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General Election: Will all rallies now look like PAP ones – with cap of 250?

Sense and Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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Liverpool is the runaway leader in the English Premier League. It has amassed 82 points after 29 games, 29 points ahead of Manchester City, which has only 53 points with a game in hand. Then Covid-19 reared its ugly head and the EPL is now in hiatus, with questions over when or whether it will resume. Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, hid his disappointment magnificently with this statement: “First and foremost we have to do what we can to protect one another. In society, I mean. This should be the case all the time in life, but in this moment I think it matters more than ever. I’ve said before that football always seems the most important of the least important things, and today football and football matches really aren’t important at all.”

And so the EPL has taken an indefinite leave of absence, a casualty of Covid-19, like a growing number of people and communities around the world.

In Singapore, even as the government adopts a measured strategy in dealing with the pandemic, it is readying the country for a General Election.

On surface, the ruling party maintains that it will monitor the situation, giving itself the room and the political licence and excuse to go to the polls as it deems fit. It takes the line that life must go on and that the deck must be cleared willy nilly to tackle all the problems arising out of Covid-19 and beyond. The pandemic is being touted as the very reason for an early GE.

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As expected, the Opposition has attacked the probability or imminence of an early GE in the middle of the pandemic, describing any decision to hold one as irresponsible. Perhaps, the most credible voice of dissent would that of Progress Singapore Party’s Dr Tan Cheng Bock.

He said: “As a doctor, I am extremely concerned for those over 60 years old if an election is called soon.

“…Candidates and their volunteers from all parties will move around neighbourhood estates, markets and make door to door home visits. Crowds will gather at rallies. On polling day, every Singaporean must physically cast their vote at polling stations in the presence of polling agents, policemen and many others. This goes against good advice to practise social distancing by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and MOH.

“…This is a public health issue and we need to follow the advice of medical professionals, local (eg the Singapore Medical Association) and international (eg the WHO). Let’s listen to the doctors and let them guide our decisions to avoid a potential health crisis.”

The Singapore Democratic Party said it is the worst possible time to hold an election while the Workers’ Party urged the government “to take caution and exercise judiciousness in calling for a GE. Whatever decision that is made must be one that is in the best interests of Singapore, our democracy and the public health of Singaporeans”.

This means the two political parties in Singapore who have presence in Parliament with duly elected and currently serving representatives – the PAP and the WP – do not see the virus pandemic as a reason for holding back the election. Why? They already have high public profiles, proven track records of both community service and performance in Parliament, successful election experience and solid community outreach to do battle, whatever the date for Polling Day.

WP’s Pritam Singh merely raised concern about how “uncanny” it was that the “SMCs which the WP contested are sort of removed even after just one election, which is quite curious”.  Fengshan, Sengkang West and Punggol East SMCs, which the party had contested in recent elections with strong showings, have been absorbed into GRCs.

But the WP leader said: “We are price-takers, not price-setters.”

Tactically, most of the other Opposition parties will make all the right politically advantageous noises of concern. They would be naïve, if they are at all serious players, however, not to expect and prepare for an early election.

But they will face some really daunting odds.

An astute observer put it succinctly for me: “It is going to be about jobs and security. Only the PAP can offer assurance on these. The Opposition won’t even be able to get their message out.”

On actual performance, concrete action (and not just talk) and delivery, the incumbent holds almost all the cards. Budget 2020, described as a Corvid-19 budget by some, was a genuine sweetener. A second, supplementary, stimulus budget is on the way. With personal payouts, job help subsidies and business aid packages scheduled and stretched through the months ahead, voters will be constantly reminded of who is buttering their bread or is a position to take care of their welfare and well-being.

Yet perhaps potentially the most formidable of all the odds for this coming election can be reduced to a number: 250.

All events and gatherings with 250 or more participants will be banned from now until Jun 30, according to the Ministry of Health.

For events and gatherings with fewer than 250 participants, organisers and event venue operators are required to implement precautionary measures to ensure separation of at least a metre between participants, said MOH.

So is this goodbye to large political rallies, at least for this GE? No more Anfield-like atmosphere? Looks like GE2020 will be a livestreaming battle of small rallies, forums, political messages, social media journalism and TV broadcasts. And kilometres of walkabouts and masked greetings.

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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