The best voting advice I’ve ever received came from a friend who told me to vote not just for the government I want but for the Singapore I want.
That was back in 2011.
Now, nine years later, as Singapore enters another election season – this time amid a pandemic – it’s time to consider once more the government and the Singapore I want to see emerge from these polls and post-Covid-19.
It’s time, too, to scrutinise the platforms and candidates of the political parties in the race.
And to weigh the freedom I have to vote as I choose, against the duty to exercise this privilege responsibly.
JOBS AND TRAINING
True to form, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has seized the initiative with a pre-campaign series of broadcasts by its leaders, who – speaking in their capacity as government ministers – have rallied Singaporeans to unite in the face of adversity.
This call to unity speaks to me, and perhaps to many of you as well.
But as election fever heats up, one question that arises is whether the PAP will engage in tactics that run counter to its own call for unity.
Before tackling that question, a fair-minded voter needs to give due consideration to the PAP government’s ambitious policy road map, aimed at making sure Singaporeans move ahead together and leave no one behind.
These include plans to grow the economy and keep it plugged into global networks, create jobs and traineeships for both displaced workers and fresh graduates, and support workers in skills upgrading.
The promise, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, is nothing less than to “create opportunities for all Singaporeans, no matter how old”.
“So long as you are able and willing, we will support you. Every Singaporean, regardless of background, can have the chance to take on the new jobs being created,” he said in his national broadcast on June 14.
Just as ambitious are education policies to help children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds rise up, because, as Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in his speech, “social mobility is what Singapore has been about”.
The Education Ministry will bring forward by seven years its plan to equip every secondary school student with a laptop or tablet for online learning, whether in school or at home.
“We must never become a society where social pedigree and connections count for more than ability and effort,” Mr Tharman said.
“However, there is nothing natural or pre-ordained about social mobility. Every successful country has in fact found that it gets more difficult to sustain this with time. Parents who themselves had higher education or who have become better off are investing more in their children, and moving them further ahead of the rest.
“It therefore requires relentless government effort, quality interventions in schools, and dedicated networks of community support to keep social mobility alive.”
CHINA, U.S. AND DANGER AHEAD
The Government’s call for unity has also been explained in terms of external challenges, in particular the worsening relations between the United States and China, which the Covid-19 crisis seems to have exacerbated.
“Actions and counter-actions are raising tensions day by day. It will become harder for countries to stay onside with both powers. It will be a more dangerous world for a small country like Singapore,” warned Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his broadcast on June 7.
“We must ensure our security, and protect and advance our interests when dealing with other countries, big and small. We must also work with like-minded countries to support free trade and multilateralism, and enhance our voice and influence in the world,” he said.
He called on Singaporeans to work with him and his team: “We need every one of you to work with us. Together, let us take Singapore safely through this crisis.”
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, on his part, is intent on creating more opportunities for Singaporeans to partner government through the Singapore Together movement he launched a year ago.
It spans both economy and society and will include Singapore Together Alliances for Action, which are led by industry and will prototype new ideas in growth areas such as robotics, e-commerce and environmental sustainability.
In the social sector, a series of Emerging Stronger Conversations has been launched because “we want to hear how the crisis has impacted you, and how we can work together on your ideas to take Singapore forward”, Mr Heng said. These will be followed by Singapore Together Action Networks to bring together partners across different sectors to work on issues people care about, and turn ideas into solutions.
The Government’s policy road map thus includes a commitment to listen and to engage.
Now, let’s turn to another aspect of the coming polls – how the PAP engages its opponents and critics, and how they, too, take up the fight.
HEAT OF THE HUSTINGS
Elections are times of contestation, when parties compete to win over voters. The heat of the hustings can sometimes get intense, perhaps more than some voters would like.
No political party remains in power for 61 years without fighting hard to win – each time it goes to the polls. Voters do not like being taken for granted, and want to see politicians working hard to win their support.
Singaporeans were given an early taste of the action to come when the PAP fired a salvo against the Workers’ Party chief and leader of the opposition, by publishing on June 19 an article on its website headlined “Mr Pritam Singh supports Alfian Sa’at”.
The article was written by Dr Tan Wu Meng, a PAP MP for Jurong GRC, and took issue with Mr Singh’s recent observation in Parliament that “Singapore should count itself fortunate that it has citizens who are loving critics amongst us, some of whom have been questioned in this very House in this term of government”.
Dr Tan, who is also Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Trade and Industry, and Foreign Affairs), wrote that Mr Alfian, a playwright, was no loving critic of Singapore. He cited as evidence the latter’s social media posts running down Singapore, praising Malaysia and taking Malaysia’s side when tensions arose between the two countries.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam later defended the post, saying Dr Tan had levelled an important question at Mr Singh, the leader of the opposition, on whether he stood with Malaysia or Singapore on bilateral disputes.
“You never take another country’s side against Singapore,” he added.
He also called out the “sheer hypocrisy” and “almost Pavlovian response” of those who were quick to attack the ruling party when it engaged its opponents, but hardly ever did so when its MPs were subject to all manner of attacks, including personal ones.
Mr Singh has since clarified that he appreciates the views of theatre practitioners like Mr Alfian, which are often critical and provocative, but rejects anyone who consistently runs down Singapore with a political agenda overseas.
Such exchanges may be par for the course in an election but they also risk antagonising a swathe of voters who object to no-holds barred attacks on the character of persons, regardless of which side of the political divide this comes from.
And, in this campaign in particular, held amid a global crisis, any tactics perceived as divisive would seem to run counter to the call for Singaporeans to unite in the face of adversity.
The Singapore I want is one where all parties – the PAP and its opponents alike – play to win, but aim high, not low.