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Focus on the future in this SG50 election

27 Aug Focus on the future in this SG50 election

The adage is that all politics is local and elections are too often nasty and short-sighted. For the General Election (GE) scheduled for Sept 11, these characteristics may well dominate the hustings.

Rumours and blog sites tend to amplify these tendencies. Take, for example, the recent announcement that Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew will not contest in the coming election. A loud mix of accolades as well as complaints and nasty barracking has followed. These all but drown out concerns about delivering on a truly world-class transport system for the longer term.

Since the last election, the hot-button issues have been housing, transport and the place of foreign workers in Singapore.

No one can remove the push-and-shove of elections. But it will be important to inject thinking that is broader, forward-looking and keeps in mind what is best for the country as a whole.

If so, this GE can be made special, befitting Singapore’s Jubilee celebrations, where the nation not only marks 50 years of independence and success, but also considers the many challenges that lie ahead.

Some elements of this can be found in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech, with its emphasis on looking forward beyond SG50. While detailing new domestic policies on housing and the family, PM Lee also raised broader issues about how Singapore is positioned in the regional and global community. There is truth in this.

Emerging markets and much of Asia are currently reeling from a global slowdown. Tensions among the major powers over issues such as the South China Sea have risen sharply and Singapore’s ability to navigate the great game is being tested.

Current ties with our immediate neighbours are cooperative, but headlines about bombs, corruption scandals, nationalistic sentiments and racial issues show up shocks that may impact on Singapore, politically and economically.

The external context is considerably worse than it was five years ago and this election will be held in turbulent times. The opposition parties offer little or no experience in handling regional and global issues, and have said little on these subjects. Even for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), these events test its mettle and standing in a post-Lee Kuan Yew era.


Long-term thinking will be hard during a brief and strongly-contested election, but such a lens is an important corrective to short-termism and griping.

The Singaporean voter is right to expect more than empty promises, but the fairer measure of whether the PAP as government has responded would be to consider progress and the directions set, rather than to demand immediate results.

Another aspect of looking longer term is that the coming election will usher in more new candidates — not only as MPs, but also potential ministers. There are also younger ministers who entered politics in the last election and have completed their first terms in office. These fourth-generation leaders will find themselves more in the spotlight and judged on their ability to hold the ground in their constituencies, as well as their potential to succeed in national leadership roles.

Indeed, the forward-looking voter should consider these newer candidates as closely as, if not more than, the veterans, even if some — such as Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong — may continue to be popular.

Another important element for an SG50 election is for campaigning to be conducted in a fair and gentlemanly manner. To this end, all political parties and the electorate at large should refrain from mud-slinging.

While questions about the total number of seats won and the overall popular vote matter, how the campaign is contested is equally important. The main opposition Workers’ Party (WP) has said it would contest only 28 seats, short of one-third of the House. This can be read as a deliberate signal that it does not aim to form the government or even disturb a two-thirds majority — the level needed to amend the Constitution.

This is consistent with the WP’s stance that it is not ready to form the government. It will also be expected to adopt reasonable positions on issues, and leave more extreme arguments to smaller opposition parties, even if this disappoints more rabid online voices.

The PAP too has reason to campaign fairly and to do otherwise would be counterproductive. True, its previous result of 60.1 per cent of the vote was a historical low for the party and some party members may be tempted to try to claw back votes and seats.

But that result is high by any regional or global standard and there will be no gain from overstretching in a harsh campaign. Skewing the mainstream media will simply push more to unverified sources. Statements that appear to “threaten” voters with disincentives for not voting for the PAP will be received negatively.

The aim should be to secure a solid result in a fair contest, with a sufficient majority to form the government.

Past elections have sometimes been bruising contests. To wish for broader and forward thinking, and doing things that are better for the nation as a whole in the coming election may seem naive to some.

However, such elements may make for a different kind of politics to match the call that Singapore should be special and indeed exceptional.

For better or for worse, how the parties and — even more crucially — we citizens conduct ourselves in the coming election can serve as a litmus test of our maturity in our 50th year as an independent state.


Simon Tay is Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and previously served as a Nominated Member of Parliament. The SIIA, an independent and globally ranked think tank, recently released a report on the 50-year future for Singapore in Asia and the World.

This commentary was originally published in TODAY on 27 August 2015.
Photo Credit: Jack Lee / CC BY-SA 3.0