By Howard Lee
As the opposition parties go into what would presumably be the last day of horse-trading tomorrow, media is rife with reports on how the parties are essentially bargaining with each other for the constituency of their choice, with the view of avoiding three-cornered fights.
Media reports, citing “sources”, have already leaked the number of wards that have yet to be resolved and the parties that are still in contention for the wards. There was also mention of back-room deals and parties trying to jointly contest in wards, although such speculations are also met with denials from parties.
If you were to base your judgment of the opposition effort simply by reading mainstream media, two things would immediately come to mind: That opposition parties are taking voters for granted and not giving them the democracy they deserve, and that they are hardly united.
If you hold either or both perceptions, then you are effectively playing into the conflict narrative that makes for intriguing news, but does very little in informing you as a voter for the choice you must make at the polls. The net result would be to turn voters off the opposition, dismissing them as a bunch of in-fighting brats without understanding why they are doing this.
The principle of avoiding multi-cornered fights during General Elections was first conceived by opposition veteran Chiam See Tong. Chiam, who himself had stepped aside to let J.B. Jeyaretnam stand in a one-on-one against the PAP, also founded the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) as a platform for allowing multiple opposition parties to contest in Group Representative Constituencies under a common banner.
Since then, despite more parties leaving SDA, including Chiam’s own Singapore People’s Party, there has been a tacit agreement between opposition parties, even before the 2001 general elections, not to venture into each others’ stomping ground. Multi-cornered fights in a general election were effectively taboo.
The Punggol East by-election might have changed that a little, but not necessarily because the taboo has been broken. Instead, what it might have changed is making opposition parties less reserved about openly staking their claims in constituencies of their choice. What Punggol East did demonstrate was that voters are indeed making a more conscientious decision to pick the candidates that they felt were the best. There was good reason why Lee Li Lian won, although the specific reasons is something only voters would know.
I have always vouched for more choice, and wrote as much during the Punggol East battle:
“If you are loyally committed to one party or candidate, and will vote for him/her whether you agree with all of his/her positions or not, that is your choice. If you are weighing every word and proposal made and feel that your preferred candidate is not perfect, while still the overall better option, you can still vote for him/her, for that is also your choice.
But having more candidates allows you to see the diversity of possibilities, and if there are nuggets of wisdom from the losers that you can push your elected representative to adopt, you have the right to do so.”
In a by-election, parties have the opportunity to put their proposals forward, if not to win the current battle, then with the view that voters across the nation would have a chance to hear them out, in preparation for the next battle. In its most basic sense, Punggol East can be seen as a national branding campaign on a localised scale, debate as you might on the success for some parties in pulling this off.
The same would also happen in a general election, but there is no need to squeeze into one constituency to do so now. Voicing out can be done at any constituency that a party chooses to contest in, and given limited resources, it would serve the parties better to be more prudent rather than spread themselves too thin in nine days of campaigning, even considering the possibility that their brand might be damaged when campaigning get out of control.
The bulk of the opposition parties would undoubtedly know this, and hence the interest not to – or the sheer lack of necessity to – cross swords with each other. There is that same tacit understanding that in each constituency there is a good party and a bad party that voters need to make a choice between. Having more than two flags out the possibility of, both literally and figuratively, a third party.
What we are really seeing in this coming GE is the emergence of those who would want to try their luck at the polls – or “poh heng suay” in Hokkien. And there is good reason for them to do so.
Following GE2011, we have seen more intense political activities, particularly in the number of parties being set up. Most of the leaders in these parties have at least one campaign under their belts, and are hence keen to enter the fray again this GE. They would also clearly see this GE as the make or break, given that there has been much ground made by the opposition in a political arena that has always worked against them.
In effect, if they do not enter the fray for GE2015, they might not get another chance the next round, as the more seasoned parties solidify their positions. Hence, there is even interest to oust weaker or weakened parties, who they would also see as “poh heng suay” and fair game for a take-over.
Such an approach is about political survival. It is also the most democratic, as it will be up to voters to choose between the good, the bad and the “poh heng suays”. But for any contender, it also bears the risk of seriously damaging their own reputation, and it is an aspect that parties would no doubt weigh heavily against what is possibly the last opportunity to stake their claim.
So while traditional media is wont to paint the avoidance of multi-cornered fights as petty, irrelevant and not befitting of your vote, do remember that it is the political environment that necessitates this. The best way to navigate this election is not to write them off just yet, but seriously consider what each party, including the incumbent, can offer you. It is your vote, and your right to find out.