GE SPECIAL

Singapore GE2020: Deepening appeal to a younger generation of voters

In 1984, just days before he was elected and began his political journey, which led to him becoming Singapore's third Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong stood on a stage at Fullerton Square with a message for young Singaporeans.

"It's great to be young, youths do not have to be sane, sober and subdued. You can stand up, dance, sing, and have fun," said the then 32-year-old new candidate.

Michael Jackson's music was okay too, but hell-riding was not, he said at the lunchtime rally - which I imagine would have caused the crowd to erupt in laughter.

However, he added a sober message: "But also do things which are worthwhile for society because the Government wants a country which is caring, where citizens are cultivated and willing to help both neighbours and fellow citizens."

Yesterday, 36 years on from that speech and just days before the polls on Friday - the secretary-general of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) had a similar message for younger voters: Singapore's future lies in your hands.

PM Lee was just a year older than I am now when he entered politics in 1984. It was clear to me yesterday that PM Lee, now 68 and in the evening of his political career, had a direct message to my generation: that the choices before us are critical not just for how Singapore emerges from this pandemic crisis, but how to then navigate and establish its place in a post-Covid-19 world.

The noon rally, traditionally held in the heart of the city just after the halfway mark of the hustings, is one of the highlights of any campaign.

It was started by founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1959 largely to reach out to English-educated white-collar workers - although it always drew a wider audience. It was there in 1980 that he famously uttered this line about politics here: "This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and his predecessor Goh Chok Tong, continued the tradition, using the event to focus the minds of voters on what is at stake for the country.

This year, however, because of Covid-19, the Fullerton rally was a virtual one. PM Lee's speech was beamed over YouTube and Facebook - apt channels to reach a generation who live, work and thrive on social media platforms.

Watching him, I wondered what thoughts were going through the mind of a man who has spent his entire adult life serving the nation.

Did he feel relief - that this burden would pass on to another some time after the election?

Did he feel pride - that he built on the work of his predecessors?

Or was it worry? That a new generation of Singaporeans did not fully appreciate the extent of the challenges facing the country.

 that the choices before them are critical not just for h
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at a lunchtime rally yesterday, which was streamed live on Facebook and YouTube. It was clear that PM Lee had a direct message to the younger generation: that the choices before them are critical not just for how Singapore emerges from this pandemic crisis, but how to then navigate and establish its place in a post-Covid-19 world. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

They were, after all, a generation that grew up on social media, travelled and - for a number of them - will for the first time, have a hand in deciding on the government they want to take them forward. They also grew up in an exceptional Singapore, did not know the struggles of its earlier years, and how the PAP steered the country through these challenges.

PM Lee detailed how Singapore had seen its fair share of trials and tribulations in his time in politics: the 1985 global recession, the threat of terrorism; the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak; and the global financial crisis from 2007 to 2009.

But Singapore now faces its most existential crisis: Covid-19.

 
 
 
 

Until the pandemic hit, the speculation was that this general election would likely be PM Lee's last as prime minister.

Since the last one in 2015, a team of younger ministers led by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has taken shape and look poised to take over more fully. But with the country facing the "crisis of a generation", is there a possibility he might stay longer in the post?

"I will see this through," PM Lee said. "I am determined to hand over Singapore, intact and in good working order, to the next team."

Overcoming the crisis and charting Singapore's way forward require the full support of all Singaporeans, he said as he put dealing with Covid-19, supporting the economy and emerging from the crisis intact, front and centre of this election.

Opposition parties have not taken the outbreak, its impact and the challenge of recovering from it seriously, he said. These PAP rivals "are talking as if we can keep to our old ways, and the crisis did not exist". They also continue to "prattle on about a minimum wage, or a universal basic income", while Singapore faces its worst recession since independence.

"These are fashionable peacetime slogans, not serious wartime plans," he said.

He made clear that the PAP, which led Singapore through previous challenges, is battle-hardened and has the wherewithal to do so again.

This was not a message for the Pioneer or Merdeka Generations, who had faced down those past challenges with the Government.

It was, I sensed, a message primarily to younger Singaporeans who, he might be thinking, could be tempted to experiment with and vote in an untested opposition slate during a time of crisis, whether to serve as a check on the Government or to ensure that there is a greater diversity of views in Parliament.

It is, after all, this group - which includes my generation - that will have to help chart a way forward in a post-Covid-19 world.

It is not surprising then that his message to these Singaporeans - many of whom are perhaps not much older than he was when he made his first Fullerton rally speech - is that the PAP is an experienced and credible party that has their interests at heart. And that included on its slate is a younger generation of promising candidates from all walks of life who can better identify with their concerns and who can bring diverse views, solutions and thinking that many younger voters in my generation want to see more of.

PM Lee's pitch is one that has resonance with younger Singaporeans who, having settled into careers, started families or are on the verge of doing so, are thinking hard about whether the country will continue to be stable, secure and provide opportunities for all. This is also a generation that wants to see the development of a more compassionate, equitable and fairer society today and for our children.

The PAP looks to have made stronger efforts to respond to these desires - seen, for instance, in its diverse slate of new faces and its promises of improved social safety nets - which young Singaporeans will appreciate. Opposition parties have not been slouches in this regard too.

The PAP has, since 1959, been a steady hand at the helm of Singapore. It can continue to be, and enjoy healthy support including from a younger generation of voters, if it remains agile in meeting challenges and is responsive to the needs of people.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2020, with the headline 'Deepening appeal to a younger generation of voters'. Print Edition | Subscribe