Gerald Giam / Senior Writer
I happened to sit next to an older relative at a wedding dinner recently, when our conversation turned to politics.
My relative wondered why I had not followed my parents to Australia, and mused that he was considering moving there too. When I asked why, he cited the fear of political instability in Singapore.
That remark surprised me since Singapore is seen by many to be one of the most politically stable countries in Asia. We have had no change of government – violent or otherwise – since 1959.
When probed further, my uncle said he feared the opposition taking over in a freak election. I assured him that given the current state of the opposition, the PAP government will not be under any threat of losing an election within his lifetime. More importantly, I told him I trust Singapore voters to be wise enough not to vote a lousy party into power.
He countered by pointing out that even when the opposition had fielded "criminals" and slipper-wearing candidates, they were still able to garner 20 to 30% of the vote.
I explained, from my limited knowledge of electoral sociology, that in every election, there will be at least 20% of voters who are hardcore oppositionists and will vote for anyone who ran against the ruling party candidate. In Sembawang GRC where I live, 23% still voted for the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) team sans party chief Chee Soon Juan, even though it was running against a relatively strong PAP team helmed by the likable and Chinese-speaking Health Minister, Khaw Boon Wan. That was the largest margin of victory for the PAP in that election.
However the gulf between 23% and 50% — the latter being the percentage necessary to win a seat outright — is huge. Even in the most closely contested constituency of Aljunied GRC in the 2006 General Election, the PAP's 55% win against the Workers' Party would be considered a landslide in most other democracies. Consider the UK's Labour Party, which won the 2005 election with just 35% of the popular vote. Put in this perspective, the PAP's 66.6% overall percentage in 2006 was a blowout victory.
My uncle admires the PAP for what they have achieved, not just for Singapore, but for him personally. Growing up in a one-room flat, and now living in a private apartment, he has seen a dramatic improvement in his standard of living over the past 40 years. He reserved stinging criticism for some of his peers who "live in bungalows" and are still so ungrateful as to grumble about the government.
I cautioned him that past performance is no guarantee of future success, as investors always say. Just because the PAP has governed well in the past, does not mean that it will continue to do so for eternity. My uncle agreed that no country has had a particular party govern forever.
In the short term however, he was supremely confident that the PAP's recruitment process will ensure that only top-notch candidates are presented in each election. In contrast, he said, the opposition was happy to take anyone who had a degree and was willing to pay the election deposit, even if they had no "track record".
"What is your definition of a track record?" I asked him. Many of the new PAP MPs don't exactly have a very long resume either. Nevertheless, he was sure that with the many interviews they had undergone with party leaders, coupled with the background checks, PAP candidates would definitely meet the necessary criteria for political leadership.
I asked him if he would consider voting for a non-PAP candidate if he or she were more "qualified" than the PAP candidate.
After initially saying he would, he later reasoned that it would be impossible for an opposition candidate to be as qualified as his PAP opponent. Firstly, the PAP's recruitment process would throw up only the best men in the country. Secondly, anyone worth their salt, who genuinely desired to serve the people and make Singapore a better place would join the PAP instead of the opposition.
He was of the view that a capable person would be "out of his mind" to join the opposition, and that people who joined the opposition did so only out of self-interest or ulterior motives. Why else would someone want to oppose such an "excellent" government? Apparently, joining the opposition in and of itself indicated a character flaw.
He dismissed the possibility that some principled individuals joined the opposition because they could not see themselves joining the PAP due to fundamental disagreements with the latter's style of governance. He also did not see the price many opposition members paid for their political beliefs as worthy of much respect.
Our heated discussion went on and on. In the end it was time to go home and we had to agree to disagree.
What the opposition fails to see
While I was slightly dismayed to hear these words from an educated senior citizen like my uncle, I have no doubt that he represents a significant constituency of citizens who have a "rags-to-riches" story to tell.
His point of view is particularly instructive for our opposition.
From my past conversations with many opposition members, I get the sense that many of them joined because they felt a need to "check" the ruling party — nothing else. And many of them think that just because they are not the PAP, and they shake a few hands and show up on Nomination Day, voters will choose them over their rivals.
This is a recipe for defeat — again and again, election after election.
What they fail to see is that the "swing" voters (i.e., those who may vote either way on Polling Day and who effectively decide the outcome of an election) are largely voting for a party to form the Government, not individuals who merely snap at the heels of the PAP behemoth.
Therefore, to win their vote, the opposition parties have to prove to these voters that they are competent and honest enough to lead the whole country, not just their ward, and will not end up flushing half a century of progress down the drain.
The opposition has two crutches that it always falls back on: One, that the unlevel political playing field created by the PAP makes it impossible to mount any significant challenge to it; and two, that good people do not step forward to join their parties.
These are both true to a great extent, but it should not stop the opposition parties from improving themselves internally, so as to present a more professional face to the voting public.
People want to hear different, and better ideas from the opposition on how to run the country, not just gripes about every little fault of the PAP.
It is not unusual that many Singaporeans hold the opposition to a higher standard than they do for the ruling party. After all, the opposition has no track record of successfully running a nation, and therefore has to prove they are twice as good as their PAP opponents before they will earn the vote.
It is my hope that our opposition will shift to a higher gear soon, and that more good men and women will join them. The next election is due by November 2011. With the economy heading south, it is likely that the Prime Minister will call for an election much earlier than that (since a poor economy generally favours the PAP over the opposition).
Time is running out, and the people's hopes are slowly getting dashed. Can the opposition turn things around and dispel people's fear of their success?