Election talk is once again in the air. The government is keeping quiet about the exact date, but the Electoral Boundaries Review Commission was formed two months ago. The General Elections would likely follow soon; internet speculation suggests that it would be in the third or fourth quarter of the year. Regardless of what happens, the next General Elections will see the most number of opposition candidates and parties taking to the hustings in my (very short) lifetime.
I’m not going to hold my breath, though. I think the opposition has a long way to go before they can be a viable contender.
Who are we voting for?
In the elections I have seen and covered, I have always wondered why political parties keep their candidates hush-hush until the last moment. I understand it would not be prudent to reveal who is going to contest where until after the electoral boundaries are drawn up and approved, and when every party has confirmed which constituencies they will be contesting in. But after that?
In the last General Elections, new election candidates seemed to materialize out of thin air weeks or days before the elections proper, well after the boundaries are drawn up. The problem is that people will have very little time to know who these candidates are — especially if they have not had a chance to meet these candidates in a walkabout, either as formal candidates or as ‘volunteers’ and ‘activists’. This problem is exacerbated by Singapore’s strange brand of opposition politics: where in most countries opposition parties run on platforms and are represented by their candidates, in Singapore opposition parties run on candidates and then reveal their political positions during the hustings. In a country where opposition politics is defined principally by personality it makes no sense to reveal candidates at the last possible minute. Constituents need to know who they are voting for.
What are we voting for?
Singaporeans know what the ruling People’s Action Party broadly stands for. Positions and policies may shift from election to election, but they understand the core policy perspectives that compose the PAP: economic growth, political stability, multiracial society, monetary policy based on exchange rate, migrant labour, and so on. They can’t say the same for the opposition beyond being opposed to the government.
Once more, in the weeks and days leading up to the General Elections, opposition party manifestos seemed to appear out of nowhere, containing ideas never seen before the GE except as reference to existing issues and controversies in the body politic. Singapore’s opposition parties seem content with talking about issues in Parliament and then counting on social media and the regular media to push their views across, with the occasional blog post and press release for variety. But by waiting on current events to publicise their policies, the opposition will be behind the curve. Firstly, everybody else — government and opposition — will be talking about the same thing at that time, so the individual impact of any single party’s announcement would be muted in the general consciousness. Secondly, if a party does not already have a prepared policy position, it will be well behind the curve as it scrambles to catch up with everybody else — and if it does not even try, the party will risk being swept to the sidelines.
Previously, voters might have been satisfied with people who would serve as a check against the existing government. However, as society becomes increasingly educated, tech-savvy and concerned about rights and responsibilities, it is no longer enough for opposition parties to brand themselves primarily as a check against the government. With at least nine active opposition parties (not counting those that are registered but have kept a low profile), multicornered contests are inevitable. Voters need to know what, exactly, they will be voting for — even those inclined towards voting for the opposition will want to know whether they should vote for Opposition Candidate A or Opposition Candidate B and why.
What the opposition needs to do
By now it is too late in the game for the opposition to try something radical. Elections are not won during the elections proper: they are won in the intervening years, as the party lays down the foundation and the groundwork for success. At this point, the opposition should do the following to improve their chances of victory:
1. Strategising. The party needs to decide its election goals, be it to win a constituency, to gain experience and exposure, or to pass up this chance and continue to build resources. From this goal they can decide strategy: where they will contest in, who they should support, how they will communicate their positions. This stage of course depends on the actual electoral boundaries, but the party should at least have an idea of the neighbourhoods it wants to look at and prepare a communication and advertising plan. Most importantly, the party must draw up its manifesto and start communicating the essence of its ideas and positions — ideally as early as possible, before the media is saturated with other news or news of other party positions.
2. Candidate selection. Once again, this depends on the boundaries the EBRC draws up. However, voters still have to know who they are voting for and what to expect from a candidate. Parties cannot expect to unveil a candidate a week before the GE begins and count on their brand to win the day — especially if they do not even have a brand. I’m certain that the opposition parties by now have at least an inkling of who they want to send to the hustings. For unconfirmed candidates, party leaders need to get confirmation as soon as practical. Likewise, these potential candidates need to make their decision soon — especially if they are being head-hunted by multiple parties — so that they can work the ground as early as possible and get to know the people they represent.
3. Coalition-building. With one city divided between a minimum of ten political parties, there are bound to be many multi-cornered fights. Traditionally, soon after the election boundaries are determined, the opposition parties would sit down to hash out where they will contest to minimise the possibility of vote-splitting. .Also, in the last GE, members of different opposition parties sometimes help out at each other’s activities. This is of course a positive action from the opposition’s perspective. Beyond that, though, the opposition needs to think about matters like joint policy positions, media and communication strategies, and branding. If there are no back-channel or informal discussions between the parties by now I would be severely disappointed. I don’t think a united coalition of opposition parties would emerge this year — or at least a viable one — and it’s too late for the opposition to start formalising a multi-party alliance. But if they can coordinate and cooperate to minimise vote-sharing they might at least stand a fighting chance to get more members into Parliament.
Everything obviously hinges on the ERBC’s electoral boundary announcement. At this time, opposition parties that want to contest in the elections must step up their communication strategy. They need to brand themselves by reminding Singapore who they are and what they stand for, and perhaps drop hints about who will be contesting where through walkabouts and social media. They should also have a shortlist of election candidates ready to go.
When the boundaries are announced, the parties would then sit down and discuss their chosen constituencies. With so many parties around, I fully expect multi-cornered elections regardless of how the discussions turn out. That said, I suspect the smallest and newest political parties would try to contest in places no one else wants to take, so that they won’t have to compete with more big dogs than they have to, and there is little to no opportunity cost for them to target those places since they are relative unknowns.
As soon as everybody has confirmed where they will be contesting, the parties have to roll out their platforms and candidates. This is the time to reveal manifestos and personalities, to achieve buy-in before the hustings. By now the manifestos must be finalised and the candidates lined up — especially newcomers to the political scene. The parties can’t wait until the elections to discuss the merits of their policy positions; they would have their hands full with campaigning. They need to have the people discussing their ideas and candidates well before the elections to cement their party brands.
With the people are of their policies and candidates in the months and weeks leading up to the election, Singapore’s opposition might have a chance at sending more candidates to Parliament and to truly make a difference. This is not the best-case scenario, but with signs pointing to an election in the near future, this is the realistic approach any opposition party can take.