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Bertha Henson: "This GE: Let’s hear plans for a “new” Singapore"

By Bertha Henson

If the General Elections were held today, how would citizens vote? I don’t know, and I think social media comments aren’t a good gauge either going by how GE2015 predictions of Opposition inroads proved so wrong. If anything, both sides of the political divide seem to have dug their heels in since then, with mindless cheer-leading on one side, and mindless point-scoring on the other.

But a group of people have tried to answer the question by surveying 700 citizens of voting age. I usually don’t pay much attention to surveys, especially those conducted online, but I figure I should give this one a shot because they are the same people who actually got the GE2015 polling results right. They also asked the same questions as in past and worked on a representative sample, making some kind of comparison possible.

In any case, you can read the survey results for yourself here. Bear in mind that the survey was conducted between April 1 and April 4, before the circuit breaker measures were imposed on April 7.

The survey says that 47 per cent have “definitely decided” which party to vote for, with 33 per cent naming the People’s Action Party and the other 14 per cent plumping for the Opposition.

That leaves a large 53 per cent of voters in the “undecided’’ territory. Even so, when asked for their “leanings’’, 33 per cent indicated the PAP while the other 20 per cent suggested the Opposition. These results have a 4 per cent margin of error at the 95 per cent level of confidence. Compare this to GE2015, when 46 per cent were still undecided 10 days before Polling Day on Sept 11, according to the surveyors, Quad Research.

Of course, the problem is we don’t know when the coming GE will be held, except that it would sooner rather than later as Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat let fall yesterday. The 2015 survey was done in August when the hustings had already begun informally with political parties introducing their candidates to the people.

What I found intriguing is what citizens say they would base their vote on. There’s a huge disparity between then and now, as can be seen by the chart below. Party loyalty trumps everything else for the voters who had already decided. On the other hand, the candidate’s worth, which was a top priority before, has slipped drastically in voters’ consideration. And people seem to think that promises made mean more than the values of political parties.

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Is this the start of the kind of bifurcation of politics or partisanship that we see elsewhere? Or is it simply because the survey was done before political parties started introducing candidates and turning people’s attention to the worth of individuals?

I find it interesting because it seems that in “normal times’’, people don’t seem to consider the MP as a prime factor, even though the MP also takes care of the town council running their neighbourhood. Have the MPs blended into one faceless structure distinguished only by party colours? Have they been unable to engage their constituents well enough to leave some kind of impression?

As for the emphasis on “promises’’ rather than values and motivations of the political parties, I find this troubling. I hope that promises made by parties will be tempered by a measurement of the ability to deliver – and that voters will judge that as well.

The survey questions take their cue from other surveys done elsewhere, measuring general attitudes of the population, rather than the impact of current happenings. Since the General Election is NOT going to be held today, what other considerations will enter the minds of the Singapore voter?

Deputy Prime Minister Heng, the leader of the 4G politicians, said that the earlier the GE is held, “the earlier we can rally everybody together to deal with these very significant challenges ahead, and also to deal with these very significant uncertainties in the months and years ahead”. So it seems like a rallying cry for all to stand united behind a plan to forge ahead. Forward-looking.

His putative deputy, Mr Chan Chun Sing, said more or less the same thing a few days ago: “We would like, when the opportunity arises, to have a strong mandate because the challenges that we are going to face in the coming years will indeed be the challenge of an entire generation.”

This issue of “a mandate’’ seems to have seized the imaginations of some people. To me, it’s a term that is neither here nor there, and is shaped by whoever has the loudest voice. No one will say that the party which comes into power in our first-past-the-post system has not secured “a mandate’’. As for whether it is a strong mandate or a weak mandate, I can say that no politician in power will give you a number or percentage lest they have to eat their words. So is a weak mandate anything less than 70 per cent of votes for the PAP? Or is it 60 per cent? If so, what does it mean? That people don’t like their policies and so politicians have to change tack? That they will work doubly hard to win back confidence? Or, gulp, less hard? As I said, it depends on how he who has the loudest voice chooses to read the results.

Mr Chan said that when the time to vote comes, Singaporeans would be “wise enough to look at the government performance not just on an episodic event”. That is, they will look at how it has done in the long term.

Clearly, the 4G wants to position the PAP as the best bet for the country going forward, rather than dwell on a report card filled with “episodic events’’.

They are in an unenviable position. The outbreak was supposed to be their first big test, at least in the eyes of most people, before it was suddenly re-framed as a test for “this generation”. Every 4G leader was lined up to play a role while the senior people sat on the bench, so to speak.

But the outbreak isn’t an episodic event. It is something that will stay with us even after the circuit breaker measures are lifted (not I say one, gar-men say one). Casting a vote in the time of the virus will further impress on citizens the need to assess the ability of the 4G to combat what it calls an evil and smart virus. (You can hear the catcalls from the opposition already about U-turns, foresight, blind side and hindsight. Read this.)

As for thinking “long-term’’, I am not sure that the 4G should take most of the credit for anything that was the result of their seniors’ work. In fact, I actually thought it was a good thing for them that most of the hard-hitting stuff that got people riled up, like the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act and the Public Order (Special Powers) Act and the race element incorporated into the office of the elected President, was fronted by the more senior people. I thought to myself, wah, good way to clear the decks for the 4G to build on.

I daresay the Covid-19 outbreak was meant to be their big debut and plans were readied for an early poll because Singapore seemed to have licked the problem a few months ago. Hence, the release of the revised electoral boundaries and introduction of measures to ensure a safe election. But things went awry with the outbreak in foreign worker dormitories.

So what ammunition does the PAP have now? More likely, it will dwell on what is its forte – economic measures and the wherewithal (the result of past governments) it has to ease the pain of the lockdown and getting the economy back to a somewhat steady state.

But just as the G keeps saying that a new normal will be in place, it needs to start fashioning a vision of that new normal. Is it only going to be more work-from-home and home-based learning with some face-time in between? Should the Future Economy Council be looking at a new economic model that doesn’t just have “digital’’ in every line?

The outbreak has made us more aware of the reliance we have on foreign workers, the need for a strong healthcare system, the vagaries of relying on global connectivity for a living, the plight of the invisible poor and the homeless. I was terribly surprised, for example, that 450,000 people registered for the Temporary Relief Fund in April to get $500. To qualify, they need to show at least a 30 per cent drop in income.

We need to start talking about trade-offs, whether to accept a slower rate of growth and how to keep Singapore going in the years to come.

Another interesting point about the survey: more people believe they have a right to social safety nets. This move to the left is evident in both camps, with less disagreement between them than on other issues.

I know that every GE has been categorised as a “watershed” or “landmark” GE, but I think these labels will definitely fit the coming one.

It’s time for a new Singapore, not just more of the same.

This article originally appeared on Bertha Harian.

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