The best speech so far

Sep 08, 2015 02.21PM |
 

by Bertha Henson

FINALLY, we hear something different from a PAP candidate that is not a defence of policies nor a promotion of self. Not-so-new face Ong Ye Kung delivered a speech that touched on, dare I say it? The middle ground. It hasn’t escaped notice that Singapore has become more divisive over the years. Mr Ong attributed this to anti-social fringe elements, but I wonder if the poison has not seeped into the mainstream with disaffection established, even grounded, in the body politic.

“I lived through several General Elections. In every election, it’s the same movie playing over and over… The PAP will say, ‘better future, prosperity, progress — support me’. And the Opposition will say, ‘no, you are marginalised, you’re being shortchanged, you should be unhappy’. And so in every election we draw a line in the sand and people are divided,” said Mr Ong.

While in the past, these lines were quickly erased once polls are over, he observed it was different after the 2011 elections. “I do not feel that we came back together again like before,” he said.

The watershed election is really GE2011, not this one we are going through, never mind that the PAP is characterising it as such. Yes, we are standing on the edge so to speak, facing economic transformation forced by global and technological winds and an ageing third-generation leadership. But the change was in the people’s hearts. If the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was alive, he would probably blame higher education and exposure to Western liberal values for the acrimony that has persisted over the years. He might have added the Internet, that independent amplifier that moves at a beat that is different from the mainstream media.

What I never saw in elections past, I see now – the pillorying of political leaders, the jokes, both offensive and hearty, the outright denunciations of people and policies, done not by opposition politicians but by ordinary people.

Two decades ago, I recall the late President Ong Teng Cheong picking up a copy of Hello Chok Tong, Goodbye Kuan Yew at a mamak stall while he was contesting as a PAP candidate and snorting that this could only have come from an English-educated person. I was also at the press conference when former Foreign Minister George Yeo described Catherine Lim’s pieces on the the Goh Chok Tong government as “boh tua, boh suay”. What would they say now of the diatribes that have been poured on elected leaders and the lack of respect for the dignity of the office?

Perhaps, this is the new normal. Politicians must expect this as par for the course. It is no longer the Opposition politicians who are skewered by the PAP through the traditional media channels. The spike is now on both ends of the stick.

I feel as though GE2011 has continued through the years, that we – and I mean the people – never stopped being in election assessment mode.  According to TODAY, Mr Ong raised as signs of division the cases of graffiti on Housing and Development Board blocks, the 2012 strike by bus drivers, socio-political websites that tell lies for profit, handicapped children harassed by protesters during a concert, vitriol and negativity circulating non-stop.

I would say it goes beyond this. It’s also about how every new policy or policy change is being questioned for the motivations that lie behind it (who would have thought that something as old as the CPF would be such a hot potato?) and scrutinised for equality of treatment (why him, not me?). It has to do with how the PAP itself acknowledged that the GE2011 results was a wake up call to hearken to the people’s views, especially on the deluge of foreigners who are straining Singaporeans’ space in all aspects.

The PAP has a nice phrase about how “the world didn’t start in 2011” but for the people, it did, at least in terms of their political awakening. They have realised that the vote means the power to make the PAP move in a certain direction. This probably has nothing to do with the work of Opposition politicians, even though some have tried to claim credit, because, face it, the PAP G and the civil service is an intelligent, effective machinery that doesn’t need outside help when it has decided on a course of action. Nevertheless, it means that every change made will have the shadow of GE2011 cast over it – and assessed in that context.

I should add that politics in the partisan sense was also dialled up over the past four years with two by-elections held, the many debates over the Workers’ Party management of Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council and the unpopular 2013 White Paper on Population. Every group is jostling for more mainstream space, whether it be singles, single mothers or the LGBT community. And jostling vociferously. To think that in the past, inclusiveness was more about making room for minority ethnic communities to flourish…

But there was a pause button that was pressed when Mr Lee Kuan Yew died. We mourned our loss together. What is surprising in the GE is how there isn’t much talk about reaping the so-called LKY dividend. Of course his name is mentioned by both PAP and the Opposition. And here is the irony. Opposition politicians used to deride him in the past for his high-handed ways, but now they compare him with his son, to argue that the younger Lee was falling short of his father’s standards. Such is politics!

Mr Ong brought the focus of this election back to the voter. He didn’t raise the spectre of a freak election result, a Parliament in grid-lock nor pummel the Opposition for being opportunistic or lacking ideas.

Putting himself in the shoes of a voter, he would like a G which makes the cost of living affordable, a G actively helping the disadvantaged, low-income, and the needy elderly to ensure they live with dignity and independence. He wants a G that helps every Singaporean child get a good start in life with good early childhood and school education. He hopes for a strong defence force, a vibrant economy, a flourishing and strong Singapore identity and a “genuine diversity of opinions” in deciding national policies, among other things.

“Unlike the past, where our paths had been open and the collective interest obvious, today, policies are made always with trade-offs and sacrifices… and that makes policies sometimes divisive.”

Therein lies the rub. It has become a truism that diversity of opinion is good for the body politic. But when does the debate stop and how willing are we as a people to get behind something that has to be decided at some time? I think the PAP has to reconcile itself with an opposition presence, maybe even a larger presence, in Parliament. But once the hustings are over, we have got to get down to living together as Singaporeans. We have to find an “obvious” collective interest.

 

Featured photo by Najeer Yusof.

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