Maybe We Should Move On: Highlights from the Tembusu Forum on GE2020

“Singaporeans were not looking for cardboard figures, but at human beings who could exhibit their vulnerabilities.” —Mr Viswa Sadasivan

My friends and I were ecstatic. We were only moments away from participating in our first ever Tembusu Forum on the analysis of the General Elections 2020 (GE2020). However, the stories of the packed multi-purpose hall and the tAmbassadors donning their stylish blazers ushering in the distinguished guests as reported by our seniors were lost on us. In the midst of a pandemic, the closest thing anyone had experienced to an MPH (Multiple Purpose Hall) stuffed with Tembusians was a suite’s common area or the level lounge with not more than five people, masked up and eyes glued to a laptop screen. Nonetheless, the excitement (in my suite, at least) was palpable. Somehow, we had a feeling this forum was going to be a memorable, and captivating experience for all of us in Tembusu. 

Tembusu College recently held the semester’s first forum on 1 September 2020. The distinguished panelists present for the forum featured Dr Gillian Koh, Deputy Director (Research) and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS); Dr Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, Assistant Professor at the School of Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University (NTU); and Mr Viswa Sadasivan, CEO of Strategic Moves Pte Ltd, and former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP). Moderated by Rector of Tembusu College, Professor Tommy Koh, the panel centred on insights on GE2020 and its results.

The panelists discussed many pertinent and controversial events that developed throughout election season back in July this year. This included the slew of police reports made against election candidates such as Ms Raeesah Khan over controversial comments made online and Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s claims about Singapore not being ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister. The panelists also explained the impressive showing of the opposition Workers’ Party at the elections, as well as what this means for the incumbent PAP government.

Notwithstanding the obvious restrictions and the disconnected nature of online webinars, the depth of analysis and engrossment of the participants was not lost. Panelists and participants alike gave key insights in their analysis of a multitude of issues from GE2020, ranging from the claims of a “watershed election” for the People’s Action Party (PAP); usage of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA); the dynamics and performance of the 4th Generation (4G) leaders; and the role(s) race played in politics that was undoubtedly magnified during GE2020. 

What happened?

The forum began with Dr Gillian Koh’s presentation of data regarding voter satisfaction towards the government, compiled by Blackbox Research. Responding to Professor Tommy Koh’s question if GE2020 was a “watershed election”, she analysed the PAP’s performance during GE2020. Unlike the other “watershed” elections such as in 2011, the PAP had to grapple with issues beyond their control, such as the impact on the economy and jobs, which took a battering due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as compared to the issues of housing and immigration from 2011. 

Dr Koh gave insights into the political methodology and digital campaign tactics used by both the PAP and opposition parties in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Workers’ Party was assessed to have invigorated the electorate through their tactic of denying the PAP a “blank cheque”, most famously highlighted during the live debate on national television. Dr Koh also analysed the effective use of digital and interactive media by political parties like the PAP, Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and Workers’ Party  to reach out to the electorate.

Mr Viswa illuminated the concept of ‘social contract’ often espoused by the PAP, through a poignant anecdote of his experience with the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire. According to Mr Viswa, “social contract” was the citizens’ provision of uncompromising trust, in return for the government meeting the needs of the people. This was most evident from the Bukit Ho Swee fire, where then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew promised to re-house the affected residents in brand new Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, and within nine months delivered on that promise.

Mr Viswa then pointed out how the PAP leveraged on the concept of ‘social contract’ to repeatedly and successfully win over the electorate. The ability to deliver was the PAP’s secret weapon that enabled trust and subsequent support to flow from the citizens towards the PAP. This high level of trust has distinguished the PAP from other political parties in the world because they deliver. 

However, what the PAP failed to display during GE2020 was the fundamental human aspect of politics and governance. As mentioned by Mr Viswa, Singaporeans wanted no mere strongman “cardboard figures”, but “human beings who could exhibit their vulnerabilities”. That was where parties like the Workers’ Party excelled in during GE2020, from Professor Jamus Lim’s touching anecdotes about his father, to Ms Raeesah Khan’s vulnerabilities following the allegations of racially insensitive online comments. In fact, Mr Pritam Singh’s leadership and Ms Raeesah Khan’s apology during a late night press conference exhibited the fallibility, but also humanity of the party. According to Mr Viswa, this was the key reason for Sengkang GRC’s swing to the Workers’ Party.

