By Howard Lee
It will be inevitable that even at a casual event, questions on the looming general election will pop up. Such is the power of media hype.
The question that a friend asked me last weekend was, “What are the issues that swing voters would vote on?” His question was premised on the simple, and most definitely true, assertion that the coming GE would be decided by swing voters – those who have not decided on which party they prefer, possibly until the moment they cast their ballot, and are just as likely to vote for the incumbent or the contender.
Bear in mind, swing voters will not decide whether the incumbent People’s Action Party wins or loses, but by what percentage it would win, which would then send a signal about whether PAP is setting the right policies for the country.
We arrived at three levels at which swing voters could potentially make their decision:
- Democracy issues – that their vote determines the level of political participation in the country
- Trigger issues – things that happen close to polling day, such as another train breakdown
- Bread-and-butter issues – things that affect their everyday needs, such as education, jobs, cost of living
We concluded that the last scenario was the most likely, at least in garnering the bulk of the swing votes. Only a small number will vote based on the belief that their vote would have an impact on democratic participation in Parliament, and even fewer would allow themselves to be swayed by trigger issues, if they have not already had enough of train breakdowns already.
The PAP clearly has a bead on bread-and-butter issues. Even the Prime Minister has recently stepped out to acknowledge the angst caused by the influx of foreigners.
On top of that, from now until nomination day, we can also expect every announcement – or suggested announcement – of a PAP candidate to be laced with election goodies. Supposedly out-going Minister Raymond Lim did so through a grassroots event at Fengshan. Incumbent for Potong Pasir Sitoh Yih Pin talked about lift upgrading as a way to re-introduce his candidacy.
What is important to note about these two announcements, as you would no doubt notice with all other announcements to come, is the timing. These projects have been proposed since right after 2011, and given the efficiency of our civil service, it would be appealing to think that it should take so long for them not to be implemented already.
And of course, who can forget the handy GST vouchers? If you smell a fish, I smell a carrot.
There will be no end to the dishing out of goodies. But Singaporeans owe it to ourselves to ask a very serious question: Are these enough?
By that, I don’t not mean to ask for a bigger GST voucher, upgrading in every estate, and more clampdowns on foreign labour. If that is the PAP’s way of electioneering, then citizens should exercise the option of, as one eminent media veteran would put it, taking the goodies with the left hand and voting them out with the right hand. This is because such goodies are symptomatic of a party that is grossly short-sighted in winning the hearts and minds of voters, and hence should have no part to play as our government.
What Singaporeans really need to consider, then, is the long term implications of these steps taken by the government, supposedly as a heartfelt response to the heartfelt plea of the citizenry, but in reality little more than a band-aid and balm to soothe the wounds from the last GE, as we head to the polls again.
Yes, the benefits are sweet, but is there long term thinking in such handouts, to make them viable and sustainable for the long term? The most obvious among these goodies is the Pioneer Generation Package and the Medisave Life premium subsidies. PGP is meant specifically for one group of pioneers. Are we then waiting for the PAP to stay in power and come up with even more aid packages for a rapidly aging population? Perhaps a Pioneer-Plus Generation Package?
Likewise for the Medishield Life premium subsidies. What happens after four years, the end term for the government’s commitment to keep premiums affordable? Of course, if we are satisfied with it and let the government continue to run the scheme, maybe we will see another round of subsidies? Maybe.
The more crucial point in asking these questions, however, is to flag out how these goodies are essentially not sustainable. Medishield Life does not answer the critical question of why Singapore’s healthcare system remains one of the most costly in the world, in the sense that needy patients are reluctant to get treatment for critical illnesses. The PGP does not answer why seniors, regardless of whether they are “pioneer” or not, are not given the assistance they need to see them through to the end of their lives.
And much as the Prime Minister might demonstrate empathy with citizens on our worries about an expanding foreign workforce, can we trust that the tap will not be turned on in full again after the GE? Instead, what has the PM done to plan for a workforce where the abilities of citizens are valued, where we try to squeeze every bit of talent, not effort, out of an indigenous workforce, rather than let uneven competition based on the lowest bidding employee, take its toll?
And if you read reports in traditional media, you might be under the impression that the bulk of opposition parties are tied up in horse trading and the petty squabble of who will stand in which ward. What about the policy alternatives that they have proposed to counter and better the path that the PAP has chosen?
At least three opposition parties have published papers and opened discussion channels on issues ranging from population to workforce management, cost of living to pension funds – with the sole purpose of engaging you, the voter, on the alternatives. Have we found out who they are and gave them serious thought? Are these proposals viable? If not, how can we put these ideas in Parliament to make them so, even better than the PAP’s?
So counter to what my friend believes, my hope for this coming GE is that we can read beyond the bread-and-butter issues and think seriously about our future, and the politicians we want in power to manage that future. We might then discover that democracy is not that airy-fairy an ideal after all, and in fact goes a long way in keeping us informed and engaged about the things that matter to us. By actively engaging in our democratic process, we will find a lot more solutions to our bread-and-butter issues.
We are 50 years young, and I believe we can do it.