Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Capacity to change lacking in PAP's hearts and minds game plan

Surrounded as they are by compliant mindsets, Singapore's ruling People's Action Party (PAP, also known as the Men In White because of their party attire) is unlikely to find its capacity to change from among party faithful.

The party's hearts and minds strategy needs an urgent transformation. Most of Singapore seems to realise this except MIW strategists.

Seemingly mired in collective denial and wedded to outdated ideas on public engagement, the wake-up call that the Punggol Slap delivered at the Punggol East By-Election (BE) may not produce the intended effect.

Punggol Slap
During Saturday's BE, opposition candidate Lee Li Lian from the Worker's Party decisively defeated PAP candidate Dr Koh Poh Koon. Ms Lee earned her 54.4% share of votes with a victory margin of some 11 percentage points. Voters appeared to answer the call by WP chief Low Thia Khiang to give the MIW a "slap" as a wake-up call.

In the aftermath, the MIW's PR machinery blamed the loss on the By-Election Effect. This was a curious about turn from pre-defeat propaganda:
* That caricatured your average Punggol Eastie as a middle class PMET who would vote for political stability as they had financial obligations to serve
* That claimed a multi-quartered fight by a fractured Opposition would give the incumbent an advantage (four parties went for it)
* That a straw poll by the 90 cents newspaper showed Punggol Easties leaning towards the MIW (the sample set was pitifully small).

In addition, a smallish and otherwise unremarkable heartland mall, Rivervale Plaza, was made out to be like the centre of the universe for Punggol Easties - as if the promise to jumpstart its stillborn renovation would be a vote clincher (it wasn't).

To political watchers, the signal that Punggol Easties sent the MIW was a dress rehearsal for bigger things to come, should the party sally forth into the next General Elections with the same old battle plan.

Political transformation
It is ironic that the political party that has the most battle experience in Singapore, having ruled our city-state since independence, the party that prides itself in rigorous candidate selection and has the mainstream media, unions and grassroots organisations on its side now seems utterly clueless how hearts and minds campaigns ought to be mapped out, staffed and executed with panache.

Further irony comes from the fact that when Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs, Teo Chee Hean, was Defence Minister, he was central to the idea that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) should undergo a transformation to keep itself relevant against current and projected threats.

It is also telling that in the real world and cyberworld, you will find cynics who nurse the faint hope that the MIW would take its Punggol East BE experience as a lesson to up its game by making more effort to connect with Singaporeans.

The spirit of transformation is what the MIW badly needs.

In particular, mission praxis for the MIW's public relations strategy needs to be overhauled because much of the party's PR bumbling is self-inflicted.

Take its handling of newsflows after disgraced ex-Speaker of Parliament and Member of Parliament for Punggol East, Michael Palmer, quit suddenly after he cheated on his wife.

The MIW's idea of transparency entailed saying the bare minimum at a press conference, parrying awkward questions with canned responses and casting a protective cloak around the disgraced MP so impenetrable that he has not been quoted since that press conference.

Questions linger over the duration of his deceit. Without the benefit of a definitive response, rumours fester. Grassroots volunteers, party faithful and residents may start to wonder what sort of lies were told to cover up his dalliance.

A precious opportunity was lost in demonstrating to Singaporeans that here is a modernised political party with the confidence it can rise from adversity (let's face it, having an oversexed MP in its ranks is not a national crisis) and be frank with the People.

Bill Clinton is still respected years after his presidency. Adoring millions will cheer Prince Charles. Alas, these are world leaders who made personal indiscretions, yet command a stature and influence in a different orbit from that of political minnows like Thank-You-Palmer.

The AIM saga is another episode that may have set Singaporeans thinking about the importance of and need for checks and balance in Singapore's parliamentary democracy.

Going strictly by business law, there is nothing to hold back having the PAP register and run a technology company like AIM to service IT infrastructure used by town councils. However, one should never forget that political parties must carry themselves as trusted agents, working for and supported by the People they serve.

When mainstream media reports on the saga are accompanied by a timeline of events to show claim and counter-claim, it's a safe bet heartlanders who have not been following the news will lean towards the argument for even stronger safeguards.

Coupled with pain points such as the cost of living, are you then surprised the ground isn't sweet?

Sparring partners
When loss rates during the air war over Vietnam convinced the United States Navy that its fighter tactics needed urgent revamping, they set up Aggressor squadrons to mimic the way the enemy flies and fights. Training done this way allowed US Navy pilots to get their baptism of fire in controlled and realistic mock battles. Thanks to such pre-battle indoctrination and training, the US Navy pared its loss rate and increased its kills.

In the political battle arena, sparring partners can serve the same role.

Problem is: the MIW is famously intolerant of critical thinkers.

In the cyberworld and real world, dissenting voices find themselves classified almost as social pariahs for raising feedback that sensitive souls do not like to read, see or hear. So the party has few friends, even among well-meaning Singaporeans who learned the hardway there are some arguments they should sit out.

Internet discussants have been famously derided as "noise". Speak out of hand and people start doubting one's loyalty to country. There appears to be no tolerance for a Red Team who stress test ideas in rigorous debate.

Opportunities to shout out are sanitised, with participants and questions at some events scrubbed clean to snuff out troublemakers. Even at university level, some undergrads have to submit questions for "moderation" before the stage-managed Q&A session gets underway. If we cannot trust our future PMETs to think for themselves, what future is our country headed for?

So all the angst streams into the cyberworld, authored on discussion boards largely by nameless souls who can finally speak their mind and say their piece.

In the cyberworld, the MIW is seldom loved. During the Punggol East By-Election, that sentiment flowed from the cyberworld to the real world.

Just imagine what would happen if feelings expressed by netizens are not addressed by the next GE.

You may also like:
In power in the real world, out of favour in the virtual one. Click here

The magic of 2016: Winning hearts and minds for General Election 2016. Click here


CW Fong and Associates said...

Great post David.

For me, the AIM saga was what did the party in. What is legal need not be moral and I believe the younger generation holds our political leaders to a higher standard.

What do you think of the electorate's fear that a MIW loss at the next GE will cripple Singapore? My view is that the government is run by the civil service and a MIW loss (while shocking) things will continue to run.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Spot on.

You said, "Just imagine what would happen if feelings expressed by netizens are not addressed by the next GE."

Well, based on their track record, they would most likely announce a number of goodies for everyone just before the GE. I am now eagerly awaiting what are these goodies?

Or if they ever sense that things are not going they want to, they would be likely to put in even more roadblocks, some "repent" messages and the like.

An Observer.