By Yeo Jia Qi (15S03H)
As I write this, I feel an overwhelming sense of futility. The signs are clear and unanimous. On August 10, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen dropped the clearest hint yet when he announced the PAP was in ‘election mode’ and would introduce all its new candidates between now and August 23, the date of this year’s National Day Rally. This clears the way for Parliament to be dissolved on August 26, followed by a September 12 election, exactly in line with observers’ predictions. Several top public servants have already resigned. Some candidates have already been introduced. The opposition parties have decided who will contest where. But I genuinely believe that an early election represents a tremendous missed opportunity for the PAP, for the opposition, and for Singapore. I genuinely believe it is not too late. There is still time to slam on the brakes. After the election is called I will reread this and laugh at my foolishness. But this country deserves a 2016 election, and certainly not one now.
In the first place, justifying early elections, that disrupt the regularity so fundamental to electoral democracy, demands remarkable circumstances. The last time an election was called four years rather than the usual five after the previous one was in 2001 when we were reeling from a financial crisis. Even then the gap was 4 years and 10 months, even longer than the present 4 years and 3 months. And in 2001 only a third of eligible voters cast ballots. The rest of the seats were walkovers. The situation now, with all seats contested for the first time since independence, and a far more diverse political landscape, could hardly be more different.
There is therefore no good reason for us to have an early election. There is no need for a fresh vote of confidence to be sought. We are not in crisis. In fact, quite the opposite, we are in the mood for celebration and introspection. An election coinciding with SG50 will lead to inevitable politicization of a non-partisan theme that has already been overused (including on cars, whisky and two A380s). It will sharply divide the nation along political lines, immediately after the spirit of unity and patriotism celebrated during National Day. And it will invite accusations, from some quarters, of the PAP seizing the opportunity to renew its political power for five more years by exploiting this euphoria to increase its vote share and bounce back from the rebuke it received in 2011, or worse, apparently turning the outpouring of emotion after the death of founding PM Lee Kuan Yew in March into more votes at the ballot box.
These accusations are spurious and unnecessary. The simplest way to eliminate them is for an election next year instead. This alternative would give everybody more time. Five months elapsed between Mr Lee’s passing on March 23 and National Day. Five more months would allow Singaporeans to finish celebrating SG50, and properly, coolly consider who to vote for as well as how this country should move forward in the next five years. A 2016 election would conclusively veer the focus away from any prospective strategic timing advantage, and put the focus where it should always have been — on the candidates and the issues.
And there will be no shortage of valid evidence for the Government to prove its credentials accordingly. On November 1 MediShield Life coverage will take effect. On December 27 Downtown Line 2 will open and transport fares will drop by 1.9%. 450,000 pioneers are enjoying the benefits of the Pioneer Generation Package. And of course, on August 23, no doubt more such announcements will be made during the National Day Rally, which will be more keenly watched than ever.
Delaying an election to January therefore gives the PAP a tremendous opportunity. New candidates will have four more months to walk the ground, know their constituents and prove they are worthy of votes. This would set an exceptionally powerful precedent, one which future elections would no doubt heed. It would show Singaporeans that the PAP does not take their support for granted. More importantly, the PAP would be able to address once and for all recurring dissatisfaction over new candidates being ‘parachuted’ into constituencies only weeks before election, and riding on the coattails of anchor ministers. We have already been reassured some have been on the ground for two years and will be familiar faces to residents. But whether this is true for all candidates remains to be seen, especially for the public servants who have just resigned. New candidates, especially these individuals, who are destined to become ministers, should be given more time to explain in public their motivations for choosing to enter politics, present their credentials and show they deserve votes. Four more months would do the ruling party and also other Singaporeans a great service.
A 2016 election would also give both the PAP and the opposition more time to familiarise themselves with the new electoral boundaries. Although it is the norm in countries worldwide for boundaries to be regularly redrawn, our redrawing process invites particular criticism, partially because of how soon it comes before elections, leaving opposition parties wrongfooted. Accordingly, the time between the release of the report and Polling Day has been lengthening. In 2011 it was 1 month and 24 days. This year’s report was released on July 24 — a September 12 election means 1 month and 19 days. Rather than taking a step back, the PAP should take two leaps forward, and set another compelling precedent, with a 2016 Polling Day, rather than a 2015 one.
The crowded opposition landscape also means a late election would give the numerous opposition parties, currently mostly indistinguishable apart from the colour of their shirts and their names, the chance to individually differentiate themselves from each other, come up with coherent and unique policy suggestions and present voters a credible, substantial alternative. The growth of a credible opposition that can stand its own ground is not in the interest of the PAP. But it is definitely in the interest of the long-term political future of this nation, and of all Singaporeans, not just those who desire credible alternatives on top of a greater opposition presence. It will ensure a foundation can be set for an even more vibrant political landscape. For the sake of the future of this country, the opposition can no longer be allowed to rely solely on voters’ anger at perceived PAP failings, a playing field they protest is uneven, or PAP candidates taking voters’ support for granted to win votes. They should be given time and the opportunity to constructively engage the PAP on issues. Only if they do so can Singaporean politics progress, and for them to do so, more time is needed. Two weeks are not enough for nine parties.
In that sense, while 2011 had been a watershed election marking significant changes in Singapore’s political landscape, the next vote will still be the crucial one. As PM Lee himself has recognised, it will be a ‘deadly serious fight’ and ‘every contest will be a national one’. And it will also be the first truly national election. Playing a part in moving towards a more vibrant political future by setting a precedent of their own, the opposition parties have successfully parcelled out the 89 electoral seats such that there are no 3-corner fights (except for an independent in Potong Pasir), and all seats are contested for the first time since independence. The PAP recognises it is in for a hard fight. It will definitely have to prepare for exchanges over more issues, not just immigration which dominated 2011. It knows this election will be even more divisive. It would do itself a favour by giving itself, its candidates, its activists, and its supporters more time.
Singaporeans deserve a 2016 election, so that both the PAP and the opposition have more time to come up with better, bolder ideas to present their vision of a future Singapore. They deserve more time to celebrate SG50 rather than being interrupted by the serious, divisive, fast-paced whirlwind of an election. And they deserve more time to pause, and above all, think. All that needs to be done is for PM Lee to pause. Parliament can sit for four more months, during which walkabouts, candidate introductions and low-key campaigning can take place alongside regular legislative debate. Then next year Singaporeans can vote.
Elections represent opportunities to set precedents. A longer campaign period than the minimally stipulated nine days would be another particularly powerful one. But an election early next year, after the celebrations have ended, for the PAP to seek a fresh mandate with a Polling Day possibly on January 23, would be good enough. The opportunity to do Singaporeans and this country a great service cannot be passed up. But it seems it will be.
In conjunction with National Day, Raffles Press is launching Nationally Speaking. Posts under this column analyze and comment on affairs and discussions of national significance. Submissions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. To view other posts under this column, click here.