What sort of GE will this be?


ILLUSTRATION: ETHAN TAY


Singapore’s 14th General Election will be a quiet one that is fought at a distance, devoid of crowd-pulling rallies. Smaller entourages will accompany candidates out to get the citizens’ votes. Citizens will be separated from the usual sound and fury by a screen, whether the television screen or the one on the handphone.


The updated election campaigning rules released on Thursday are tailored for Phase 2 of the circuit breaker phase, allowing the Phase 2 maximum of five people in a group, masked up and one-metre apart. What if the election was delayed to Phase 3? The Elections Department (ELD) said the guidelines will be updated if so. Perhaps, 10 people in an entourage? Will physical rallies make a comeback?


This doesn’t seem likely since the Covid-19 multi-ministry task force has said that Phase 2 will last a few months. The general election has to be held by 14 April 2021, which is in about 10 months time. The last time the general election was held close to the five-year constitutional limit was in 2011 when Polling Day took place on May 7, approximately nine months to the 1 Feb 2012 constitutional deadline.


House visits — a staple activity for candidates to sweep through all their constituents — can still go on. Political parties are already making plans for walkabouts this weekend, blasting their upcoming activities through social media. Whether they can make impromptu speeches at public sites, which the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) called for, isn’t spelt out. But it does seem that any kind of activity that can attract crowds is out. This even applies to party vehicles making the rounds of the ward. Pre-recorded messages blared through speakers are okay, but not someone doing a live speech on a moving vehicle.


The most interesting innovation in the coming election is the “constituency political broadcasts”, giving each candidate three minutes to make a speech on MediaCorp’s Channel 5, in any of the four official languages. Given that the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee has carved out 93 seats in 14 single-seat wards and 17 group representation constituencies, voters will be looking at at least 9 hours and 18 minutes of broadcasts, presuming that every seat is contested by two parties.


RELATED STORY: Campaign rules need to be out of way before the writ of election


This is on top of the usual two party political broadcasts provided to each political party that fields at least six candidates. If this goes according to past practice, the amount of air-time will be based on the number of candidates the parties fielded. In the 2015 general election, the People’s Power Party (PPP) which fielded only four candidates didn’t qualify for the broadcast. With the exception of the Workers’ Party (WP), all other opposition parties contested were given air-time of between 2.5 and 3.5 minutes. The WP contested for 28 seats and was given 5.5 minutes of air-time. The People’s Action Party (PAP), which contested all 89 seats, had 13 minutes.


You could say, as some opposition politicians have, that the constituency political broadcasts “level the playing field’’, as every candidate will be given a shot at reaching their voters through national television. But there are likely to be rows over the timing and the order of broadcasts, that is who goes first and when, as Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chief Hamim Aliyas had pointed out.


Leaders of the smaller parties, such as the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) and the People’s Voice (PV), think that such broadcasts are beneficial as attention will be focused more on the candidates, and less on party branding. This is not an unexpected position. As small parties, they have much less to offer in terms of policy choices or a coherent platform. What they can offer is a person who will be pitched as the best to serve the voters in that particular constituency for some specific reasons.


Smaller political parties will also be less financially strained in their campaigning efforts as physical rallies are expensive, noted Dr Gillian Koh, deputy director of research at the Institute of Policy Studies. According to expenditure records of how much political parties spent at the last election, five opposition parties spent below $138,000 in campaigning efforts, while the three bigger opposition parties — NSP, SDP, and WP — spent between $200,000 to $700,000. Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) chief Desmond Lim said back then that he spent about $11,000 to set up a rally site per night, which includes a stage, sound system, barricades and generator.


The Reform Party thinks differently. Over the last two elections, it has tried to take on the PAP on major issues, such as introducing a minimum wage law and capping foreign workers numbers. But its public exposure, especially in non-election time, pales in comparison to that of the ruling party. Mr Andy Zhu, chairman of Reform Party acknowledged this, adding that the three minutes of constituency political broadcast given for each candidate will not be sufficient.


The SDP has said point-blank that the new campaign rules aid the PAP, as the opposition politicians no longer have a rally platform to engage and communicate with voters more effectively. The nightly rallies are a high-point for the bigger opposition parties, attracting crowds in the thousands who act as a foil for the speakers. They are no doubt a morale-booster for the Opposition, which end their rallies in a crescendo. The PAP rallies and those of the smaller parties tend to be less well-attended, relying mainly on media channels to report their speeches.


