“For me the main issue of this by-election is sending a signal on how our country should be governed,” a friend commented to me, “what sort of representation we want in the highest body of government and demonstrating that we collectively be proactive and can make a difference.”
“The participating parties should evaluate the result of the by election carefully and not take it as a mandate to do more of the same they are doing now.”
That, in a nutshell, is the real issue – not just in this by-election in Punggol East but also in any election, in fact.
Promises of “reform” and “change”, and how general election 2011 was a “watershed” election, and how the subsequent cabinet changes were “epochal”, and how Singapore had entered a “new normal” raised expectations that the ruling party had, at last, seen the light and significant changes were afoot.
Singaporeans waited with anticipation – and for a short while, those expectations and anticipation were realised – to an extent – when the prime minister kicked out 9 ministers from his cabinet and brought in new ones; cut ministers’ pay by a substantial amount; made changes to the mandatory death penalty; introduced a day off for domestic workers. There was even a one-year National Conversation started.
And then it stopped. The PM, at his party’s conference several weeks back, said the government will “calibrate a bit to the left, a bit to the right”. That more or less put paid to those expectations. Changes will be hard to come by, with the PAP government. By that I mean substantial changes, particularly those having to do with politics and civil liberties, or the media.
The Workers’ Party (WP) also raised expectations with its call to vote its candidates so as to move this country “towards a First World Parliament”. It promised to be a “watchdog”, a “co-driver” with the government. Its candidate, Chen Show Mao, was described as a “star catch” by the media and supporters. The party boasted of a manifesto which it said took them two years to put together.
But after one and a half years, there is a growing sense among some quarters that the WP has fallen short of expectations – and of its own election promises as well. Mr Chen, for example, has been awfully quiet.
This is the context in which my friend made those comments. And there is a case to be made for sending a signal in the Punggol East by-election to the two dominant political parties here – that their performance has not been up to the mark.
As housing prices continue to spiral out of control, transportation continues to be a problem, the depression of wages, the exploitation of cheap labour and then the cut-back which is hurting small businesses, changes to the CPF, etc. There are many issues – but yet little has been offered by the Workers’ Party. But one would understand that a watchdog is not expected to devise or present alternative policies, although such thinking runs counter to the party’s own ambition of a “first world parliament”.
One is thus hard pressed to see what another WP MP would bring to the table in Parliament, besides adding a little more weight to the collective voting bloc of the WP when casting votes on Bills. Even in this, there has been criticism that the WP vote mostly for policies introduced by the PAP govt anyway – such as the ministerial pay changes, even though WP had criticised them and in fact had presented its own suggestion. It led to criticism by some that the WP only presented debate for the sake of presenting a debate, and will vote with the PAP in the end.
So, while the SDP’s “joint campaign” idea with WP is a badly thought-through one, it is nonetheless worth pondering if casting a vote for the PAP and the WP will mean (and will send these two parties the signal) that S’poreans are happy with the status quo.
But if S’poreans are indeed unhappy with the performance of the two parties, then wouldn’t having the choice to vote for a third alternative be good to have? Incidentally, providing voters a choice was the WP’s election manifesto in 2006.
So, the real question is: do we want more of the same, more of the same, or something different?