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COMMENTARY

More constructive engagement across political divide will benefit Singapore

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Sending DPM Heng to helm East Coast GRC and the well-liked Desmond Lee to shore up West Coast GRC proved to be tactical master strokes by the PAP.

NOW that GE2020 has concluded, it is time to look at the issues that may have shaped voters' behaviour and implications going forward.

But first let's put to rest the notion that the ruling the People's Action Party (PAP) deliberately capitalised on the Covid-19 pandemic to call for an election. This presumption, fanned by the opposition, is based on the conventional wisdom that a crisis invariably favours the incumbent as citizens seek safety in the known over the unknown.

This crisis, however, did not sweeten the ground for the PAP. On the contrary, Covid-19 came at the worst possible time for the ruling party. Prior to the outbreak, the bet was on an election in April, perhaps riding on the wind of a goodies-packed elections Budget that many were expecting. The PAP would still expect to end its term of government with a small surplus. Under the Constitution, Singapore is required to keep a balanced budget over each term of government.

But the pandemic upended any such plan. Instead, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had to dig deep into Singapore's reserves to help save jobs and businesses as lockdowns, both at home and abroad, brought the economy to a near standstill. Tapping the reserves was meant to be a temporary measure to tide Singaporeans and Singapore companies over the shock of an abrupt global lockdown but Covid-19 has shown no signs of abating since surfacing in Wuhan, China in late December. We are already in the middle of July but international travel remains in limbo, curtailing much of commerce and making cross-border transactions near impossible.

By putting off an election that it had to call by April next year while there was no clarity on when the Covid-19 outbreak would subside, the PAP government risked going into the last leg of its term without adequate financial resources.

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With revenues badly hit and unplanned government spendings rising to fight the virus, it does not take an economist to work out that the fiscal situation can only get worse. Unless there is a miraculous recovery soon, the government is likely to seek President Halimah Yacob's assent to tap into the reserves again for Budget 2021. The PAP would be able to present a more convincing case before the president if it has a fresh five-year mandate and longer runway to balance the budget.

So when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he was overall satisfied with the outcome of the election, he was not offering a platitude. Although the PAP lost a second group representation constituency (GRC) in Sengkang and saw its overall vote share fall to 61.2 per cent from 69.9 per cent in GE2015, the results could have been worse.

Heading into the election, both East Coast GRC and West Coast GRC were vulnerable. Workers' Party (WP) had been pegging away at East Coast GRC for the longest time and was thought to be fielding its B team that comprised the charismatic Nicole Seah. Over at West Coast GRC, the Tan Cheng Bock-led Progress Singapore Party (PSP) was staking a strong claim against a PAP team led by Minister S Iswaran.

A tough fight was anticipated. And so it proved, with PAP winning both constituencies by a small margin. Sending DPM Heng to helm East Coast GRC and the well-liked Desmond Lee to shore up West Coast GRC proved to be tactical master strokes. These were five-member GRCs and losing them would have slashed PAP's parliamentary majority to 73-20 instead of the 83-10 outcome, as well as losing potential ministers and office holders.

The PAP will have to keep a close tab on the two GRCs though. Any military strategist will tell you that having strong hostile forces on both flanks risks trapping your own in a pincer movement.

In his post-results media conference, PM Lee said the PAP will listen to Singaporeans and do its best to address their concerns. "There were also real concerns raised during the campaign that we must address," he reiterated later on his Facebook.

Jobs must surely top the list of concerns. The results of GE2020 mirror closely that of GE2011 when the PAP's vote share fell to 60.1 per cent - its lowest since Singapore's independence in 1965.

The cause of voter dissatisfaction in GE2020 may have its roots in GE2011. The hot button issues then were rising home prices, overcrowding and unreliability of the MRT, and immigration. The government has since defanged the issues by ramping up its public housing programme and cooling the private housing fervour, building more MRT lines and improving the reliability of existing lines, and tightening the influx of foreign labour.

Housing and transport were non issues in GE2020, although there were half-hearted attempts by some opposition parties to make heavy of declining leases of older HDB flats. Foreign labour, however, remained a contentious issue.

Singaporeans are not worried about the quantity as much as the nature of the foreign labour here. Rightly or wrongly, many perceive that foreigners have taken up too many PMET jobs at the expense of Singaporeans, particularly middle-level roles that ought to have no dearth of local talents to fill.

To debunk this perception, it may not be a bad idea to study the PSP's proposal that Singaporeans be made head of a company's human resource division. If this is not feasible, the Ministry of Manpower could mandate large corporations to disclose their ratio of foreign to local workers in middle to senior roles, say, those who earn a monthly salary of S$4,600 and above. If the ratio is higher than normal, the company should explain why.

With the WP securing 10 seats, the new term of Parliament will for the first time feature a Leader of the Opposition in party chief Pritam Singh. PM Lee has said that Mr Singh will be provided with the necessary staff and resources to perform the new role. With added prestige comes added responsibility so it was no surprise Mr Singh said post-results that he was not feeling euphoric despite his party's historic win. The stakes have got even higher. WP Members of Parliament must do more than point out the shortcomings of government policies.

They may be asked to shape legislation by working with the PAP so that come election time they can't distance themselves from unpopular but necessary law. DPM Heng said he looked forward to WP "playing a constructive role and putting national interest before party interest".

This is easier said than done, given their entrenched political philosophy. But there are many areas the two parties can agree on.

To do that, there needs to be more cooperation and less suspicion between the two parties. When a WP MP seeks information in Parliament or from the civil service, the government should refrain from questioning the motive behind the question. In the same vein, if sensitive information is asked of and provided by government to help MPs make a more informed decision, WP should not use the information to score political points. In short, there must be mutual trust for the benefit of all Singaporeans. In Western democracies, there is a tradition of government leaders briefing opposition leaders on classified information involving issues of national import.

Singapore is facing its greatest crisis in Covid-19 but parliament is limited to debating and passing legislation. It is at the constituency level where MPs can best help the government in fighting the pandemic. Perhaps, the government may want to consider channelling aid to residents through the elected representatives rather than PAP grassroot leaders in constituencies where the party lost.

Aside from national issues, Mr Singh will have his work cut out overseeing WP operations across three constituencies. Its foremost task will be to form the Sengkang Town Council. The party will want to avoid the mistakes made with the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC), where there is still a pending court case. Mr Singh, WP chairman Sylvia Lim and former WP chief Low Thia Khiang are appealing against a High Court judgement last October that found the trio guilty of breaching their duties as AHTC town councillors.

In their constituency political broadcast, the young WP team has promised to tackle issues that matter to the people of Sengkang by pushing for more spaces for neighbourhood shops, relieve bottlenecks in childcare centres and dedicated paths for bicycles and personal mobility devices. Realising them will require a lot of hard work and persuasion to the authorities, given that some plans are beyond the purview of a town council.

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