Political engagement comes of age

Source: Todayonline May 06, 2011
Whichever way the result goes, whatever election strategies that were used, however intense the campaign was, one unmistakable message is shaping General Election 2011.

The Singaporean voter wants to engage and he wants to do so actively and energetically. Over the last couple of weeks, I have heard enough people articulate their views – precisely and without fear or hesitation – about the candidates, their platforms and Singapore politics. Not just online or via social media but also in public chats, and even during chance meetings with candidates making their rounds.

Many of the voters I have met are even ready to declare their political allegiance without batting an eyelid and without looking around to see if there are people listening.

Sentiments like these reflect the changing mood of a population that now wants to discuss, debate and even disagree. In a way, this shows the political maturing of a country that had always been told to leave politics to politicians.

With the Opposition shooting for nearly all the constituencies and luring bright political talent, the judicious avoidance of smear campaigns and the Prime Minister’s unusual public apology, what we are witnessing is a coming of age of political engagement that should put Singapore on the road to becoming a world class society.

This General Election is very different from the campaigns of 1984 (which saw a swing against the PAP) and 1991 (when three more Opposition MPs were voted into Parliament).

In 1984, voters were upset with the Government’s highly-divisive policy of giving the children of graduate mothers a leg-up for Primary 1 registration and a recommendation to raise the age for withdrawal of CPF savings.

In 1991, the mood was against several PAP MPs who had forgotten to lend a listening ear to their residents.

This time round, the Opposition wants the big prize in Singapore’s PAP-dominated politics: At least one Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

They must have calculated that grabbing one can be just the psychological push the Opposition needs to break the PAP’s hold on GRCs.

It would be similar to what was accomplished by Mr J B Jeyaretnam in breaching the PAP monopoly and taking Anson in 1981 – Parliament has had an Opposition presence ever since.

Also different this time round is the “unsettled mood”, as Minister Vivian Balakrishnan put it at a rally on Wednesday. The PAP has gone into this election with a host of issues coming together like a perfect storm.

Whether it is the high cost of living, the overcrowding by foreigners, the escalating prices of public housing, or the Mas Selamat escape, the question that many must be asking is this: How was the plot lost on so many issues at the same time?

Anticipating voter disquiet, the PAP went on the offensive trying to pin the Opposition down by attacking their manifestos, questioning their motives and laying out big plans for constituencies held by the ruling party.

Either that strategy was not working as well as the PAP had hoped or comments by elder statesmen – Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong – had made a tough fight even tougher.

The Prime Minister, who is leading the PAP’s election campaign, had to make a tactical decision. He chose to go before Singaporeans and say: We are sorry. Not for one, but four, mistakes.

Since election battles are almost always tactical and not strategic, it was not unusual to see all the parties, to varying degrees, making the immediate issues facing Singaporeans a major plank of their platforms. Winning, or making dents, is what matters.

Today is Cooling Off Day and it offers a rare opportunity for voters to reflect and ask themselves some searching questions. I would like to throw one into the mix: Moving on, what kind of a society do we want?

One that is prosperous, engaging, gracious and magnanimous? Or one that punches above its weight not just economically, but politically and socially?

With voters coming out of their political cocoon and with thoughtful people on both sides of the divide, the timing is right to let the process of tapping this new-found activism begin.

Then May 7, 2011, will become a meaningful date to savour, not just for us but also for our children and grandchildren.

P N Balji is the director of the Asia Journalism Fellowship, a joint initiative of Temasek Foundation and NTU.