “[B]etween a strong, competent state and a strong society that can check and constrain the state’s excesses lies a narrow corridor that protects our rights and freedoms while allowing the state to function effectively.”

We believe that the country should not put all its eggs solely in the PAP basket. But, as our commentaries over the years suggest, Singaporeans should not neglect the PAP basket either, nor underestimate the value of a strong elite (though not elitist) administration. An internally reformed PAP government has to be a key plank of Singapore’s strategy to survive and thrive, at least in the short to medium term.

Unlike the PAP’s response to GE2011, today’s reforms must start with politics rather than policy. Even establishment voices are calling for an end to the PAP’s culture of political bullying and greater fairness in the way it conducts politics. In a widely shared Facebook post, former Law Society president Thio Shen-yi offered a to-do list for the ruling party: “take the high road”, “stop bullying candidates”, “be humble” and learn to apologise, understand that a strong mandate does not require a parliamentary supermajority, eschew fear-mongering, ensure a scrupulously fair playing field, fight bad ideas with good instead of relying on tools like POFMA, and accept that Singaporeans are ready for a non-Chinese PM.

A good rule of thumb for the PAP to adopt would be to ask itself what sort of formal and informal rules of political conduct it would like to see in a world in which it is no longer dominant, or even in power. Somewhat paradoxically, only by embracing such rules can it secure its long-term success.

Contrary to what the PAP believes, greater political competition would also develop and sharpen the political acumen of its future leaders. Consider how the unremitting heat directed at WP’s Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh has forged them into respected leaders, and steeled them for crises. It is clear that political competition serves the same function as market or biological competition: it forces one to grow fitter and adapt to changes in the environment. In contrast, sheltering the next generation of PAP leaders from robust challenge and competition — on the misguided assumption that protecting the highly credentialed promotes sound, technocratic and innovative policy-making — would mute the signals the PAP requires to adapt to an increasingly complex and uncertain domestic and external environment.

Internal reform, in theory, should be easier for the PAP than for many political parties. Parties elsewhere that are dependent on patronage networks and corrupt practices, for example, cannot clean up without first clearing out. This is essentially the story of parties like UMNO in Malaysia, Golkar in Indonesia, and the Kuomintang in Taiwan. The PAP, by contrast, has relied more on the (internal) contestation of ideas over what is in Singapore’s interests. This deeply technocratic and pragmatic streak suggests that it is well within the PAP’s capacity to realise that it is in its own enlightened self-interest to accept, even welcome, greater political competition and diversity.

With the PAP, a few good men and women at the top should be capable of changing the entire administration’s direction. Unlike many other parties that have been (or were) in power for several decades, the PAP is not rigidly factionalised along personality lines. Such factionalism can often stymie the ability of reformists to enact reforms from within. The PAP does not suffer from this structural disadvantage, and is able to effect change quite quickly if a critical mass of its leaders so choose.

Unlike some critics of the PAP government, we do not think the administration lacks such individuals. The PAP is a national movement, comparable to a religion. No major religion speaks with just one voice. Each has opposing internal tendencies. It may have a fundamentalist strand, rigid and dogmatic, exclusive and unforgiving, ever ready to launch inquisitions against perceived infidels. Yet, at the same time, it may have an inclusivist, open-minded denomination, respectful of differences and striving for social justice. These tendencies can co-exist, although in any one time and place, one dominates. In the PAP, since the shock of the 2011, the party’s fundamentalist streak has held sway at the expense of a broad-church philosophy that we believe some within the administration quietly subscribe to.

Citizen initiatives

The PAP’s induction of Louis Ng, a wildlife protection advocate deeply respected by civil society activists, is just one indicator of how some types of participation comfortably co-exist with the status quo of one-party domination. (PHOTO: YouTube screengrab)
The PAP’s induction of Louis Ng, a wildlife protection advocate deeply respected by civil society activists, is just one indicator of how some types of participation comfortably co-exist with the status quo of one-party domination. (PHOTO: YouTube screengrab)

The second ingredient for reform is a politically engaged and active citizenry. There have been positive signs over the past decade or two. Civil society is more vibrant, and many young Singaporeans find personal fulfilment in causes larger than themselves. But one should not exaggerate the political impact of growing youth participation. Much of this is easily incorporated into existing governance systems, by opening certain narrow domains for consultation, for example. The PAP’s induction of Louis Ng, a wildlife protection advocate deeply respected by civil society activists, is just one indicator of how some types of participation comfortably co-exist with the status quo of one-party domination.

To ensure that ground energies are not disruptive to its power, the PAP government has operated a system of divide-and-rule. Many Singaporeans in the people sector find that they are able to achieve their narrow objectives with the government’s active support. Therefore, among the PAP’s newly elected candidates in the Class of 2020 are several with exemplary records of community service. But Singapore also has many activists whose valuable contributions to a more humane society are not welcomed, and some who are actively vilified by PAP leaders, punished by the authorities, and targeted for abuse and hate by their internet brigade.

After the excitement dies down, most Singaporeans will be unable to sustain their current levels of interest in politics, no matter how excited they are by the prospect of change. Just like in the post-2011 era, it is quite possible that they will shift the burden of change-making — along with its heavy personal and psychological costs — to activists who have been pushed to the margins.

The many ways to read the election results will continue to fuel public debate for a while. Some perceive GE2020 as a childish outburst. We disagree. Democratic elections are, of course, a flawed and imperfect means of collective self-government, vulnerable to irrational impulses and manipulation; but they are still by far the best system that humankind has come up with to resolve differences peacefully. Despite the inevitable messiness of the process, we are struck by the growing maturity of the Singapore public. GE2020 affirms our belief that Singaporeans — whether in the administration or the public, whether among PAP loyalists, opposition supporters or neutrals — do not lack ability or patriotism. GE2020 presents openings for government, parties and citizens to respond positively to the need for participation and distributed leadership. The question is whether Singaporeans and the party they have relied on for six decades can rise to this challenge of a generation.

This article was first published on Academia.sg. The views expressed are the authors’ own.

Cherian George is professor of media studies and associate dean for research at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication. His books include Freedom from the Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore (NUS Press, 2012), and Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited: Essays on Singapore Politics (Ethos Books, 2020).

Donald Low is professor of practice in public policy at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, the director of its Institute for Emerging Market Studies, and director of Leadership and Public Policy Executive Education. He is the lead author of Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus (NUS Press, 2014).

More GE2020 commentaries and analysis:

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COMMENT: Singapore, we deserve an 'A'

COMMENT: The dilemmas of a first-time voter

COMMENT: Low’s departure has accelerated the Workers’ Party’s transition - but at what cost?

COMMENT: GE2020 — Why Singapore may lose, whatever the final score