The Defining Moment

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A good movie has a defining moment that will stay with you, sometimes for a long time. The GE2020 campaigning started on a high note with a televised English Language debate. Vivan Balakrishnan showed his mettle as a debater and politician who thinks on his feet. Then a young man, who went toe to toe with the Foreign Minister, stole the show. Jamus Lim immediately became the star performer, garnering a following not unlike the young Nicole Seah in 2011. Was this the moment? Jamus’ sheer eloquence however belied a need for grandstanding that took away the essence of what he was saying, and somehow underscored his lack of actual ground experience. Just when the hustings appeared to be running their course, the defining moment happened. It was when Raeesah Khan was attacked. Pritam Singh had faced up to WP’s no-show in the first televised Chinese Language debate, but how he showed up at the press conference with Raeesah not only contrasted favourably to the unceremonious disappearance of Ivan Lim, he fielded questions directly, taking a stand that was reassuringly and disarmingly gracious and honest. We all know a good political candidate when we see one. Pritam is good and then some. I had thought he looked distractingly concerned most times. Yet with time, this look grew on me. During the campaigning, I saw an earnest look of humility, a steady look under pressure, and a look that restored my faith in the opposition.

Of course a movie is also about the narrative flow. So what is the story here? First things first. For an election called during a pandemic, after a $93 billion set of Covid-19 budgets, the ground is at best bitter-sweet. With 61.24% of the votes, the PAP did only marginally better than its worrying 60.1% low point in 2011. It is now clear its 2015 performance of 69.9% was influenced both by the SG50 celebrations and more significantly, by LKY’s passing. Next, is GE2020 a referendum on the 4G? It is now difficult for Singaporeans to see Heng Swee Kiat as the next PM. Until he was pushed to the forefront, he was the decent, capable and reliable technocrat. Now, I cannot unsee his bright-eyed expressions that were usually hollow, often accompanied by sudden puppetry gestures when he read his speeches. With his 53.4% electoral margin in East Coast, is Chan Chun Sing the default choice? It may not be fair to Chan, but he may be haunted by the two ‘leaks’ for a while. Both revealed his spontaneous self, a side that endears him to some and a turnoff to many others. Of the 4G, Ong Ye Kung, with his strong 67.29% showing in Sembawang GRC, now has the strongest electoral mandate.

PAP’s commanding hold of the West was challenged in this GE by Dr Tan Cheng Bock. PSP was unseated, but Cheng Bock managed to chip away 48.31% of this stronghold. For PAP, holding on to 51.69% this year contrasts sharply with its scorecard of 78.5% in GE2015. Also in the West, Dr Chee Soon Juan delivered his highest electoral vote count of his political career dating back to 1994. With 45.2% of votes in Bukit Batok SMC, is victory finally in sight for him? The other star performer has to be Dr Paul Tambyah. He is the protagonist who brought to light ’startling’ facts and defended his stand with a chill factor that both defined his campaigning persona and the ease with which he separated the facts from fiction. At 46.26%, Paul’s electoral result in Bukit Panjang SMC is one of the three just under 50% performances by the opposition that close the overall margin. The biggest win of the night, one which voters made political history, WP winning 59.93% of votes in Aljunied GRC against its 2015 showing of 50.95%, may not be seen as such because, for many Singaporeans, the surprise Sengkang GRC win was too spectacular.

The Sengkang win was the biggest upset for the ruling party. And on many levels, it can be perceived as the biggest win of the night. For the first time, there will be two opposition GRCs. I have my views on this Sengkang win. Yes, Jamus had star power. Yes, it is a new GRC. Yes, WP fielded a young team in which members are young parents like most of the Sengkang voters. But the tipping factor, to me, are the Raeesah attacks. She was below the radar until the attacks. When it happened, she conducted herself well. She apologised unreservedly. Suddenly voters, especially the younger voters, uncovered her humanitarian and NGO work and felt protective of her as a candidate. These attacks also reminded the electorate that politics can be dirty and when push comes to shove, the PAP hardliners can play rough and tough. There was a prevailing feeling, mostly online, of championing a young vulnerable candidate against the big bully.

To many Singaporeans, the GE2020 results ended on a high note. When the result of West Coast was finally announced at around 3am, I knew I was hoping against hope. I switched off the TV and went to bed. It is heartbreaking to see a 80 year man fight such a good fight, to witness such a close brush with success. Before I slept, I wondered how would this almost-President feel about another miss. A miss is as good as a mile, but still. For the opposition, both East and West Coast are almost winners. I woke up this morning with a thought. Now I don’t think anyone can say Singapore does not have a worthy opposition. Not any more. I read our PM had called Pritam to congratulate him and had graciously offered him the official designate as Leader of the Opposition. Then I watched Pritam’s thank you speech. “Today’s results are positive, but we have to hit the ground running. We should not get over our head with the results. There’s much much work to do.” Spoken like the man of the moment.

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