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Two key themes to ponder as the hustings beckon

The 2011 General Election (GE) has long been considered a watershed moment in Singapore politics, and the shifts it wrought were dubbed the “new normal”. With Singapore now just days from its 12th GE since independence, however, it is becoming clear that 2011 will be less of a game changer than what the country will wake up to on Sept 12, after all is said and done.

Voter at polling station. TODAY file photo

Voter at polling station. TODAY file photo

The 2011 General Election (GE) has long been considered a watershed moment in Singapore politics, and the shifts it wrought were dubbed the “new normal”. With Singapore now just days from its 12th GE since independence, however, it is becoming clear that 2011 will be less of a game changer than what the country will wake up to on Sept 12, after all is said and done.

Much has been said about how the country is at a crossroads after celebrating its Golden Jubilee, and how the coming elections will be the first without founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose death five months ago brought grief, but also a hitherto unseen level of unity of purpose and spirit among Singaporeans. It was then, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday night while delivering the National Day Rally, that “something changed in us ... Now we don’t have to struggle to find words to define the Singapore spirit, or what being a Singaporean means”.

Quite apart from being at a crossroads, or in the post-LKY era, however, is what leaders of the People’s Action Party (PAP) have been telling us for weeks, but which has seemed to have barely scratched the surface of the Singaporean consciousness: The Republic is on the cusp of a leadership transition, and this one has not followed the script of previous, seamless successions.

Before being identified by Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1988 as his successor, Mr Goh Chok Tong was already seen as being one of the front runners for the top job along with Dr Tony Tan, who is now the President. Mr Goh, who became the Prime Minister in 1990, said in 2003 that Mr Lee Hsien Loong, who had been in the Cabinet for almost two decades by then and was widely seen as a Prime Minister-in-waiting, would succeed him.

This time around, there are few indications of who will take up the mantle, even though this GE could be the last hurrah for Prime Minister Lee, who has said he plans to step down by 2020, along with other senior Cabinet members.

It is no surprise then, that leadership renewal — at the highest level — has been singled out as the key theme of the coming elections by the ruling party.

Regardless of their political affiliations, that is something for Singaporeans to think about. Strong national leadership — not just that provided by the PAP, but also by opposition politicians if they get elected — has been a central theme of Singapore’s success, and is even more crucial when the external environment is unstable.

But it is not just the leadership transition that Singaporeans need to think about. Once the SG50 long weekend was over and we entered what was dubbed the “election season”, something else changed.

Singaporeans showed remarkable solidarity on several occasions this year — in the aftermath of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death and, most recently, during the Golden Jubilee celebrations. But politics quickly put paid to all of that.

While Singaporeans — including politicians of every stripe — put aside their differences and came together as one during the National Day Parade, the National Day Rally two weeks later was a different story: The absence of the Workers’ Party (WP) Members of Parliament from the event, despite their explanations to the contrary, was quickly seized upon by some and attributed to sinister political motives. The Prime Minister’s Rally speech itself became a topic of contention between those on opposing sides of the political divide.

The politics of division were also evident within the opposition camp, as supporters of various parties turned against one another, most notably after the WP and the National Solidarity Party failed to come to an agreement over avoiding a three-cornered fight in MacPherson.

The 2011 GE proved to be a false dawn as far as opposition unity was concerned. Mr Low Thia Khiang definitively painted it as fantasy yesterday, when he revealed during the WP’s press conference to introduce new candidates that talk about unity has been going on for the past two decades, but that his party decided to go its own way.

A more fragmented political landscape is fertile ground for serious political parties as well as opportunistic ones. Two new parties have been formed — the Singaporeans First party and the People’s Power Party — while a dormant one, the Democratic Progressive Party, has been revived.

All constituencies are expected to be contested — the first time since independence that this will happen — with possibly a record number of candidates and parties involved, pending any surprises on Nomination Day.

By all indications, the coming GE will be far more bruising and divisive than previous elections. And for all the significance that it carries, the real test comes after: When the heat and dust settle, can the country move as one to tackle the hefty challenges ahead?

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