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Confrontation part of political engagement. By Anthony Yeo.

Obama’s win: Lessons for local politicians

Anthony Yeo / Guest Writer

The highlight of the Review (Insight) page in the Straits Times (ST November 7) highlighted lessons for local politics arising from Barack Obama’s historic and unprecedented election victory to become the 44th president of the United States.

The five articles raised questions on whether style, youth, the internet, colour or the grassroots matter in gaining victory in an election for leadership of a nation.

Whilst these are pertinent questions to deliberate on and debate, I wonder if we should not also consider another lesson for discussion. This is not about lessons for local politics but a very poignant lesson for local politicians about how to engage in political competition.

Focus on issues – not personalities

My thoughts were triggered by observations of campaigns of past and present American elections for the presidency and in particular from listening to the two speeches by Senator John McCain and President-elect Barack Obama.

The first observation is the manner in which candidates engage in political debates. Whether they did that in separate campaign trails or in direct opposition to each other in staged debates, there was always a focus on issues rather than personalities.

Of course in challenging each other on issues, references had often been made to the competency and the capability of the opponent. This was done in a spirit of competition, challenge and combat. They were seldom attempts at personal attacks.

In the process, what seemed to feature rather prominently was the lack of malicious intent. Neither was there any personal sensitivity despite occasional swipes directly or indirectly, at each other’s personal character.

There was also a stark absence of any personal affront and no talk about taking each one to court for libel, defamation or slander.

In fact, the media entered the fray with many comical portrayals of the candidates. This included Tina Fey’s mimicking of Mrs Sarah Palin’s campaigning performance. Palin was virtually ridiculed openly without her taking any offence.

Graciousness

Then there were the usual speeches by the victor and the vanquished following the election results. This part of the election was most captivating not for their speeches but the manner in which each acknowledged defeat or victory.

In this instance, what was most significant was the concession speech of Senator John McCain. He was gracious in defeat, magnanimous in offering congratulations and appropriately composed in conceding victory to Barack Obama.

What was most touching was the way he chided his supporters for booing when he urged support for Obama since he would be the next president. This was augmented by his comment that the frightful cruel bigotry of the past against the blacks should not be allowed to prevail as he hailed the entry of a black president to the White House.

McCain even pledged to work with Obama for the well-being of the nation despite being in the opposition’s camp.

On the part of the victor, there was not only gratitude for victory but a reciprocal demonstration of grace by Obama in acknowledging the generous congratulations of John McCain.

The rest of the speech had already captured our attention, admiration and adulation. It was not only focused on issues and challenges, it was also a pledge to embrace his opponents and all those who did not vote for him. In fact, he declared that he would listen to those who would disagree with him and to those who did not vote for him, he would want to be their president as well.

As I observed and listened to the campaigns all these months, culminating in the speeches by Senator John McCain and President-elect Barack Obama, I was not only viscerally moved but cognitively challenged. I was moved by their posture, composure and grace and cognitively wondered how our local politicians could emulate them in political encounters and endeavours.

Criticisms and confrontation part of political engagement

One wish I have is for our politicians to learn to focus on issues rather than engage in personal attacks, sometimes of a scathing nature. And if personal challenges are made to integrity, competency and quality for political leadership, may our politicians desist from threats of legal actions.

Perhaps part of the lesson to learn is to appreciate that challenges, criticisms and confrontations are features of political engagement and no one should take anything personally.

The other lesson to learn is to treat each other as opponents, not enemies. It is remarkable that the two American candidates could be debating vigorously at one moment and then shaking hands or even embracing at the end of a debate.

The sceptics would hail such behaviour as political showmanship but one cannot deny that there was no obvious demonstration of animosity or hostility despite differences between them.

Treat everyone as equals

One other considerable lesson has to do with how the candidates handled defeat and victory. Hopefully our politicians can be gracious in conceding defeat, instead of berating those who did not vote for them or threatening to punish them with penalties if they voted for the opposition.

For the victor, one wonders when the day will come when local politicians adopt the attitude of Barack Obama, in being benevolent to the opponent and reaching out to those in the opposition camp. Regardless of whom they vote for, all who vote for the opposition are still citizens of the nation and would obviously want a stake in its welfare.

If it were difficult to appreciate the opposition for who they are and even if politicians do not wish to adopt Abraham Lincoln’s attitude that “we are not enemies but friends” in the political arena, at least may there be no hostility.

The more I ponder over the behaviour of McCain and Obama the more I find myself engaging in some hopeful reverie that our local politicians will acknowledge and appreciate that whichever camp they are in, they are all working for the nation regardless of their political agendas

There is no need to discount or demean intentions of opponents as our ruling party have been prone to do by constantly ascribing ill-intentions to their political agenda. After all, for better or worse, politicians are still one of us and even if they were from the opposition, it is unthinkable that they would wish to demolish whatever has been achieved in Singapore.

To that extent, I too have a dream for Singapore. Hopefully I can live long enough to experience this dream becoming a reality.

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