Chan Jia Hui
This is a piece that is long overdue, but I chose to hold back until after the Presidential elections. I was awaiting the results of the Presidential elections the moment I learnt Mr Tan Jee Say threw his hat into the race.
To begin, I have been following the campaigns of Jee Say starting with the General Elections in May which ended with the finale of the recently concluded Presidential elections.
When Jee Say first announced his candidacy during the General Elections this year, he brought a comprehensive economic plan to the table.
Let’s start with the positives of the plan. It has an all-inclusive nature, covering healthcare, education and societal plus familial development. It also aims to promote an entrepreneurship culture in the hope that these local initiatives will go on to create jobs.
Now, moving on to the not so good news – Jee Say’s idea about shifting focus from manufacturing into services is a subject of much academic debate. In the opening remarks of Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang’s debate with Jagdish Bhagvati from Columbia University on the topic of manufacturing, the former warned against undervaluing the manufacturing sector, while at the same time adopted the position that it is also too simplistic to insist that manufacturing is good and services is bad.
One issue with services as highlighted by Ha is not all are tradable with the exception of high-value tradable services like banking, consulting and engineering. There is currently no such thing as long distance hair-styling services and no one has invented such a method yet. In other words, consumers have to be in the same location as service providers, and therefore they cannot be exported.
A rising share of services within the economy will lead to lower export earnings. It is imperative for the exports of manufactured goods to increase or the country will be unable to pay for the same amount of imports. The consequence is a negative balance of payment, which is derived from the net earnings from exports minus payments for imports.
History has shown that governments do continually intervene and attempt to develop certain manufacturing industries. It has its grounding in the New Trade Theory developed by Nobel Laureate in Economics Paul Krugman. The goal of such interventions is to hopefully grow infant industries into world status. Such industries are known as national-by-specialisation industries, and examples are Japanese-made cars like Toyota and Swiss-made watches.
My fellow New Asia Republic columnist, Kelvin Teo, explored the idea of developing the food processing industry (a type of manufacturing industry) in Singapore since we are known worldwide for our food. A New Trade Theorist will for example suggest growing our food-processing industry into world status, which will become Singapore’s national-by-specialisation industry. However, that is a mere food for thought.
Enough of the academic discourse, since readers will more or less understand now why manufacturing should not be undervalued. What hurt Jee Say during his General election campaign was his bringing up of the topic of shifting focus from manufacturing into services to the mass audience. It wasn’t necessary.
To an average voter, who is most likely not interested in the intricacies of economic and industrial policies, a mere statement about “shifting focus from manufacturing into services” is going to send worries or chills down his spine.
This is especially when he is a factory worker or employed in the manufacturing industry. He is going to think “My gosh, if I vote Jee Say into political office, he will suggest a shifting of focus away from the industry where I am currently employed and I may lose my livelihood”.
The fact is the savvy ones will totally understand Jee Say’s drift, but the same cannot be said of average voters out there. The worst impact of such statements about shifting of industrial focus is that voters from the industry in question may worry over their livelihood and not have an incentive to vote Jee Say. For the other unaffected average voters, such ideas may come across as highfalutin.
Jee Say’s tactical mistake is talking about the shift of industrial focus from manufacturing to services to the general electorate. Such a technical issue is better suited for an intellectual environment, e.g. think-tank discussions, rather than being communicated to the mass audience where the average voters will perceive the message differently. Unsurprisingly, this opened Jee Say to attacks by the PAP.
If there is an insistence to talk about an economic issue, it is best to cover one that is simple and resonates with everybody that they understand what it is all about. A good example is GST or tax cut. Everybody knows he pays taxes either through Goods and Services Tax or yearly income tax.
No one likes to pay more tax, and a suggestion to pay less is always welcomed. The more intellectual ones will say it is good policy to remove market distortion created by taxes and stimulate consumption – the usual intellectual reasoning.
For the average joe, they like the idea of more money in their hands. Hence, a suggestion like tax cut is simple, yet resonates with everyone. It is definitely more impactful than talking about shift in industrial focus.
During the Presidential campaign trail, the popular blog The Online Citizen conducted a video interview with Jee Say. He was quizzed about the public perception of being “hot-headed” with some perceiving him as a “hooligan”.
In defence, Jee Say replied that he wouldn’t have advanced in his career if he was hot-headed. Point taken, but if I were the reporter, I would have asked this question “If I put you side by side with Worker’s Party Mr Chen Show Mao, and pick the more hot-headed one between you and him, who will it be?”
I am sure readers will agree with me in opining that Jee Say comes across as more “hot-headed” relatively speaking when compared with Show Mao. The fact of the matter is that Show Mao is now in Parliament, and how he conducts himself in the face of relentless criticisms is a shining example to how other candidates who want to follow in his footsteps should conduct themselves.
The way a candidate conduct himself can make a difference. This is why, a candidate like Chen Show Mao who is never perceived as a “hot-head” or “hooligan” will have greater appeal to swing or middle ground voters than Jee Say.
While it is understandable that Jee Say can be passionate, not everyone perceives “passionate” actions as passion. To others, such actions can be read as “hot-headed”, “confrontational” or worst, “being a hooligan”.
Results of the Presidential elections basically confirmed the writing on the wall: Jee Say is unable to win over the middle ground or swing voters. Jee Say’s margin of 25.04% is very close to Singapore Democratic Party’s 23.3% in Sembawang Group Representative Constituency during the 2006 General Elections, where Dr Tony Tan was formerly from.
Those that voted for Jee Say are typical opposition voters, the types who are happy to vote for anyone contesting against a PAP or PAP-backed candidate. The truth of the matter is that if Jee Say wants to enter Parliament, he has to win over the middle ground and swing voters.
His over 40-odd pages National Regeneration Plan is worth a read and has its merits. It may even resonate with voters, and may convince swing or middle ground voters.
On a negative note, however, it seems Jee Say has made no progress in winning over middle ground or swing voters judging by the results of this Presidential election. If Jee Say wants to enter Parliament, these are the voters he has to win over.
The first step to winning is a radical change on how he conducts his campaign, for instance, the messages he wishes to be communicated to the masses to make maximum impact and win their votes. The second is a make-over of his image, to the gentlemanly demeanour or air adopted by Chen Show Mao. Show Mao is the gold standard of reference.
I read about a slogan, “Jee Say Ho Say” coming from Jee Say’s supporters during the Presidential election campaign. As much as I hate to rain on others’ parade, I will feel this is more appropriate “Jee Say, Bo Ho Say, it cannot be business as usual if you are aiming to enter Parliament.”
Photo courtesy of The Online Citizen. The author is thankful to the staff of New Asia Republic for editorial assistance on economics insights in this article.