Some Comments on the 2015 Singapore General Elections

Well, the Singapore election results are out. To the (silent) majority who voted for the ruling party, there is a sigh of relief that its business as usual. To the minority who voted for the opposition, there is grave disappointment and even shock at the results.

The PAP won 83 of the 89 contested seats.

Now that the results are out, I’d like to share my thoughts and comments about the elections and where we might be heading towards. What I say may probably be very unpopular both to supporters of the ruling party and supporters of the opposition. I do hope that this post may provide some food for thought as we recover from the election fever, and return to the mundane routine of our daily lives.

First a disclaimer: I am not pro-PAP (People’s Action Party) neither am I a pro-opposition supporter. Both sides are not ideal neither do I like both sides. My principle for this election has been to vote for the one least capable of damaging the country both in the short term and in the long term. It’s difficult to gauge who’s better from just 10 days of campaigning. But it is very easy to determine who’s the worst, who’s the most incompetent, or the most stupid person/team. Whoever promised to be the least damaging for the country got my vote.

One of the most disturbing comments coming out from opposition candidates in response to the election results was that they were surprised by their poor performance in this elections. Many thought that they’d perform better than the last election, and were thus taken aback by the sharp drop in votes. All that rhetoric about being one with the people and understanding their needs is complete utter rubbish. I think it’s safe to say that this came from all opposition candidates who didn’t belong to the Workers’ Party (WP).

Now, this is disturbing to me because it signals their lack of understanding of the ground. If they are to represent the people of their constituency, they must know the needs and thoughts of their people. Many opposition candidates seemed quite content with receiving feedback from social media, rallies, and the people they met while campaigning – as if these sources of information were sufficient for understanding the sentiments on the ground.

WP and PAP, on the other hand, knew very well that they couldn’t trust the rally attendance or social media as reliable sources of on-the-ground information, which was why Mr. Low Thia Kiang and his team weren’t surprised at all with the drastic “swing” in their election results.

The other opposition candidates thought they knew the ground, and thus they were very surprised. Clearly, they were out of touch, surrounded comfortably with people of similar views. They only had a perceived understanding of the needs and concerns of the people. In the end, they lacked the wisdom to discern and listen to the needs of the people. I certainly wouldn’t want them to represent me in Parliament, would you?

Now, what isn’t helpful to the opposition and their supporters is the narrative they constructed last night: the myth of the silent majority and the surprising national swing in favour of the ruling party. (The other myth is the myth of a large group of new citizens, which I’ll treat in a future post)

Once again, this has revealed just how blind these candidates have been to what’s really going on. The Straits Times, for all its flaws and sins as a mouthpiece of the ruling party, has actually done a somewhat decent job (not great, but can do) in pointing out the daily bread and butter concerns of the majority.

Take for example, the issue of many business owners having difficulty expanding or maintaining their operations due to stricter policies on foreign labour. With the exception of the WP, every other opposition party had been quite happy to shoot down foreigners and foreign labour. This does not bode well for many business owners. Of course, this is one of many other examples. The concerns of the “silent” majority are expressed often on the news, but they weren’t picked up by these opposition candidates at all. Instead, they’ve picked up the supposed problems expressed so often and so loudly on social media, as if everything on the Internet is true (or it may be true, but just blown out of proportion).

Furthermore, it is interesting how many of these opposition candidates seem rather oblivious to the strong pro-PAP sentiments arising from the death of Lee Kuan Yew and the SG50 celebrations. They were so strongly expressed both offline and online. Clearly, an election soon after SG50 celebrations was an attempt by the ruling party to ride this wave. How could anyone miss this? How could these candidates – who desire to represent their constituencies – be completely oblivious to it, and show surprise at the results? What cave have they been hiding in to not be aware of this?

On these two points alone, the opposition parties (excluding the WP) have demonstrated utter ignorance and lack of wisdom to be even barely decent candidates. They have no excuse for being surprised.

Nonetheless, this election has helped to differentiate who are the credible and potentially credible opposition parties for the next round of election. The Workers’ Party is clearly the most credible and reputable party. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), having reformed itself, showed much potential for being another credible party in the future. These two parties are worth watching out for in the next election.

The other opposition parties have made a fool of themselves in so many ways in just 10 days (some began displaying utter stupidity weeks in advance). They’re definitely not worth anyone’s time or money, even if they come back promising reforms to their leadership and team. The other problem with many of these small parties is that they’re constantly splitting up due to minor differences. They do not know how to handle differences of opinion and they believe that they hold the truth, despite showing how misinformed they can be. This is dangerous on so many levels. The last thing we should confer to them is power of any kind.

