The PAP doesn’t do subtlety
The by-election, by most counts, had no upside for the Workers’ Party but the People’s Action Party did it’s best to hand the advantage back to it. Yaw Shin Leong’s failure to address allegations of extra-marital affairs and his consequent expulsion from the party was more than enough to put the WP on the backfoot. Sajeev Kamalasanan’s public resignation, sautéed lightly with self-righteousness and a sprinkling of martyrdom, hinted at ethnic discrimination which shook even the party’s staunchest volunteers while Poh Lee Guan’s excursion off the reservation to play rogue ranger all but handed the initiative to the PAP. The icing on the cake was Yaw’s open letter to Hougang residents, serving as one big sticky note on the WP’s forehead to remind everyone of his ill discipline.
The PAP began well with Desmond Choo’s carefully constructed image as a sincere and earnest young man blessed with faulty tear ducts. The fresh-face aunty-killer who had turned pained expressions into an art form was a great moral contrast to Yaw’s cad-like countenance. The old adage that you should do what you do best and not worry about our opponent would have been instructive if only to play up Choo’s boy-next-door appeal. If the PAP had continued with this style of in-between-the-lines campaign that analysts and a politically astute public are only too happy to feed on, it would have made great strides in the run up to the 26th. It would have been a campaign about character without the mudslinging.
However the PAP doesn’t do subtlety. Perhaps it doesn’t rate it. Perhaps it doesn’t think the voting public is sharp enough for it. Teo Chee Hean was right to point to the contradictions between Png Eng Huat’s NCMP declarations and Secret Squirrel’s revelations (A side note: you can tell we have matured politically when our equivalent of a Deep Throat has an equally porno-sounding moniker). However, Teo made the mistake of bringing Png’s integrity and honesty into question. In the eyes of many, this crossed the lines of decency. To begin with, the contradictions were nothing that would win anyone the election and it’s deft handling by Teo would only have underlined the perceived disarray within the WP. Unfortunately the PAP overplayed it and misread the public’s appetite for old-style politics.
Or perhaps it was because Hougang remains an enigma for the PAP. The constituency has, over the past 20 years, rejected PAP’s materialist agenda, defied threats of becoming a state-induced slum and rebuffed sweet-talk from a variety of porridge sellers. Perhaps character assassination was all that was left in the PAP’s playbook.
The last two rallies won it for the WP
By Sunday after the first rally the WP was like a boxer on the ropes. The mainstream media had gone noticeably negative on the party while online criticism of its effectiveness in the past year was stronger than ever before. The internet and social media could no longer be counted on to be pro-opposition. And, like the proverbial boxer saved by the bell, it was saved by the last two rallies. Speaking directly to Singaporeans is what the WP does best. The WP always had the better speakers and the better message. It also had two things the PAP never seemed to be able to muster in public – heartfelt conviction and the vision for a more just and equitable Singapore.
It was at the last two rallies that the WP came into its own. Realising that it could no longer rely on the mainstream media to carry its message in good faith, it spoke to the people once on the night, and then over and over again on YouTube and other social media. The two resounding points made were, firstly, the affirmation that the small but grudging concessions made by the PAP such as the ministerial salaries, tightening of immigrant influx and the friendlier attitude of the government would not have been possible without more opposition in parliament from GE2011, and that BE2012 should not be a step backwards. Secondly, the sharp contradiction between the PAP’s rhetoric of inclusion and Hougang’s upgrading reality, as well as the political bias of the People’s Association, was highlighted most effectively by Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh. Injustice is one fine orator.
Then came the rain on 22nd May. That rain soaked night was God telling us that he was the WP’s PR agent. With hair plastered to their heads and water dripping from their noses, the WP speakers offered a public performance of grit and resolution. The rain was crucial because the spate of dramatic pictures that went viral the next day gave its volunteers and supporters a much needed shot in the arm. The belief and passion returned. High flying rhetoric paled next to those images and it was no suprise that the mainstream media chose not to carry any of them. We all await the sternly worded letter from the government warning the heavens to stay out of Singapore’s domestic politics.
The failure of the mainstream media
New normals do not appear from thin air. Institutions like the PA, elections department, and most of all, the mainstream media are crucial. The stakes are high. If these institutions fail to structurally and ideologically adjust to the values of the changing demographic of voters, they will lose their credibility. Given the monolithic nature of these institutions and the lack of alternatives, it is unlikely that they will die off completely or become irrelevant. The more likely outcome if these institutions refuse to change is that they will be treated with public disdain, perhaps even contempt, thus accelerating the growth of more grassroots alternatives. For example, to counter the PA, the WP has devised it’s own network of activists while the alternative online media has grown because of the unabashed pro-establishment stance of SPH and Mediacorp.
The mainstream media, in particular, took a giant step back from its performance in GE2011. Last year, many fair-minded Singaporeans were pleasantly surprised at the relatively balanced approached adopted by the Straits Times when covering the opposition parties. This time round the old tricks like negative headlines, dodgy pictures, and pro-establishment commentary were on show. It was as though GE2011 never happened. Whether this is an anomaly or a coherent directional change under new editorship remains to be seen.
The consequence is that these institutions will not have a buy-in into the new normal. They will lose the pulse of the people. They will know that there is a party, they will see it happening, they may report on it, but they will not be part of it. No amount of cute awards for snazzy graphic layouts will help.
Photo courtesy of Channel News Asia.