Dr Walid explored the politics of race in the election. He analysed how race shaped and influenced the results of the recent elections, along with the impressive victories of minority candidates such as Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s victory in Jurong GRC, Mr Murali Pillai’s victory over Dr Chee Soon Juan in Bukit Batok, and Mr Pritam Singh’s victory in Aljunied GRC which fielded 3 minority candidates (together with Mr Leon Perera and Mr Faisal Manap). Dr Walid also gave his take on the controversy involving Raeesah Khan. He hypothesised that many minorities in Singapore rallied behind, and supported her as they felt that she was being unfairly targeted with the police report filed against her.

Dr Walid made the particularly bold claim that Singaporeans are in fact ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister, as seen from the victories of minority candidates, and that the ones who are not ready are in fact the PAP. Dr Walid had expressed similar views in the past, where he asked then-Finance Minister Heng if the PAP was not ready for a non-Chinese Prime minister during a forum at NTU in March 2019.

The panelists gave a truly interesting and thought-provoking analysis into GE2020, as well as in revealing the multi-faceted aspects of the elections, and Singapore politics in general. 

Spilling the Q&A tea

Several provocative questions were asked by participants during the forum’s question and answer (Q&A) session. 

A question was raised about the use of police reports and POFMA as political weapons. The panelists engaged in a heated discussion on the excessive use of police reports against political candidates such as Ms Raeesah Khan and Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Heng Swee Keat. The discussion quickly turned heated as the panelists discussed several contentious topics, such as DPM Heng Swee Keat’s claim that Singaporeans are unprepared for a non-Chinese Prime minister, and the subsequent police reports made against him. Fortunately, all panelists were able to come to a consensus proposed by Mr Viswa, where the police reports were basically making a “mockery” of the situation. They reveal the unfortunate reality that Singapore and Singaporeans do not know how to have an open discussion about race, and feel the need to resort to inappropriate use of police reports to voice disagreement.

Regarding the use of POFMA, Mr Viswa recounted his own personal experience chairing an NUSS pre-election forum with Dr Paul Tambyah, an infectious diseases expert, and Chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). The POFMA Office mandated a correction notice on a video regarding the government’s handling of COVID-19 in Singapore. While the video was still allowed to be viewed on Youtube, it had to display a correction notice of a “false statement of fact”. Even though the forum speakers did not deliberately nor maliciously distort factual materials, the POFMA Office interpreted Dr Tambyah’s statements on the government’s COVID-19 strategies in the video as “false statement of fact[s]” and labelled them accordingly. Mr Viswa did acknowledge that the idea of POFMA had its merits, but when it is abused and not used judiciously, it undermines the credibility of the policy in the end.                                                                                      

Finally, the issue of lowering the voting age in Singapore was raised. Dr Walid was a key proponent of this, reasoning that young people have greater access to information today, and are more aware of events that go on around them. He also gave the example of Full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) from the police: he felt that if they had the capacity to make life-and-death decisions everyday involving firearms, then they had the required maturity to vote wisely in an election. However, Dr Koh disagreed and expressed doubts as to whether these abilities are actually transferable. 

Final thoughts

This Tembusu Forum was certainly an exciting, invigorating and insightful session led by extremely knowledgeable experts in their respective fields. As Mr Viswa responded to Dr Koh’s lengthy discussion regarding Mr Heng Swee Keat’s views on a non-Chinese Prime Minister, “maybe we should move on”. Should we, though? Election fever might have somewhat subsided and there is a belief that we should, in fact, move on. But instead of moving on completely, we should keep in mind that “there is still a political life outside the elections”, as Dr Koh aptly mentioned. The reality is that politics and everyday life often converge, where even the personal can be political. This forum should not be the final stop, but rather a start, or continuation of a journey towards greater political consciousness. 

This write-up merely captures the highlights and salient points from the Forum. The full recording of the forum can be viewed here.

About the Author:

Lance Wu is a first year Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences student with a keen interest in current affairs. When he is not going through some surreal existential crisis (like most FASS students do), he enjoys late night talks and quality time with friends.