Allow me to say a few words about the WP. I have to commend Mr. Low and his team. They knew in advance that they may experience a drop in election results. They knew they were up against the euphoria of SG50 celebrations and the pro-PAP sentiments arising from Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, and hence fielded their candidates very carefully with the priority of maintaining their stronghold.

But in addition to this, what led to WP’s drop was that they had set in the minds of everyone, too high an expectation of their performance in the past 4 years. In the 2011 General Election, they campaigned for a First-world Parliament, where policies would be debated and probed, as a way of checking the PAP. The expectations people had of them were too high, and many were disillusioned because WP did not meet those expectations.

Sure, WP was heavily bogged down by Town Council matters, and that might have prevented them from doing more in parliament. But perhaps, WP allowed themselves to become too distracted by town council issues because the PAP kept probing them about it. Many say that the PAP was playing dirty. But I wouldn’t fault the PAP for that. The problem lies with the way WP handled the issue. It’s suspicious that WP couldn’t produce a straightforward answer each time they were asked. They answered but skirted several issues while they were at it. Such an approach would raise eyebrows naturally, and hence the reason why this issue looks like a dead horse that’s been flogged for years now. Many supporters have become suspicious of the WP as a result of this.

To many who have held high expectations of WP’s First-world Parliament performance, one key area of disappointment was that they seemed to have failed to debate on many issues. Questions posed by the WP in parliament were more like clarification questions, rather than actual probing of policies.

Most disappointingly of all, was their star candidate, Mr. Chen Show Mao. With a Bachelor, Masters and Doctorate degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford, one would have expected him to be an eloquent and sharp speaker in Parliament, with the keen ability to detect problems in proposed policies by the PAP. He showed himself a great speaker during the 2011 campaigns. But for reasons beyond my comprehension, his performance in Parliament – his speeches and questions, as well as his replies to questions – were far below expectation. I am not sure if he is silenced by the party, but there is a great disparity in the ability he showed at campaigns and in Parliament. What’s going on?

So, yes, there is much soul searching and improvement that the WP needs to do to regain the trust and confidence. If anything, I think the lesson here is that they shouldn’t have set for themselves too high an expectation beyond what they could deliver. It is for this reason that they have to suffer the consequence of losing a single-member constituency, and a drop in votes.

What about the ruling party, the PAP? A great deal of digital ink has been spilled over the stupidity and arrogance of many of their candidates. There are many candidates who are clearly out of touch with the ground and speak as if they have been sitting in an ivory tower for a very long time. I wished they were voted out. There are some who are competent, but make matters worse for everyone whenever they open their mouths. They should have learnt from the previous election to speak less else they’d appear stupid before the masses. Some have learnt their lesson this time round; others didn’t and continued to make a fool of themselves.

Yet, for all the failings of the PAP in their campaigning, I must salute them for having done a much better job this year. There is a marked improvement in the way they presented themselves.

In particular, PM Lee Hsien Loong has certainly done a fantastic job making himself well-loved by many on the Internet over these past years. His winning point is that he has shown himself to be very human, a joyful, lovable person with many geeky interests that the people share in common with – a stark contrast to the strict and authoritarian person his father was.

He was his own personal brand, and one that accompanied all the constituencies this election. To the eyes of many, PM Lee has certainly helped to soften the image of the ruling party. It wasn’t just a vote for the tough, cold, arrogant, uncaring and authoritarian party, it was also a vote for a lovable and jovial geeky mathematician who would lead his people to greater prosperity and peace. This was the power of his personal brand during the campaign. In the past 10 days, you’d see his happy smiling face everywhere you went. As the results of this election has shown, PM Lee’s personal branding has definitely balanced out some of the negative feelings towards the party. I must give credit to the public relations person who helped to craft this image.

The timing of this election has been most peculiar. Why now rather than next year? Some have joked that it had to do with the Hungry Ghost Festival, and that PM Lee was hoping to seek the blessings of the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew to assist. It is a funny thought.

Yet, the narrative of the PAP’s victory speeches seems to be preparing us for something more drastic.

Sure, the term “mandate of the people” is a term thrown around in elections, but it is over-used this time round (though not as much as the word, “humble”, which was used so frequently it became meaningless).