The SDP also did not succeed in its call for access to the MediaCorp's channels every night and radio programmes every day during the campaigning period. Nor was there word about getting space in the Singapore Press Holdings’ stable of newspapers for parties to publish their manifestos and ideas.


The WP, as is its wont, is staying mum.


A sober campaign is probably better suited for the PAP given that it usually focuses on defending and explaining policy rationale and laying out changes to come. A rally speech is, by its very nature, for rallying people around a cause, rather than about a clinical explanation of why some things are the way they are.


In the 1991 general election, the party actually decided at first to forgo rallies, opting instead for town hall-style, small group discussions. The reason was to have a more direct engagement with people through questions and answers. But this changed midway through campaigning when the crowds showed that they clearly relished being at rallies.


The new campaigning rules came after last week’s announcements on making the election safe for voters while Singapore was still battling the Covid-19 virus. So what’s the bet on the timing of the election now?


The Electoral Department (ELD) reiterated that the guidelines have nothing to do with when the election will be held, but here’s what took place in the 2015 general election: the Writ of Election was issued on Aug 25, just five days after changes to election regulations were announced by the ELD on Aug 20.


Of course, past practice is no indication of future action. The ELD had said that it would give political parties ample time to plan their campaigning strategies. This could be achieved by delaying the issuance of the Writ of Election or stretching the period between the Writ’s release and Nomination Day for up to a month.


Then again, only the Prime Minister can say for sure.


PLACING PEOPLE IN PLACES


The political parties haven’t been sitting on their hands, especially since the new electoral boundaries were made public on March 13. This has been the longest waiting period between the release of boundaries and the issuance of the Writ of Election in recent time. Close to 100 days have elapsed. In GE2015, the gap was 33 days, while it was 55 days for GE2011.


The PAP will contest all seats as usual, replacing some MPs with “new faces’’, as first-time candidates are euphemistically known. The party has made no formal announcements, preferring a peek-a-boo strategy with new faces surfacing alongside incumbents on walkabouts.


The count so far: At least 10 have been “spotted’’, with the pace accelerating over the past week with high profile resignations of top civil servants, such as former People's Association's (PA) chief executive director Desmond Tan Kok Ming and his counterpart in the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), Mr Tan Kiat How. Creating more waves is Ms Gan Siow Huang, 45. She quit as an RSAF general in March and has been appearing alongside Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.


If the bet is on a July election, then it is time for the PAP to unveil its candidates. Over the past two GEs, it has done so about three weeks to a month before Nomination Day. The line-up, however, isn’t cast in stone as candidates can still be dropped or moved to other wards depending on the party leadership. In GE2015, for example, the PAP switched veteran backbencher Charles Chong from Joo Chiat to face the incumbent Ms Lee Li Lian from the Workers’ Party in Punggol East. This was revealed four days before Nomination Day.


The opposition parties have taken different approaches.


The SDP staked its claims on territory way back in August last year. It said it would contest two GRCs, Holland-Bukit Timah and Marsling-Yew Tee, as well as three SMCs Bukit Batok, Bukit Panjang and Yuhua. That comes to a total of 11 seats.


The Reform Party (RP) led by Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, has declared that it would run in its former stomping grounds in Ang Mo Kio GRC, West Coast GRC and Radin Mas SMC, making for 11 seats.


Without specifying where its candidates would be fielded, it unveiled six candidates in a Facebook livestream on Monday (June 15). The slate of candidates includes three who were in 2015 part of the five-person team led by Mr Jeyaretnam to contest for West Coast GRC: party chairman Andy Zhu; human resources practitioner Darren Soh; and telemarketer Noraini Yunus.


The other three are new faces: Mr Gurdev Singh, assistant property manager; director of oil and gas company and party deputy-treasurer Mahaboob Batcha; and criminal defence lawyer Charles Yeo.


The SDA is setting its sights only on Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, perhaps hoping that it will be fourth time lucky.


The SPP, now bereft of the Chiams, is still hoping to regain Potong Pasir, which it lost in 2011. It will again contest the neighbouring Bishan-Toa Payoh four-member GRC.


