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 Silver 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.
1)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.
2)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 in the campaign, to stem this alarming tide of support for an opposition member.
3)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.
4)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.
5) 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.
6)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.