New election strategy
 It involves a stricter control of Internet critics but more economic benefits for the middle class. By Seah Chiang Nee
 Aug 31, 2013

  (Synopsis: So far the carrot-and-stick approach has received a mixed reception that’s bent more towards the plus side.)

  JUDGING by its recent action, the People’s Action Party (PAP) appears to have formulated a general strategy to retain voter support with minimum political concessions.

  It involves taking a harder line against dissent and resisting pressure for political reforms, but giving out more economic benefits for voters that count the most – the middle class.

  To allow for this, more taxes or levies will be imposed, with the richer class bearing a higher share of it.

  According to some observers, the benefits will likely be dished out a little at a time over the next two or three years until the election is held.

  Take for instance, public housing. More welcoming news was delivered a week after the Prime Minister’s performance.

  After a near-disastrous recent history, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) has become one of the government’s hardiest triers in the wake of Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally address.

  On Tuesday, it announced several new measures aimed at helping middle income Singaporeans buy their first HDB flat and low income families upgrade to a larger flat.

  More importantly, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan imposed a new rule requiring permanent residents (PRs) to wait three years before they can buy a resale property.

  Over time this will cut competition for Singaporean buyers and sharply reduce demand for resale property – and perhaps make it cheaper, too.

  This could also compel PRs to rent them from Singaporeans until they can buy their own.

  On the propaganda front, the strategy will likely lead to more use of heart-winning language to win over fence-sitters, whose votes can go either way depending on the prevailing mood.

  Words or phrases like “strategic change”, “major shift”, “will look after you”, “affordable prices” or “inclusive policies” are already liberally used in official statements and ministerial talks.

  These are soothing, sanguine words that add little to the facts but are often heard in the world of politics in every country. Generally they can mean nothing or a whole lot.

  “These promising phrases sound good, but I trust only in results, like seeing an actual drop in the prices of housing and healthcare or in the number of foreigners living here,” said an engineering technician.

  “And of course when I look at my bills!”

  From conversations that I had with PAP supporters, I gather there has been some improvement in sentiments within the party camp.

  Following the poor 2011 and subsequent by-elections, many of these functionaries and grassroots were mired in gloom and pessimism particularly about facing the next general election.

  This, I now gather, has partly been erased. The knowledgeable ones, however, are aware that mountains are high, said one PAP member.

  “There is still a very high level of public unhappiness over policies,” he added.

  How this carrot-and-stick strategy will go down with Singaporeans is anyone’s guess.

  “Much will depend on what action will match the promises from here on out and how much head-knocking there is,” is a common response of people I talked to.

  Its recent get-tough stance against the opposition Workers Party over the cleaning of a marketplace that even involved the prime minister was generally considered overblown.

  But it wasn’t as bad as the new rule to censor Internet news reporting, as well as public comments that followed them.

  This is a rekindling of fears among some of a possible return of Lee Kuan Yew’s bad old days. This has deepened the chasm between government and many youths.

  The recent spurt of energy, however, indicates that the ruling party has – at least partially – got over the pessimism of several election and by-election setbacks since 2011.

  They had resulted in the opposition winning six (out of 87) Parliamentary seats, a number that could double or even triple given the sour public mood next time.

  But some party workers are now telling themselves that things are not as bad as first believed.

  What will help the PAP promote a feel-good feeling is the coming big celebration of Singapore’s 50th anniversary in 2015.

  The occasion will give the PAP an opportunity to promote its achievements.

  This has led some analysts to believe that the PAP government will organise a big bang and then call a general election shortly afterwards to benefit from the mood.

  The government wants to invite ordinary people to plan and organise it, probably to counter charges that it cares more for foreigners than for Singaporeans.

  The PAP’s fight-back is unlikely to have reversed the political trend. The rise of support for the opposition remains substantial. Many want to have a stronger alternative voice in Parliament.

  But it has brought about realisation that after half a century of rule, the PAP remains a formidable party with large resources that it can bring to bear in any battle.

  However, the ruling party faces a host of big problems ranging from excessive immigration to running Singapore like a corporation.

  In addition, two obstacles stand in its way to continuing leadership.

  The first is a growing difficulty in attracting talented candidates capable of winning votes, particularly from the private sector.

  “It will have to rely more and more on the pro-government public sector – civil servants, trade unionists and the army for candidates,” said a magazine reporter.

  Secondly, the trust enjoyed by political leaders from among citizens is low.

  A global research released early this year showed that only 23% of Singaporeans trusted their government leaders to tell the truth.

  But, the 2013 Edelman Trust barometer research found that most Singaporeans – 72% – trusted official institutions to do what is right.

  Recruiting talent and regaining people’s trust will take a lot more that what the PAP currently has.

(This article was first published in The Star).