GE2015 not a return to “old normal” – book launch panel

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Voting in Change, 2011 and Change in Voting, 2015

By Howard Lee

While many might fear that the massive vote swing to the ruling People’s Action Party during the 2015 General Elections signalled a return to the politics of old, there is reason to believe that the “new normal” that was touted to be the hallmark of GE2011 was still present.

This was a view shared by panel members at the book launch of Change in Voting – Singapore’s 2015 General Election, which was held at 10 Square on 20 February.

Dr Terence Lee
Dr Terence Lee

Dr Terence Lee, from Murdoch University in Australia and who co-edited the book with Dr Kevin Tan from the National University of Singapore, said that what was experienced in GE2011, which saw a massive vote swing against the PAP and the loss of a Group Representative Constituency, would not be easily swept away simply because the votes swung back.

“The new normal has started. There is a lot more political consciousness among younger Singaporeans that has been heightened (since 2011),” said Dr Lee. “Political awareness is there compared to before 2011.”

Dr Lam Peng Er, from the National University of Singapore, agrees that “the trend of the new normal continues,” as younger voters in Singapore today are more likely to subscribe to pluralistic options in politics.

Dr Lam Peng Er
Dr Lam Peng Er

“However, this might not mean they will automatically vote for the opposition,” he also cautioned.

The success of opposition parties in winning votes will need to depend on how they project themselves to citizens.

Dr Loh Kah Seng, from Sogang University in South Korea, pointed out that during GE2015, opposition parties did not put in enough effort to call out problems, although it was apparent to him and economists like Donald Low that issues like public housing were far from being solved.

“GE2015 was like the election of the paraphrase,” said Dr Loh. “The opposition’s campaign slogans began to sound very much like old PAP slogans, such as “Housing for the Nation”. Voters have no incentive to vote for the opposition as (these statements) reaffirms what the PAP has done well.”

Dr Loh Kah Seng
Dr Loh Kah Seng

The panel did recognise that parties like the Singapore Democratic Party took the effort to craft serious policy proposals, particularly in education. However, these positions were often “negated in the lead up to the campaign period,” said Dr Lee.

For instance, news like the principal of Raffles Institution calling out elitism in schools raised serious issues about the education system, but were highlighted so early that they were “done and dusted” by the time the campaigning begun.

Similarly, the Transport Minister stepping down changed media attention. “There was a shift in conversations (during the GE). It was no longer about breakdowns, but who will be appointed the next Transport Minister,” said Dr Lee.

Adding to that was also the fact that voter sentiments have changed.

Dr Terence Chong
Dr Terence Chong

Dr Terence Chong, from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, who spent some time watching people at election rallies, noted that voters were generally less angry this time around.

“In 2011, due to the breakdown in public policy, election rallies became an important space for the performance of anger,” said Dr Chong. “By 2015, the PAP did its work, and moved to the left. The sense of anger just wasn’t there.”

One aspect of GE2015 that the panellists did not seem to agree on was whether factors like the death of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and SG50 will continue to figure in the next GE.

While some felt that the national leader could only die once and the problems that plague current policies will still continue, if not get worse, it was also suggested that it will not be beyond the PAP to continue trotting out the PAP’s track record to bolster its credibility, as these were undeniably written into our history.

“The media loop of old speeches and visuals of our country struck a chord with the people,” said Dr Chong. “There was a sense that the father is gone and the child must grow up. There was this sense of vulnerability,” which he said contributed to a flight towards the PAP.

On the other hand, “while the image of what LKY constructed can be re-invoked, there is a need to question some of the policies that got us to where we are today, but not based on old narratives,” said Dr Lee.

Nevertheless, there was some agreement among the authors that the PAP would continue to use election goodies to make sure that voters feel “everyone has received something from the government”, which has the effect of placating voters and garnering support for the ruling party.

Change in Voting – Singapore’s 2015 General Election is published by Ethos Books and is available for sale online. The book features 16 contributors covering a broad range of analysis on GE2015, including the policy issues that mattered or should have mattered, and campaign analysis. Also included: The bookie’s prediction list that many thought was the key cause of the panic vote towards the PAP.