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Saturday October 29, 2011

The Mandarin-speaking strategy

The PAP has been winning elections since the 1950s because it has commanded the support of many Chinese-speaking middle-class Singaporeans.

HOWEVER much the government may dislike the idea, a two-party system is already a reality in Singapore’s Parliament, although a very lop-sided one. From the Workers Party’s point of view, concentrating on the Chinese-speaking heartland – rather than the Western-educated social networks – is imperative for the next election.

Relatively bite-size, the Workers Party (WP) – with only six out of 88 MPs – appears to be working hard to expand by winning over the non-English speaking heartland.

Their strength is, however, far inferior to the People’s Action Party’s (PAP), and few really believe it can unseat its rival any time soon.

But its recent ability to attract good candidates and its rapid rise in popularity has taken most Singaporeans, including the PAP, by surprise.

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had repeatedly warned that a two-party system would cause Singapore to go into decline. Some of his cabinet colleagues apparently disagreed.

The two parties facing each other in Parliament both possess strength of history dating back to pre-independence. The PAP was created in 1954, and WP three years later.

Their fortunes, however, took separate paths until recently when the latter began to expand just as the PAP showed some signs of weakness.

In May, this traditionally left-of-centre party polled 47% of the votes compared to the PAP’s 53%.

It has shown that it is aware of the importance of taking the large Chinese-speaking ground if it wants to win.

During the past months, it had a programme of home and community visits in the heartland.

Holiday group tours were organised for housing board residents to visit Malaysia and Thailand, including a recent one to China led by party leader Low Thia Kiang.

In addition, the party generally stayed away from embracing liberal causes like eliminating ISA detention laws or capital punishment, gay rights or advocating peaceful public protests. They do stir much heartlander interests.

It chose to aim its arguments to bread-and-butter issues like jobs, immigration, housing and high costs of living that upset Singaporeans.

In the recent 12th Parliament session, the Mandarin-speaking strategy was evident. The PAP responded through its slate of Chinese-educated MPs.

The trend prompted a writer to observe that he had heard so many speeches in Mandarin that it made him wonder if “there had been a new language direction in Parliament?”

By far the most impressive oratorical skill came from WP’s new find, Chen Show Mao, which evoked much public excitement, especially the Chinese-educated.

After listening to him, one of them said that he had reversed his poor opinion of him. “I think he is probably the best Mandarin speaker among Singapore’s entire political elite.”

When state TV made short work of his maiden speech, the Chinese-educated reacted strongly.

A former woman journalist of the pro-government Lianhe Zaobao wrote in a current affairs column: “It was a grave error for Media Corp to refrain from reporting Mr Chen’s epoch-making speech.”

Because of that, she said, Singaporeans were disappointed that they were “deprived of the opportunity of watching Chen’s wisdom and intelligence in action.”

Another writer said that by showing low standard productions, television has kept our peoples intellectually shallow, demanding: “Are you proud of yourselves?”

What was the crux of Chen’s speech? He had used an analogy from the Tang Dynasty to portray an ideal relationship between Singapore’s two main parties.

It centred on famous courtier Wei Zheng, known for speaking the truth without fear of offending Emperor Tang Tai Zong, and the latter instead of removing him, had worked with him.

Benefiting from Wei’s fearless criticisms, the emperor then ushered in a golden era that would serve as a model for China’s future rulers.

He hoped that Parliament could work together in the same way to usher in a peaceful, prosperous way.

It is while people are plunging more into the social media for political news, the major parties have not lost sight of the large important Chinese-speaking community.

The PAP has been winning elections since the 1950s because it has commanded the support of many Chinese-speaking middle-class Singaporeans.

Unlike their children, most do not frequent Internet websites. Their preoccupation often differs from the English-educated society.

From the WP’s point of view, concentrating on the Chinese-speaking heartland – rather than the Western-educated social networks – is imperative for the next election.

Its likely rationale is that the English-educated, especially young Netizens, remain as important now as during the election, but as most are already supporters, they need no special push.

The same, however, cannot be said of heartlanders who form the bulk of the PAP’s political base.

Many are senior citizens and housewives, Chinese businessmen and teachers who still feel beholden to the PAP for bringing their parents out of squalid poverty in the earlier decades.

Some 85% of the population live in public housing. Many have responded well to the PAP’s community bonding activities, especially during festivals.

Worse for its rivals is the older generation had the idea drummed into them that opposition politicians are “trouble-makers”.

Right from the start one of our objectives is to convince these citizens that opposition politicians are nothing of the sort, but capable, serious-thinking people.

In the past the WP had adopted a poor strategy of banking its election hopes almost entirely on the poorer class.

For a long time it stuck to it even though a better economy had shrunk the lower class, decimating its voter base.

The PAP worked hard to win and keep the support of the large middle class, especially the non-English-speaking.

It looks like the current resurging WP leadership doesn’t intend to make the same mistake again.

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