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TOC Campaign Roundup: PAP’s chaotic campaign staggers towards finish line

Andrew Loh with input from the TOC team /

The People’s Action Party’s (PAP) greatest asset has always been its’ iron discipline and portrayal of a united front.

But any objective observer will agree that the 2011 election will be remembered as the year that the image cracked, and Singaporeans began to see a remarkably fractured party running a finicky, nearly panicked campaign.

PAP’s new blood under fire

It was an inauspicious start: the morning of nomination day saw panic in the PAP’s Tampines team as unionist candidate Steve Tan pulled out in the early morning, to be replaced by Baey Yam Keng from Tanjong Pagar GRC.

Grassroots leaders in Mr Baey’s constituency were left in tears, as rumors swirled for the next few days about accusations of sexual harassment that were leveled at Mr Tan during his time in the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Two days of momentum lost.

The PAP was on the back foot even before the campaign began, as strong doubt was cast on the quality of the much touted “fourth generation leadership”.

Mr Janil Puthucheary had to fend off derision from Singaporeans who resented that he had never served National Service and Major-General Chan Chun Sing will probably take a few elections to live down the nickname “Major-General of Lanfang” after a widely derided speech structured around an obscure civilization delivered as a patronizingly “plebian” harangue.

But the loudest pre-election outcry was reserved for 27 year-old Tin Pei Ling. Every interview she gave resulted in a new gaffe, reaching a point where Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong had to promise that Marine Parade residents needn’t worry as he would implement a buddy system where more experienced MPs would hold the hands of the younger MPs.

Play it naughty or play it nice?

The question on everyone’s mind prior to the campaign was not whether, but who, would be the lightning rod candidate in GE 2011. In elections past, the PAP has, as the Chinese saying goes, killed a chicken to scare the monkeys. Singaporeans held their breath and wondered who would follow in the footsteps of James Gomez, Dr Chee, Tang Liang Hong and Francis Seow.

This time round the tables were turned on the PAP, and every effort to reverse their fortunes by going on the attack backfired.

When Dr Vivian Balakrishnan trained his sights on Dr Vincent Wijeysingha of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) by accusing the party of having a gay agenda, some thought that lightning had struck. It turned out to be a false alarm, as the backlash over Dr Balakrisnan’s attack was strong enough even within the PAP to stop Dr Balakrishnan’s line of attack in its tracks.

Despite Mr Goh Chok Tong’s personal call for a gentlemanly campaign and a promise not to comment on opposition candidates outside his GRC, he hit out in the middle of the campaign at the SDP’s Mr Tan Jee Say, his former Principle Private Secretary, and alleged that he left the civil service as he was “not perm sec material”.

When challenged by Mr Tan, who said he did not expect such comments after “five years of loyal service”, Mr Goh backtracked and said that he was a “loyal, dedicated and able PPS”.

The Aljunied Panic

Throughout the campaign, the PAP was receiving warning signs that all was not well with the ground. Lee Hsien Long and Khaw Boon Wan acknowledged that the ground in this election was not as sweet.

But what was a simmering dissatisfaction boiled over into anger when Mr Lee Kuan Yew warned that the voters of Aljunied would “regret” and “repent” over the next five years if they voted in a Worker’s Party (WP) team.

This was a turning point in the election, when the less hardline members of the PAP realized that unless the anger was contained, it would be looking at a much larger vote swing than it was willing to accept. Mr Lee’s comments were decisively repudiated by his son.

The operation to “save” the Aljunied PAP team had begun in earnest, but it looked like no one was coordinating where that fire was directed.

Mr Goh fired the first bullets: directly into the face of Wong Kan Seng. His defense of George Yeo probably left members of his own party cringing. Unlike Mr Wong, he said, Mr Yeo had not let a dangerous terrorist escape under his watch. With friends like these…

The situation showed no sign of improving, with just two days to the end of the campaign period, the Singapore River to his back, PM took a risky gamble: he apologized for the most egregious mistakes under his watch. Not once, but twice.

Perhaps it was bad timing, and perhaps there was nothing short of breaking down in tears like Lim Boon Heng that could have made the apology work, but by the last day of campaigning the opposition was already turning Mr Lee’s apology into political capital.

In nine days of campaigning, the opposition argued, they have forced the stiff necked PAP into apologizing for five years of mistakes. Think of how much more the opposition could deliver if they had a significant presence in Parliament.

And indeed, more than wringing an apology out of the Mr Lee, the opposition has managed to squeeze significant concessions from the PAP.

They have extracted an explicit promise not to raise GST in the next term of Parliament, they have forced an upward revision of the income ceiling for Built-to-order flats, and they have forced Lee Hsien Loong to recognize that closing the “affective divide” Catherine Lim warned them about is important.

Recognizing that the PAP’s “rule by Pragmatism” was collapsing around its’ ears, PAP leaders plaintively tugged at the heartstrings of voters.

GE 2011 will forever be remembered as the one where PAP leaders shed tears and apologized. Whether the tears and apologies are enough to get people to cross the box beside the lightning bolt remains to be seen.

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