Monday, May 2, 2011

Why this is a watershed election

by Alfred Siew on Sunday, 01 May 2011 at 18:20

When this year's Singapore general election was announced last week, the media wasted no time in calling it a watershed election.

For the first time since independence in 1965, almost all 87 seats in the new Parliament are being contested. For the first time, the Internet would play a key role in disseminating information about candidates and for debating issues.

And also, for the first time in years, bread and butter issues are not in favour of the ruling People's Action Party, with high housing prices, crowded public transport and the inability of many lower-income Singaporeans to enjoy part of the country's economic growth the main issues.

Yet, the biggest difference this year, I feel, is that people are looking to vote for something more important than the usual petty grievances and selfish needs.

No, I'm not talking about the "dilemma" facing Aljuned GRC residents, who have to choose between a strong Opposition presence led by the Workers' Party and a Foreign Minister, who has done his job admirably, particularly when he negotiated the tough deal that is the Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 2004.

Rather, from the groundswell of sentiment - from coffeeshops to online chatter - is a sense that this time, people do care about what we used to call "politics". It seems Singaporeans, slowly but surely, are stepping out of the shadow of apathy and helplessness.

In 24-year-old National Solidarity Party candidate Nicole Seah, they see a new voice, full of confidence and untainted by cynicism, telling fellow Singaporeans that there is something to be done about the problems of the country. With no political experience, she is taking on Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

Then, there is Mr Chiam See Tong. In the 76-year-old Opposition stalwart, they see a selfless determination to fight for what he believes is greater democracy for the country, even as he struggles to get on stage and challenge the PAP with his small Singapore People's Party.

In his 27 years as the MP of Potong Pasir, he has moved a generation of voters to believe in his simple message that Singapore needs more alternative voices - and he continues to move his audience, even senior uncles to tears, when he is on stage now.

To be honest, the messages this time from the Opposition are not that different from previous years. Yes, some of them have been re-packaged, like the Workers' Party's First World Parliament pitch, but ultimately, what they are all seeking is more representation for dissenting voices.

What has changed this time is that people seem to be interested in what they say, going by the audiences at Opposition rallies. Maybe this is due to the PAP's poor record in the past five years.

There was terror suspect Mas Selamat, who somehow limped out of detention in 2008 and hid in his relative's home for hours undetected. Then, there were the Orchard Road floods, and the overcrowded trains as a result of a grow-at-all-costs immigration policy.

But why do people suddenly care so much, when in the past, they'd just shrug things off with a "PAP knows best" nonchalance?

Honestly, I don't know. But I do see attitudes changing. I see one of my acquaintances volunteering to photograph Mr Chiam's rally last night, crying in the process when she was so touched by his determination. I have a friend who was so moved by Nicole Seah's efforts and what he is hearing on Facebook that he is flying all the way back from the United States to vote for the first time in Marine Parade GRC.

These are my contemporaries born around the 1970s, after independence. These are from the same group of people who once told me they didn't know who their MPs were when we turned 21 and were eligible to vote for the first time.

There also seems to a shift away from a small-mindedness, a selfish, kiasu mentality that has characterised Singaporeans whenever it came to the polls.

I read on Facebook how a parent is willing to suffer a lowering of public housing prices even though he may not make a profit from selling his own home. The reason: so that his children would not have to pay impossibly high prices when they start their own families.

Compare this to what I hear so often in the past. "Oh, I like supporting the Opposition, but I'm afraid that I won't get upgrading for my estate". Or "I'm very scared to vote because there's a serial number on my voting slip". Or the classic: "What can I do with my single vote - I can't change anything, so might as well have a walkover, so I can have a holiday!"

This time, people do want to vote.

In the past, when it came down to whether they wanted abstract ideas of having more alternative voices in Parliament or estate upgrading, Singaporeans have mostly chosen the latter. This time round, the result looks like it's still in the balance.

I'm seeing all of this with a bit of wide-eyed amazement. Privately, my friends and I have said to ourselves that we've seen many false dawns before when it came to active citizenry. When Opposition parties won four seats (out of 77) in 1991, they quickly unravelled with infighting and a lack of a credible strategy going forward. When the Web came to offer a channel for dissenting views online in the mid-1990s, voting patterns never changed.

So, next week, PAP could very well enjoy a whitewash of the competition, despite all the optimism among Opposition supporters. With Singapore's GRCs and first-past-the-post system, the PAP could still very well win all seats in Parliament even if its popular votes fall below 60 per cent.

And even if the Opposition wins big and gets its cherished GRC, or two, there won't be dramatic improvements to our problems. Buses and trains will still be full, the unemployed won't miraculously get new jobs and certainly housing prices will probably not come down immediately, if they ever do.

It's like what friends who support the PAP have asked me: "How do you know if the Opposition can make things better?"

I don't. But the takeaway for me so far is that Singaporeans appear to be finally engaged in a decision-making process they should have been part of long ago. It's not about "being political" when you are concerned about policies that affect your life. And it's not unpatriotic when you oppose the direction the country is being taken in.

The opposite is true. By being bochap, Singaporeans do the greatest harm to themselves, their families and their country. I'd argue that, by being so dis-engaged and kiasu in the past, they have chosen to say yes to policies five to 10 years ago that have now resulted in the problems we face now.

Will the PAP learn from mistakes, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has acknowledged, and turn things around in the coming years? Or, should the Opposition have more say and stop Singapore from being overcrowded with 6.5 million people thronging this little red dot?

Come May 7, please vote with your conscience. No more complaints and excuses about how your life can be better if you are not interested in taking part in the running of the country. Whoever you vote for, do the right thing.

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