A very happy new year to everyone. We will start 2020 with one simple question: Is Singapore still in a period of more new normal ushered in by the Workers’ Party’s capture of a GRC in 2011? Or is it settling down into an even newer but unexciting normal – which does not augur well for the Opposition?
When the WP defeated a strong PAP team anchored by two Cabinet ministers in Aljunied GRC, there was much soul-searching by the ruling party. At the end of it all, the establishment put on a brave face and went to work, as Singapore supposedly entered an era where a strong, indeed growing, Opposition, would be the new norm (or normal), to be accepted as part of Singapore’s political landscape from there on. That sentiment was boosted in that 2011 elections by the fairly vigorous showing of the WP in other wards and some other credible Opposition parties elsewhere, including in Toa Payoh-Bishan and Holland-Bukit Timah GRCs.
The beginning of the end of the PAP then? No.
Unfortunately for the Opposition, the PAP did not just sit down and gaze at its navel, however shell-shocked it probably was. It went into Grand Recovery 101 mode. Every other major source of grievance was addressed, from healthcare, to transport, to education to housing to jobs to curbing the influx of foreign workers. The result was a voter swing back of 9.72 per cent in 2015 from its 2011 performance. The WP barely held on in Aljunied.
Historically the election cycle usually sees a 5 per cent swing one way or the other from election to election, as voters assess and react to the term performance of the incumbent. So there may be the traditional clawback by the Opposition of up to 5 per cent in the next General Elections.
Will that be enough? I have painted in a column last year a plausible scenario of who the electable politicians are. But that does not mean they will be elected. They are just the more credible, sensible candidates offering real solutions or possessing enough charisma to contribute to the national agenda. And they will be pitted against a well-oiled, well-funded and well-entrenched political party which has a strong brand recognition of performance and delivery, notwithstanding its dark and ugly side as a somewhat soul-less, self-serving and arrogant entity to many Singaporeans.
Unless and until some dramatic developments take place, I think we may be in for a period of a consolidating newer normal. We may have to get used to it, given that a vast majority of Singaporeans are, all said and done, realists, not particularly prone to any tendency to rock the boat.
The first somewhat obvious fact is that the Lee Kuan Yew effect will fade. The PAP may want to flog this to death for whatever it’s worth but it will wear off. It’s a bygone era. And, ironically, Opposition parties thinking of talking about anyone losing his or her way are themselves caught in a fossilised Jurassic era. Move on.
I agree with Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Political Science who was quoted by TODAY Online as saying: “Those who think the Workers’ Party handled the situation as best as they can will continue to see things in this manner. Those who are disposed against the WP over the issue will hold on to these views. I do not think either group will really change their minds at this stage.
“That it has dragged on for so long means that the AHTC issue has become normalised as part of regular politics in Singapore.”
Next, POFMA will become part of the local political and media life. It will be exercised, maybe liberally, to push forward the establishment’s narrative or point of view or sets of figures. Besides its function as a pushback or “correcting” mechanism, it will act as a psychological tactic to persuade or convince Singaporeans that there are media or political forces outside the country with their own agendas and will not yield, even if they are wrong.
Fourthly, we may not, for the time being, see the emergence of Parliamentarians like the iconic JB Jeyaretnam, Chiam See Tong, Low Thia Khiang or even Sylvia Lim anymore. In retrospect, these were the giants of the times. And what of today and the foreseeable future? One ray of hope is Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who was a strong PAP MP and who has surely not returned as part of the Opposition to fight in a single seat. But does he have anyone of the calibre of, for example, the WP Secretary-General Pritam Singh or Yee Jenn Jong or Leon Perera, both career achievers and who are also respected politicians not prone to ranting or mouthing nonsense, to form his Progress Singapore Party’s A and B teams for a GRC battle or two?
For Singaporeans to take a chance, they must be very angry about something, see a real threat to their wellbeing or livelihood or be persuaded that someone else other than the PAP has a workable and fresh alternative vision. And they would rather take that chance with a group of young 30 to 40-ish leaders who can be with them for at least the next one or two decades.
Otherwise, this will be our newer post-2011, post-2015 normal for the years to come – an unexciting set of PAP 4G leaders trudging along and building on the foundation already laid by the 1G leaders.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of The Independent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.