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Updated sociopolitical harmony could reshape a new era

LIVERPOOL Football Club's anthem You'll Never Walk Alone was invoked earlier this year as a rallying cry for national cohesion, as Singapore tackled the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the motto of another English club, Arsenal, encapsulates how the 2020 General Election (GE2020) highlights a key attribute of Singapore's country brand. Since 1913, Victoria Concordia Crescit (Latin for "victory through harmony") has been Arsenal's vision of success in football depending on unity among the club, players and fans.

Similarly, a shared instinct for sociopolitical harmony is the primary facet of brand Singapore that GE2020 elucidates and updates, even as other nation brand attributes were also illustrated, such as multiculturalism and meritocracy, as seen in the diverse slate.

A default aversion to conflict is the basis for Singapore's envied political stability and predictability. This is a mindset built on one-party dominance over the last 61 years, the ingrained gratitude of the older generations, constraints on political discourse and civil society, and a supportive mainstream media.

Such resistance to change is reinforced regularly with rallying calls for a "strong mandate". From the narrative of vulnerability, old analogies like the sampan are invoked to warn voters not to rock the boat - even though a vessel that can afford S$93 billion of relief measures looks more like a cruise ship or ocean liner.

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Even if an opposition wipe-out had materialised this time, an electorate conditioned to prize solidarity would have come to accept it with less rancour than in many other countries.

Another pillar of harmony is trust in government, which explains why pundits were dead wrong about a "flight to safety" amid a pandemic. Yes, fear ran high the night of the supermarket run on toilet paper, but it had all but dissipated with the "circuit breaker" reopening and election safety measures - so much so that default behaviours returned, such as craving essential supplies like bubble tea.

Bread-and-butter worries were also less influential than predicted. Nativist, protectionist sentiments hold weak appeal - below the global average, it would seem - because Singaporeans are well-adjusted to job market competitiveness. This is an outcome of decades of labour policies welcoming foreign talent and skills, and the unique tripartite partnership of government, employers and workers. Labour relations have been so harmonious that voting out the trade union chief is a non-issue.

Political norms have always prioritised harmony, with sore losers criticised and opposition politicians shunned for transgressions no more egregious than speaking rudely to senior officials.

Whatever happened online in GE2020, in real life, candidates were mostly civil. Explosive issues were hardly exploited, like the court case on the Workers' Party's (WP) town council management and unpopular constitutional changes like the reserved Presidency. The People's Action Party (PAP) and WP were so mutually cordial, it was as if their party leaders had earlier agreed to a truce: no personal attacks in person (party media releases aside) - no hammer, no lightning.


Now, an update on Singapore's sociopolitical harmony is on the national agenda, led by a more assertive electorate. Discarding the confrontational for the aspirational was a likely factor in the WP securing the Sengkang ward, a significant proportion of which comprises a younger demographic rooting for the underdog and recoiling from bullying or "gutter politics".

In what some saw as a "toxic" campaign online, harsh words were exchanged and correction orders on web content disputed. But harmony was quickly restored, especially when the pressure on the WP over candidate Raeesah Khan's earlier comments was not intensified - possibly because readings of the ground support for her suggested that going in harder could backfire.

Since independence, this tranquil island has never harboured any real risk of street protests like those against inequality in Chile or racism in the United States. Today, this political serenity is not being overturned by online public opinion, but may, paradoxically, hinge on it. As long as there is Wi-Fi, Singapore's netizens now know they wield the power - on social media platforms and petition websites - to oust unsuitable candidates or rally to stand by those they wish to protect.

With the GE2020 result, a new national vision, articulated most inspiringly by the WP, is winning support - a future in which harmony is more inclusive, because power is shared with the people, and greater respect accorded including for alternative views, press freedom and artists.

Going forward, the ruling party's first instincts will surely be to rebuild harmony as soon as possible; all the better to tackle the stern challenges of Covid-19 and its ensuing recession. At the same time, addressing newly-surfaced yearnings for fairness, accountability, transparency and representation in governance demands a refreshing of the political culture and consensus.

Such a maturing of Singapore's democracy might well signal a welcome new era in politics, all the more inspired by a quest for Victoria Concordia Crescit - working towards a more inclusive victory for Singapore through a better-managed harmony among all Singaporeans.

  • The writer is a country brand adviser and author and editor of more than 30 books including Brand Singapore.

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