The Hougang By Elections has thrown up the usual political smack between the two largest parties in this tiny nation. The incumbent Workers Party and its opposition PAP have begun to slug it out in an all too familiar manner.
Shocking isn’t it that the PAP is an opposition party in this ward. The stranglehold in the political sphere that the PAP has an iron grip on has conditioned many Singaporeans to inadvertently accept LKY’s famous line – “I make no apologies that the PAP is the Government and the Government is the PAP.”
In an earlier post I believed that Yaw Shin Leong had blown the opposition’s most fervent bastion with a lack of discretion in his personal life. I had expected the PAP to take full advantage of it and had earlier believed that Hougang will finally “fall” to the PAP.
There was no better chance than this. Mr. Low Thia Kang, former MP of Hougang, is a well loved man. The fact that he left for Aljunied (and subsequently won the entire ward with his team) placed heavy burdens on Yaw. It took a leap of trust for Hougang residents to continue its faith with the WP and vote for a relatively less experienced Yaw. Hougang gave Yaw a massive vote of confidence. Yet, he blew it. Surely nothing could help the WP this time unless Low returns which of course is impossible.
Strategy? What Strategy?
Yet, the PAP seems to have made the same mistakes all over again. If you look at the political campaigns over the past few years, time and again the PAP uses 2 main tools. First, it highlights its achievements by the numbers. A factual outlay of economic improvements, increasing GDP values, property values, etc. The PAP calls this its track record and challenges the opposition to better it. However, it often has to cope with the issue of rising costs which is a natural side effect of rising values.
The other tool is slander. Downright dirty, childish slander. When it feels that the public is not fully backing the bountiful numbers presented, it attacks the opposition below the belt. Direct personal attacks on integrity, etc is always on the table when the going gets tough. This strategy is common but low. Very low.
In debates, there is an unwritten rule that to win the hearts of the judges, you take on your opponent’s arguments squarely putting personal differences aside. You battle on the lines of the issues and not on the integrity of your opponent. Of course, long time debaters will also tell you that a trick is to appear to do the above while indirectly suggesting your opponent to be confused, shortsighted, narrow, unable to grasp the full context of the issue, etc. Only in desperate moments do you ignore the argument (being unable to fight on those grounds) and go in personally. Is the PAP desperate already? They shouldn’t be.
It is sad that we do not see the same level of intellectual debates between parties. Sad that the largest and richest party in Singapore has to fall back to such in order to win votes. I would have expected them to focus their arguments on the main lines that WP drew. Respond to the proposal of a “First World Parliament”. A majority of the crowd do not understand that term. The most fervent understands it as “a political monopoly is bad”. The politically educated will tell you hat “a political monopoly is bad UNLESS certain conditions are met”. The PAP would be able to settle this debate if it projects very clearly its argument against WP’s definition of a “First World Parliament”. The argument should be about the viability of having two big parties. A very good analogy that the PAP can use is the failure of competition in Singapore in areas such as media (MediaCorp vs MediaWorks), cable (Football fans frustration with having to end up paying more to watch football due to Starhub vs SingTel), etc. It can argue that Singapore needs a different form of parliament that can be likened to first world status due to its population size, etc.
But no, it doesn’t.
It just talks about what it has done (like introduce the NMP scheme) that the public already has a dim view on it, showing a lack of touch with the ground.
This lack of understanding is clear at Hougang. Hougang is more politically aware than other constituencies. Many of its residents have bought into WP’s cause for a first world parliament. PAP has not taken the main issue by its horns. Yet, it is repackaging its usual arguments. “Long term”, “Quality of life”, “Local not Nation based issues”. What a poor understanding of the ground!
With the size of Singapore and the make up of Hougang residents, nation based issues are looked into with great priority in Hougang. PAP claims that WP is unfairly putting the burden on Hougang residents to be the opposition ward. That is an intellectually baffling point. Hougang residents are not being pushed to stand for the opposition. They want to. Hougang has been in the hands of the opposition for over 20 years. No one can be forced over generations to do something they don’t like.
Change or Keep Losing
Until the PAP realizes (after 6 or more elections of losing) its strategic folly, I don’t see how Hougang will switch parties.
The mark of a successful party or organization is its ability to respond to changes on the ground. What the PAP has done here is to rely on what worked for others and attempt to forcefeed Hougang (a very different group) the same old methods in hopes of victory.
This is a fantastic chance for the PAP but strategic inflexibility and old mindsets are ruining it.