Given the impending possibility of yet another economic/financial crisis thanks to mess in the US, EU, and China, this mandate of the people is especially important. If Singapore is going to brace itself for the impending economic/financial doom and gloom that is to come, drastic measures need to be taken, measures that will definitely prove to be very unpopular to many. I suspect the phrase, “bitter medicine” will be thrown about a lot in the coming months.

Since the people have given the PAP their mandate, they cannot complain about what’s going to happen in the next five years (to borrow a phrase from the bitter losing candidate, Mr. Kenneth Jeyaretnam). It is perhaps useful that DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam received a slightly stronger mandate from the people (whether the PAP put in effort to produce his own personal brand I’m not sure, but his awesomeness shone through and he won the favour of many).

Having received such a strong mandate, he will probably be the spokesperson, planner and implementer of the upcoming unpopular changes in policy to brace the nation for impending economic/financial doom.

Perhaps many voters have sensed the impending crisis and are willing to place their trust in a party that has a record of keeping stable in times of economic turbulence, hence the great swing towards the PAP. I’m not sure.

But whatever it is, the people have issued a strong mandate. And if indeed the PAP is going to implement drastic measures to prepare for the impending global economic crisis, we shall see in the months to come.

So, brace yourself! The ride is going to get rough.

Lunch with Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan

Wow… This has got to be one of the most exciting events before the year ends! A few days ago, I received a comment on my blog by Dr. Balakrishnan, saying how he enjoyed reading my blog and would like to have lunch with me. (Dear Dr. Balakrishnan, if you’re reading this, hello!) For those who don’t know who he is, Dr. Balakrishnan is the current minister of Environment and Water Resources.

Wow… A minister enjoys reading my blog! What a surprise and an honour!

For the days leading up to our lunch, I’ve been wondering why he’d like to have lunch with me. In fact, I was very curious as to how he found my blog. Was it because of my blog entries about the rising cost of living, or about the cost of housing? The Girlfriend joked that he probably found my blog while searching how to use Whatsapp for Mac (it’s the most popular post I have – it generates at least 500 hits a day!)

Well, surprise surprise! He did discover my blog searching for instructions on how to use Whatsapp for Mac! WOW! So cool!

Anyway, he invited me to invite a few friends so that we could have a nice chit chat session, and so I did. We had lunch at a Penang eatery along Thomson Road. For someone who never had the opportunity to meet a minister before, it was quite an experience (and somewhat intimidating one too!) seeing body guards. There was an advance party of security men who came to scout and check the area, and later, there were body guards escorting the minister into the cafe.

My friends and I were excited and nervous at the same time. I mean, it’s a minister! What do you say to a minister? And how should one behave?

Well, surprisingly, Dr. Balakrishnan was very friendly and approachable! In fact, he was quite down to earth too!

Usually, the media portrays ministers as people who are so high-up, that we forget that they are ordinary human beings just like us. But during that lunch meeting, I was very impressed.

Sitting before me was someone as ordinary and as human as we are, sharing similar interests and likes. Here was someone who was as passionate about technology, food, and chinese culture as I am. Here was someone who was curious to learn how to make Whatsapp work on his computer just like the many technophiles around me. Here was someone who loved both Singapore and Malaysian food that he would talk just as passionately about food just like many Singaporeans here. Haha… I told him that I looooved Malaysian Char Kway Teow (it’s very different from the Singapore one), and immediately he replied, “I think it’s the lard that makes it so tasty!” A few minutes before he came, another friend said the exact same thing! He also shared with us his food trips to Malaysia. So cool!

What I loved the most was just how genuine and sincere he was with us. We were very amazed with his sharings about his own personal life and especially about his family.

The one story that left the deepest impression for myself and my friends was his sharing of the time when he first held his first-born child in his hands. Wow… You could sense just how emotional he was as he recounted the experience and the thoughts and feelings that went through his mind during that event. He shared how during that one moment, he suddenly understood the love that his parents had for him, he suddenly understood what parental love was – it was a love that would often be unreciprocated and yet, you’d still want to continue giving your love to your child no matter what. He shared with us how as a parent holding his baby child for the first time, he realised just how vulnerable and dependent the child was on him, and how he had to do whatever was possible to ensure that she would grow up well. He experienced parental love for the first time and that was a great learning experience for him.

Just hearing him share his experience made me feel like wanting to have a child as soon as possible. Wow… I’d like to experience what he experienced.

