By Howard Lee
There is really very little to debate about when Singapore will go to the polls to pick its next government. The call for when the General Election is to be held rests squarely on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and with the announcement of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) report, it is merely a matter of months away at most, by historical reckoning.
A few opposition parties have expressed unhappiness at what is likely to be an election in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, for the PAP government to call an election at a time when it is also advocating social distancing and scale down of public events is bafflingly dis-synchronous.
It is, of course, not impossible to hold an election without mass gatherings, although both opposition parties and democracy will clearly be negatively affected, if this were to happen. Citizens have traditionally gravitated towards the mass rallies held by opposition parties; and walkabouts remain an important platform for politicians, who do not have the benefit of persistent national media coverage, to gain mindshare. Social interaction between citizens also form an important part of increasing awareness about policy alternatives presented by the various parties, something that the bite-sized flame-baiting going on in social media today cannot possibly offer.
Indeed, the best possible chance for the average voter to have a good grasp on their political choice is to turn to media coverage, either mainstream or online and preferably both, to get their “fix” of politics and the campaigning during an election.
We can expect the media to go full out during an election, and that is actually why, for our benefit, it is a terrible idea to have an election during the current pandemic.
Some would argue that Singapore has crested the peak of the outbreak, although the constant emergence of new cases proves the elusiveness of this hope. But even if the worst is indeed over, we have not seen the end of the after-effects of the coronavirus.
There have already been cases of private landlords who evicted tenants quarantined due to the virus, commercial landlords not passing down rebates to stallholders who are affected by the outbreak, and scalpers who profiteer from high-demand items during the pandemic. There are also incidents of corporations possibly forcing their employees to take no-pay leave during the downturn, or even excessive retrenchment and salary-cutting measures.
The Government has largely responded, if it did, to these incidents with a “we will monitor and threaten employers when necessary” approach – hardly reassuring for the many caught up in these situations.
The media’s ability to focus on these trickle-down issues of the virus and prompting the Government to take action will be important in ensuring that our society recovers from the pandemic with those most affected getting the best possible outcome. The media’s attention on those taking unfair advantage of the Government’s assistance schemes will also highlight loopholes in these measures, and for the Government to be judged effectively for its efforts in combating, not just the virus, but its economic and social fallout.
An election will effectively put all that on the backburner, at precisely the time when closer scrutiny is needed on actions by companies and individuals that short-change citizens and take advantage of government schemes. For the Government, it is a matter of planning with a macro perspective. But for citizens, it is a matter of life and death.
We can expect that the media, caught between an election and the virus outbreak, will shift its focus to the elections and cover scantily on the outbreak – most likely, on infection and recovery numbers doled out by the Government.
But the negative spill-over effects of the pandemic? Well, which media outlet would now have the capacity to do both? Mainstream media have been steadily reducing its reporting strength, and most online media outlets are barely staying afloat.
We could be presented with a veneer of calm – “Yes the economy might be limping along, but hey all is fine, and oh we have polling day around the corner, how exciting!”
A responsible government will make a reasonable choice, knowing full well that calling an election at this time – given Singapore’s unique confluence of business-centric capitalism, bureaucratic hands-off approach to social redistribution and a shrinking media sector – would not be doing right by citizens, even if you ignore the negative effects on the political climate.
An irresponsible government, on the other hand, will make a political choice that will have certain viral consequences beyond the elections that linger on after the outbreak.
Such a choice resides squarely with the Prime Minister. To say that the situation of the pandemic determines the date of the General Election is just shifting responsibility to something we can’t even see with our bare eyes.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG