Heng Swee Keat, 60, was supposed to be the white knight leader ushering Singaporeans out of Covid-19 and, in the process, cementing his promised premiership, as Lee HsienLoong steps down. In the end, he became a political casualty of the pandemic which is still with us today. And there is a big question mark on who Singapore’s next Prime Minister will be. More important, DPM Heng’s stepping aside is in itself a symptom of a ruling party in crisis, which is an even more serious problem.
With speculation rife about an impending general election and the looming spectre of the Covid-19 virus, Heng produced his Budget in February 2020 which was thought generous enough to allay the fears of worried Singaporeans. After that, hold a fast election and, based on what happened to the Opposition in GE2015 when it was nearly wiped out, the 4G leaders probably believed they would ride triumphantly in to bring the country forward into the brave new world. Three more budgets and with a total of $100 billion thrown in, instead the Workers’ Party captured Sengkang GRC, reinforced its hold in Aljunied GRC and Hougang and did well in East Coast GRC against Heng and his GRC team. If not for West Coast GRC, Bukit Panjang and Marymount, Nicole Seah could have been an NCMP. That was how badly the PAP did in East Coast.
What happened? Miscalculation and misreading of the ground.
The party wanted to seize the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to bond itself with voters, especially the younger ones, in the same way that LKY and his team had forged a relationship with Singaporeans. C-19 was this generation’s crucible, its battle for merger, its British troop withdrawal. The thinking was not wrong. The results of current efforts to reinvent Singapore to take advantage of the disruptions caused by the pandemic may yet bear fruit for future generations, if handled in such a manner that does not sideline or sacrifice true-blue citizens in the quest to become a super global city state.
Along with dealing with the virus and preparing for the future, the pandemic also gave the 4G leaders what they thought was a chance to stem the growing pro-Opposition tide in 2011. Aslew of policy corrections led to the big swing back to the PAP in 2015. Holding GE2020 in the middle of the pandemic, with all its movement restrictions, would make life difficult for the Opposition which used to rely on open rallies to make their presence felt. Online rallies would presumably give the party with the best resources the best chances.
Covid-19 turned out to be a nightmare instead of an opportunity for the 4G leaders, at least for their GE2020 plans.
A gross miscalculation that the yearning for a larger Opposition had been largely dissipated by the 2015 rectification policies was one factor behind the GE2020 shocks. The desire was merely postponed because of Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, as Singaporeans across all ages and races paid their debt to him. It came back with a vengeance in GE2020. If the PAP had foreseen this, it would not have madethe mistake of moving Heng to East Coast where his inadequacies as a future PM were cruelly exposed, notwithstanding his East Coast team’s ability to stave off the WP team of first-timers in the ward. He should have stayed on in Tampines.
The switch to online politicking did not put the Opposition at a disadvantage at all. The more credible parties have long since progressed beyond the fly-by-night once-in-every-five- years existence. They have become more committed and more sophisticated. Many of their volunteers and talents are more than familiar with online platforms, thus nullifying whatever advantage the PAP has had with its better resources. It’s not the technical which counts it’s the content and heartware.
This became obvious when the GE2020 online war began. All the major Opposition parties could easily connect with younger voters, especially the first-time ones. Suddenly, voters could watch the performances of candidates from the comfort of their homes. Put simply, the un-doctored truth was in front of them.
The millennials could easily identify themselves with such candidates as Jamus Lim, He Ting Ru, Raeesah Khan, Nicole Seah and Wendy Low who all have strong screen presence. And these politicians continue to polish up their public images beyond the election.
It is not enough to let your younger MPs more time in Parliament and more exposure in public forums. The party will have to allow them more leeway to disagree with government policies otherwise it is all wayang to observers.
This more sophisticated new environment will require leaders who can project a confident persona and yet be genuinely empathetic.
Of the three touted front-runners to become Singapore’s next PM, it is clear which two have the all-important more charismatic public image. Of the two, Lawrence Wong, who has not lost in an election, has my vote. Covid-19 has claimed a big victim but it has also thrown up a potential good leader for the times.
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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