It will send its chairman Jose Raymond to contest for Potong Pasir, and a new team to Bishan-Toa Payoh, comprising party secretary-general Steve Chia; party vice-chairman Williamson Lee; Mr Osman Sulaiman, managing director of an interior design firm; and Mr Melvyn Chiu, owner of a pet business.


The WP, which has never shown its cards early, is likely to stick to the east to expand its current base in Hougang SMC and Aljunied GRC. Its three current non-constituency MPs — Mr Dennis Tan, Mr Leon Perera, and Mr Daniel Goh — had fought and lost in the battlegrounds of Fengshan SMC and East Coast GRC the last time round. This time, the boundaries have been redrawn to draw Fengshan into East Coast GRC, making it a five-member slate.


The Progress Singapore Party (PSP), a new kid on the block, scaled down its earlier ambitions to contest 44 seats, which was close to half the total seats available, choosing now to field 29 candidates instead.


The 44 seats it had planned on contesting are spread across eight GRCs — West Coast, Tanjong Pagar, Choa Chu Kang, Jalan Besar, Jurong, Nee Soon, Sembawang, Bishan-Toa Payoh, and seven SMCs — Pioneer, Marymount, Yuhua, Radin Mas, Hong Kah North, Kebun Baru and Yio Chu Kang.


Though the party remains tight-lipped on which constituencies it has dropped from its battleplan, it said on June 13 it has "more or less agreed to give up" Bishan Toa-Payoh.


It is unlikely to budge from West Coast GRC, the old stomping ground of party chief Tan Cheng Bock, where four of five candidates have been confirmed. Its online outreach has also targeted constituents of West Coast GRC and Pioneer SMC.


At 29 candidates, a number close to the 28 seats the WP contested in 2015, it goes to show that the PSP is hoping to be a force to be reckoned with in opposition politics.


It has also announced its first slate of candidates, introducing six individuals, including party executive members Ms Hazel Poa, Mr Francis Yuen, and Mr Sri Nallakaruppan; IT professional Muhammad Taufik Bin Supan; and Ms Gigene Wong, who has held several C-suite roles in China Multinational Corporations in the past two decades.


Among the slate of candidates introduced is Brad Bowyer, who was the first person to be directed to correct a Facebook post he made in November last year by the Pofma office.


Going by what has been said, there has been some ironing out of territory among the smaller players. SPP has struck Marymount and Mountbatten SMCs off its wishlist, and PSP has dropped Bishan-Toa Payoh — though DPP and SPP, who staked claims on the GRC after the boundaries were announced, were still seen canvassing the area on Friday (June 19).


Attempts at alliance fizzled from a grand one to a smaller one — between DPP, Reform Party, Singapore First (SingFirst), and People’s Power Party (PPP), which later had its plans for merger with SDA put “on hold indefinitely,” its secretary-general told The Straits Times on June 11. Plans for the usual horse-trading meeting where opposition party leaders stake territorial claims have also fallen through, reported The Straits Times on Tuesday (16 June), raising the risk of multi-cornered fights which favours the PAP.


The same day, PPP chief Goh Meng Seng speculated three-corner fights in eight GRCs and seven SMCs, in a Facebook post, writing: “These are my worries and speculations because everyone is going in blind, playing a dangerous poker game.”



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While they face the usual knotty problems over parcelling out territory, the parties seem at least prepared for a new mode of campaigning.


With physical rallies off the table this election, parties are set to hold their campaigns online through live-streaming sessions on their social media platforms. The elections department will provide venues to hold online rallies, at a subsidised rate, for parties that require them.


While opposition parties stand to lose out from the ban of physical rallies, the new measures will invariably mean cheaper costs. SPP has already set up its own recording space which its chairman Jose Raymond has been using to address Potong Pasir residents in the past few weeks. SDP has also for the past months been recording videos and live-streams, presumably from their office, and posting them on Facebook.

Most of the opposition parties are active on Facebook, whether or not it is on the party’s page or the members’ own account, and they also post similar content on Instagram. WP, SDP and PSP have even ventured into messaging channels like WhatsApp and Telegram as an additional means of reaching Singaporeans, especially those who don’t use Facebook frequently.


