Thursday, September 1, 2011

Voters tell Singapore it must change its ways

WHAT does it say of the Singapore political scene when a man with impeccable credentials to become president is rejected by nearly 65 per cent of voters?

What does it mean when a relatively unknown former civil servant with his strident attacks against the government emerges with one-quarter of the votes? And finally, what does it signify when all four contenders for the presidency were either part of the establishment or had links with it? That even a blue chip reputation, which Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam has, is not enough to win a strong mandate from voters.

That a shrill anti-government stand, which Tan Jee Say displayed, can have a cachet in a political oasis like Singapore.

That a loose political front made up of smart, respected and able people with establishment links is emerging.
It is this last point — a hard truth, a phrase made famous by former minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew — that is likely to have a long-lasting impact on politics here in the aftermath of a stunning presidential election which Tony won with only slightly over 35 per cent of the votes.

The signs of this development were already evident in the May 7 general election, which saw voters rejecting former foreign minister George Yeo, increasing the number of opposition members of parliament from two to six and bringing down the ruling party’s votes to just above 60 per cent.

A consultant physician with the government’s teaching hospital, Dr Paul Tambyah, was a hit with the online crowd when he spoke at a Singapore Democratic Party rally. The election commentaries by a bright former administrative officer, Donald Low, in Facebook were circulated virally. For the first time, those working for the government or who used to work for it, were speaking out openly.
When the presidential election came along nearly four months later, the tide got bigger.

A former long-time government MP (Dr Tan Cheng Bock), a former civil servant (Tan Jee Say) and the former chief executive officer of an insurance co-operative with links to government had all thrown their hats into the ring to challenge what many knew was a government-endorsed candidate (Tony).

If there was one quality they were all trying to portray, in varying forms, it was their independence from the establishment.
Overnight, closeness to government was no more a badge of honour or a surefire way to victory at the polls.

As a weary-eyed Singapore tried to digest the significance of the nail-biting result, another hard truth emerged: The genie is out of Singapore’s political bottle.

Dr Cheng Bock, who retired as a ruling party MP in 2006, says the People’s Action Party was split down the middle in this election. Many grassroots supporters displayed their support for him in public. A Malay former PAP member, Mohd Maidin Packer, came out to back him.

How wrong Tony was when he spoke of a new normal in Singapore politics just weeks before he squeaked in with a 0.34 percentage point victory to become Singapore’s seventh president. That new normal has become the old normal in just a matter of weeks.

An obedient population fed on slogans like “Many more good years” and “A Swiss standard of living” are fighting back as they find the Singapore Squeeze of high prices, overcrowding and long hours at work just becoming unbearable.

And they are showing their angst at the ballot box.
The man left carrying the baby is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He has his work cut out.

His first and immediate task is to come out with an action plan on the online media. Not to control it, as one young grassroots man had the audacity to suggest during a chat on the eve of the elections, but to work with it. In his National Day rally speech, Lee showed that he was thinking about it when he called for the government and people to engage in a rational, open and meaningful debate in the online space.

Ignore the “cowboy towns” and work with only the moderate sites? Allow young civil servants to engage the online community? Or let established and respected bloggers come out with projects on their own to occupy and grow a relatively untapped middle ground in the online space? Whichever way the government decides to go, it has to act fast.

The presidential election again showed how effective a medium the online world has become. A public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, found out that Dr Cheng Bock was the most digital savvy candidate with Jee Say coming a close second. Tony did not even feature in the top-line results.

The rabidly anti-government website, Temasek Review, and respected blogger Alex Au endorsed Jee Say. Says Au in his blog: “When he speaks of conscience, he means it.” How the prime minister deals with the genie will decide the kind of political system that will emerge in the next few years. There is still a view among the establishment types that the government must not be populist and that what it needs to change is its style of communication.

No one has been heard articulating, either publicly or privately, another option: The popular route. It is not that this path has not been tried. How former health minister Khaw Boon Wan got through his health means-testing policy without any real backlash can be made essential reading material.

And finally, the most difficult task: A re-look at every policy that is grounded in the ideology of old. The arguments for high growth, an anti-welfarism culture, control of media, one-party system, a Chinese-only prime minister — they all need to be reexamined in the context of the signals the voters are sending.

The double whammy of the results of the general and presidential elections has this message: A need to transform the way Singapore is run has become even more urgent.

By P.N. Balji, Singapore journalist for more than 35 years

Read more: Voters tell S’pore it must change its ways

Read more: Voters tell S’pore it must change its ways

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