by Catherine Lim
In deciding on the date for the GE 2020 polling day, the Prime Minister had clearly been guided by a widely claimed truth, that is, in times of crisis, people take a ‘flight to safety’ by giving overwhelming support to the incumbent leadership, rather than by casting their lot with an as yet untried and untested opposition.
Hence the PM did not hesitate to set Polling Day right in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. He assured all voters that the government would take every precaution to make sure that voting would be totally safe. He was clearly confident of a resounding mandate for the People’s Action Party (PAP)’s return to power.
But when the election results came in, he and his colleagues had a shock. There had been a marked swing towards the Opposition. Although the PAP kept its majority and would continue to dominate in parliament, it was clear that the Opposition had made deep inroads into that majority.
Suddenly the ground that had felt secure under the PAP feet since 1968, was beginning to shake, with forebodings of a seismic eruption if the voting trend continued. In his post-election TV appearance, the Prime Minister looked sombre and worried, gamely admitting that he had been hoping for much better results.
What had caused Singaporean voters to actually buck a universally acknowledged trend in voting behaviour? Why hadn’t they given their full support to their leaders during a crisis serious enough to put world leaders on a wartime footing?
An honest answer would expose the complex, perturbing nature of the relationship between Singaporeans and the PAP leaders. It is a relationship that has always been marked by ambiguity and contradiction,by a curious mixture of two opposing states of mind and feeling, namely , respect and resentment.
The respect is for an efficient leadership that has given Singaporeans a good life, with all the material comforts which people in other societies can only yearn for. The resentment is against a self-serving leadership that ultimately cares only about maintaining power, best achieved by creating a contented, compliant electorate.
Part of this maintenance of power is intolerance of dissenting voices which are immediately slapped down. No sustained effort has ever been made by the leaders to bridge this gap between themselves and those they lead. It is noteworthy that the leaders have never been described in the epithets of emotive nurturing and human connection, such as ‘warm’,’affable’ ‘approachable’,’highly regarded’, ‘popular’, ‘likeable’, etc. Instead, the praise has always been limited to the detached language used for high intellectuality, proven efficiency and moral stringency.
So will post GE2020 Singapore with the PAP being still the predominant power,be just a continuation of the status quo? Has anything changed?
Yes, something has changed, and in a radical way. It is the upsetting, for the first time, of a stance which Singaporeans had developed towards their leaders, whether consciously or unconsciously, over five long decades and which they have learnt to live comfortably with. It is that curious respect-resentment ambiguity, just described, which , though far from ideal, has the comforting feel of habit and familiarity.
Now suddenly that ambiguity is being replaced by the fear of change. For the close numbers and margins in the GE2020 results point to the possibility, once unthinkable, of the PAP losing its majority and Singapore emerging as a two-party or multiple-party state, with all that implies of an overhaul of existing state structures, institutions, age-old traditions and expectations, indeed of the entire ethos itself. It would be change on an unprecedented scale.
Moreover, it could happen in the foreseeable future, creating an unrecognisable Singapore. It is a most alarming prospect for Singaporeans who have long been habituated to a one-party government and the stability and predictability of its rule. Even when these Singaporeans express a desire for change, they could never imagine such a scenario.
Their alarm highlights the special nature of their attitude towards the PAP. It can best be expressed by an array of pronouncements which appear contradictory – ‘We don’t like you but we want you to be around’, ‘We appreciate your efficiency but you’re unlikeable because of your arrogance and aloofness ’, ‘You are too elitist and can’t ever connect with the ground, but you’re okay as long as you make Singapore safe and the environment clean,’ etc.
In short, there is a split between head and heart in the Singaporean as he evaluates PAP leadership. While the head acknowledges the good work of the PAP, the heart is repelled by the cold, ruthless efficiency that marks its demeanour. While the head wants the PAP to continue as the ruling party, the heart wants to see a little humbling take place now and then.
I believe that it is this ambivalence of Singaporean voters today, especially of the increasingly large bloc of young voters , that will stand in the way of a resounding win for the PAP in future elections, where it is not likely to improve much on the unimpressive performance of GE2020.
Indeed, if no lesson is learnt from this election debacle, the party may very well lose its predominant position in the next GE in four or five years’ time, a period long enough for the Opposition to turn itself into a formidable force, and for the young voters to become even bolder in their push for major political reforms. They have become a force to reckon with, and can only grow in strength and influence in the coming years.
One problem of Singapore’s leaders is that they have always been guided by an entrenched conservatism, showing great cautiousness about any change that even remotely suggests the need of an overhaul, preferring the small, incremental changes of evolution to the tumultuous swings of revolution.
But in a world of dizzying transformations, they may have no choice but to join hands with their younger counterparts who are ready to face challenges, take risks, even embrace dangers, rather than be left behind in an increasingly demanding world
This write up — published with permission from Ms Lim, was initially sent to Straits Times for publication but it was not published. Ms Lim shared that this piece is probably her last contribution as a social and political commentator and will contribute to Singapore in an indirect way – by conducting workshops for younger writers.