Engagement on these platforms seem to be a flurry in Covid-19 days, with webinars with experts in vogue as well. PSP for instance, delved into affordable healthcare reform and invited experts like privacy and technology lawyer, Bryan Tan, and research fellow and senior deputy head centre of excellence for National Security, Benjamin Ang to talk about the TraceTogether app.


Similarly, SDP held their “4 Yes 1 No” campaign, saying “Yes” to the suspension of GST, retrenchment benefits, $500 monthly income for retirees and not holding an election during the pandemic, and “No” to a 10 million population.


RELATED STORY: What the Opposition has said about the Government’s handling of the virus


The PAP, as always, seems content with exposure as the government brand. Online engagements are undertaken more by individual MPs than the party organisation. On Thursday (June 18), however, the party website fired what seemed to be the first salvo with a column targeting WP’s Pritam Singh for supporting Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at, while extolling the virtues of his ex-boss, Mr Low Thia Khiang.


THE PERFECT PITCH


Given the changes to campaigning guidelines, including the absence of rallies, it is clear that contesting parties will have to be adept at strategizing their communication with voters.


Already, commentators are suggesting that politicians harness social media and online tools to reach younger voters, and tailor their TV speeches for an older audience.


That might well work for a political party which wants to form the government, but not for small parties, with not much of a public profile in the first place, aiming to win a few seats here and there. How much emphasis should be given to the party manifesto, and to the electability of its individual candidates in the broadcast time that they have? Would it be better to stick to winning voters in the specific constituencies even though it might not be relevant to other voters watching?


Dr Elvin Ong, a political researcher at the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia who specialises in Singapore politics, said that while three minutes per candidate is “minimally fair”, it is “not quite equitable”.


“Political parties that nominate a smaller number of candidates will have less air time. This limits the range of topics that they can cover within the limited time they have. Second, three minutes per candidate is an extremely short amount of time for candidates to introduce themselves and their plans for their constituency.”


He added: Candidates who contest in SMCs will be the worst off, as those in GRCs can stack their time “for a longer exposition of their plans”.


Of the contesting parties, only the PAP, the WP and the SDP have a brand image which could be summed up in an elevator pitch. But the other parties are hardly distinguishable in terms of party platform and dependent on key personalities to catch public attention.


According to the ELD, it is for the parties to decide how to apportion their air-time if they contest as a GRC slate. This means that you could well have one candidate hogging all 15 minutes in a five-member GRC. It might well be a better strategy if the key member has the most vote pulling power.


But the opposition parties have shown themselves adept at targeting voters through online channels. SDP last Friday launched a WhatsApp channel specifically for voters living in Marsiling-Yew Tee to receive news from the SDP candidates vying for the constituency. The party also has a Facebook page for each of the two GRCs they are contesting in, with about 2,000 combined likes, for residents to connect with the candidates.


PSP, targeting voters living in the West, limited its first webinar to voters with postal codes from the West, though a recording was later uploaded to Facebook. The webinars, titled MeetPSP, have become a weekly affair open to all voters, for PSP to introduce its members and elaborate on their stance on policies.


PV also introduced their ‘Living Room Rallies’ livestream series that is set to feature “rally-type messages and speeches” shot in homes opened up to party members for filming, the party’s secretary-general Lim Tean wrote in a Facebook post. Anyone with a living room and WiFi connection can volunteer to host the session, Mr Lim added.


The PAP appears to have its agenda ready and even a rehearsal of sorts with six ministers anchoring national broadcasts on taking Singapore out of the Covid-19 crisis. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general, has already proposed that the electorate look ahead to an election that is “really about direction setting.” The last of the six ministers, he will be addressing the nation tonight. His speech will be closely watched for clues on the timing and the focus of the PAP.


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There need not be, however, a joining of issues between the PAP and the rest. Besides the Government’s handling of the crisis, which looks set to be a part of the opposition platform, there are still evergreen issues like the CPF minimum sum, the rise in GST and the foreign worker population that the electorate will give a listening ear to.


Going digital aside, any politician would know that the best way to the voter’s heart and mind is by engaging him in person. With the start of Phase 2 yesterday, they are already swamping the neighbourhoods.


Campaigning has started.


Additional reporting by Lauren Ong, Ethan Tay, Christalle Tay, and Daryl Choo.

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