As it turns out, the lunch was really a lunch with no political agenda. My friends and I have been speculating if he had something in mind (after all, why would politicians ask people to have lunch out of the blue?), but it turned out to be nothing more than a friendly chat over a meal, just as how friends would sit around a table to eat. I did ask him why he wanted to have lunch with me, as I was very very curious. He replied that this was something he likes to do. He finds a Singaporean online who’s interesting, and he extends an invitation to have a meal with him because he just likes meeting interesting people. Pretty cool. I know most people reading this might be skeptical (afterall, these are words coming from a politician), but rest assured, all of my friends and I agreed that he was very genuine and sincere about this.

Anyway, we did chat about issues on life, relationships, and philosophy – especially since my friends and I are philosophy students. It was interesting as he did bring up some interesting philosophical issues for us to consider in the area of politics. (I’ll discuss them in another blog post)

I think it was really great of him to engage us philosophers intellectually on such issues. In fact, I like how he has such great respect for philosophy. It’s rare because we philosophers often encounter people who think lowly of philosophy only because they think it’s impractical (can’t make money) and/or pointless. It’s very interesting how he framed policy-making problems as philosophical problems. For example, one of the problems governments face is the issue of trying to balance justice with equality. E.g. an equal distribution may not necessarily be a just distribution because some need more than others, and on the other hand, a just distribution is often regarded as unfair since not everyone is treated equally (e.g. why should married couples get more subsidies than singles – why can’t everyone be treated the same way?).

It is a difficult balance and it does seem that both values are contrary to each other, and regardless of which way governments decide to emphasize, there will always be complaints of unfairness. I think that was eye-opening!

Anyway, I guess it’s inevitable that when having lunch with a politician, the issue of politics will be discussed.

I will say that after our lunch together, I have a profound respect for Dr. Balakrishnan because he’s the first PAP (Peoples’ Action Party) person who articulated why the government does what they do, in a very convincing and thorough manner.

It’s sad, but the media and many PAP politicians do a bad job in communicating the rationale for their policies. It’s either too simplified that it sounds ridiculous, or the person speaking assumes that we’re on the same channel (and see the world the same way as him/her) and makes too many assertions that many of us consider questionable.

I’ll be honest and say that while I don’t agree with some of the things said, I am nonetheless glad to at least have the opportunity to hear the justifications for many of the things the government does. When you read the gross over-simplifications in the news, you sometimes wonder if the country is run by rational people. But after our lunch discussion, I am glad to know that a lot of thought has indeed been put into their policy-making decisions. Of course, there is always room to debate the policies, but given the way they have framed the problems, the solutions they have conceived do indeed appear to be the necessary solutions.

The real question then is, has the PAP government framed the problems rightly? Should many of these national issues be framed in light of economics? Of course, I don’t know enough nor have I thought enough about these matters as of this moment. But I think these are indeed worth discussing.

Dr. Balakrishnan mentioned that one of the failings of the PAP was that they’ve been really bad at communicating policies. Seeing how the picture provided by him is more rational and worlds apart from the picture presented by the media, I wonder if the people who communicate these policies to the news ought to be shot for grossly oversimplifying things. (Personally, I think I can do a much better job than them if this was indeed the case) Of course, skeptics will question how is it possible that state-run media can do such a bad job. I don’t know.

Nonetheless, this is exactly what we need in our public discourse – a thorough discussion of why policies are what they are, with all the fine details included, making no assumptions that we necessarily see things from the same point of view. I do think that if ministers (and the media) make it a point to thoroughly discuss the fine details and all just like what Dr. Balakrishnan did at lunch, we can begin to have fruitful debates about our public policy. We may not necessarily agree, but at the very least, we can start to see why such a decision or proposal could even be rational at all. Too many issues are presented in a simplistic manner (in the news) that it seems more like badly-made decisions rather than well-thought decisions.

Once we begin to see that the other guy is rational (and not a moron), we begin to respect the other, and we can proceed with fruitful dialogue. I think this is what we urgently need in Singapore today, especially in the wake of increasing polarisation among PAP and opposition supporters.

When we begin to fight for our political parties like soccer teams, we cease to be rational, and democracy becomes no more than just a tyranny of the loudest – whoever shouts the loudest wins. This kind of democracy is not productive nor is it truly life-giving.

Anyway, I am glad that we had this lunch. We had good food and good food for thought. Thank you Dr. Balakrishnan! You’re amazing! My friends and I would love to have lunch with you again.