04 October 2017

Decoding the narratives of the 2017 presidential election campaign

We have established that Singapore's People's Action Party government and its proxy campaign for candidate Halimah failed to craft a winning narrative for the election that was credible. Big picture concepts like meritocracy and multiracialism were thrown up in order to manufacture a consensus around Halimah, yet the effect was to convince the populace that the PAP had become deluded, self-serving, or completely Orwellian.

But what about the semi-campaigns of the three candidates?

Campaigning is legal outside the legally prescribed campaign period

Image by Cartoon Press
If there was any doubt whether Singapore's campaign laws are overly harsh and constricting, the Elections Department put all that to rest when it announced that Mdm Halimah's campaign was legal despite their pronouncement that she was actually campaigning before she was officially allowed to stand as a candidate.

The announcement does prove that either Singapore's election and campaigning laws are unrealistic, nonsensical, and the product of an incompetent clown show government; or that these laws have been designed to benefit the ruling party and its approved candidates by allowing them to brazenly campaign while non-establishment candidates tread with caution for weeks. In the absence of more evidence, the rule of thumb is to assume incompetence rather than malice.

Measuring the candidates' campaigns

Regardless of the intent of the campaign law, it is therefore understandable that Mdm Halimah had the most developed campaign of the three candidates.

Her messaging to the electorate can be summed up as: Halimah, woman of the people and champion of the masses. Much was made of her humble beginnings, of being poor enough to rely on charity to fund her university education, of her continuing to stay in public housing despite having made Speaker of the House. Her long stint as the lawyer of the National Trades and Union Congress (NTUC) was made a highlight of her pre-political career. If the People's Action Party was the iron fist, Halimah was the velvet glove.

The woman of the people narrative was largely a success, except for the fact that it highlighted how Halimah, a candidate for the Malay reserved election, did not qualify for Mendaki's aid to Malays. Halimah's humble and understated style and "ordinary Malay housewife" photoshoots would've been more convincing, if not for the fact that her public housing apartment is more of a custom penthouse unit (of which less than 500 exist). This marks her as a member of a wealthy elite that tries to claim they're really common by pointing out they live in public housing.

Both Farid Khan and Salleh Marican began their campaigns late. They began giving press interviews a full week after they submitted their applications to run for president, whereas Halimah's campaign began even before she submitted hers. What Singaporeans needed to know about not-yet-candidate Halimah, they were reading in the newspapers already, a full week before they found out more about Khan and Salleh.

Farid Khan appears to have put some effort to assemble a campaign team, and to wage an election campaign. It managed his Facebook campaign account and put up videos and regular posts. Some of his interviews even outlined his agenda for the presidency. Khan's narrative can be summed up as: a self-made man who can speak several languages, and who vowed he will not be a puppet. He stresses his involvement with Mendaki's outreach programmes, conducts a few interviews in Geylang where he was born and visits regularly.

Khan's narrative is understandable. He has to lobby the election department's committee to recognise that qualitatively, he has real CEO skills that are sufficient to qualify for the presidency. He needs to lobby the segment of the electorate that made fun of all 3 candidates not being Malay or not Malay enough. Saying he worked with Mendaki (even though he wouldn't have qualified for their programmes) was a brilliant touch. And clearly, he was setting himself up as the anti-establishment candidate.

Salleh Marican may have assembled a campaign team some time after he announced his candidacy, but it appears he would only start his official campaign vehicle after Nomination Day, when the election department would either clear or reject his candidacy. His campaign team seems to have this delusion that they could avoid announcing themselves as long as the candidacy hadn't been approved. To add insult to injury, this man doesn't own a handphone and the concepts of campaigning seem alien to him. In any other country, we would've written the decision by Marican and his own team to reject visibility as politically inept, if not illiterate, and thus written off his candidacy.

However, Marican did respond to media interviews on a handful of occasions, and we will examine what narrative can be cobbled together. Marican wants to be known as a self-made man, because it shows he is used to being his own man. He wants the electorate to know that he knows what the president's job is, and he might know how to handle conflicts and disagreements with the PM and his cabinet. He even identified hot issues that matter to him as president.

Marican may have the best of intentions but his extremely low key campaign suggests that he would have been seen as a token challenger to the ruling party's Establishment candidate.

The positioning, the structure, and the outcome of a presidential election

If the elections department had qualified all three candidates to run for president, it is highly probable that Halimah would still have won the election. There would've been a noticeable proportion of spoiled votes, for several reasons: an anti-PAP rejection of the reserved election itself; a rejection of all three candidates as Malay; and a rejection of any perceived communal campaigning or positioning by candidates reacting against perceptions they're not Malay (or not Malay enough).

She already had a good head start over her challengers, thanks to her early campaigning. the alleged PAP control of the media aside, it is obvious that the former politician would have a higher profile and public recognition than her challengers.

What would've won Halimah the election, and by a larger margin than Dr Tony Tan did in 2011, is her access to a political machine that this time, her challengers do not possess. Whereas in 2011, Dr Tony Tan had two ministers and the People's Association, Tan Cheng Bock effectively split the PAP's grassroots organisation and took some old-timers with him, and Tan Jee Say could count on opposition activists volunteering and canvassing for him. Tan Kin Lian was the only candidate without a political machine, and it is no surprise he polled the weakest.

Halimah's pool of volunteers and cavassers would have come from the NTUC and People's Association. Where would Khan and Marican find their election machine and national network of canvassers and campaigners? If this were South Korea, it is possible that the two CEOs might've conscripted their workforce to campaign for them. This being Singapore, it seems strange to insist that CEOs are just as eligible to be president as retired ministers and senior civil servants, while ignoring that they do not have access to the same political resources needed to wage and win an election campaign.

Conversely, one can argue that when there's a will, there's a way. The fact that Khan and Marican did not appear to possess a political machine may show the two CEO candidates in 2017 (as well as Chua Kim Yeow in 1993) were either unprepared or unwilling to mount a serious challenge for the presidency.

While popular opinion is that the PAP has diminished the credibility of the presidency by "not allowing" an election, we argue here that the credibility of the presidency would've been diminished more had the election taken place, precisely because it would've shown just how one-sided the contest would be, how the 2017 election would really boil down to resources rather than positioning, narratives, or even campaigning ability.

No comments: