Voters Matter in Building a Healthy Electioneering CultureJul 28, 2016 at 11:53 am | Hits: 1320
By Cassandra Choo
Singaporeans’ immediate concerns upon hearing last month’s British referendum results to leave the European Union were pragmatic and focused on the economic bottomline: How much value would the stock exchange lose? Is it time for a cheap holiday in the United Kingdom?
However, we need to be asking a different set of questions. For instance: Did the “Remain” and “Leave” champions campaign in an acceptable fashion, and what takeaways can the Brexit offer us in shaping Singapore’s political and electoral culture?
In the aftermath of Brexit, the press and public gave greater scrutiny to the slogans used by the “Leave” campaign. For instance, one widely-circulated message said that the UK’s weekly contributions of £350 million (S$622.6 million) to the EU could be better spent on healthcare in the UK.
In reality, the actual figure was closer to £160 million a week.
The politicians who championed that slogan failed to consider the subsidies provided by the EU to the British government.
Some “Leave” voters and Britons based in London (who overwhelmingly voted to “Remain”) expressed regret and disappointment with the misleading messages and “false promises” of the “Leave” campaign.
Should questions have been asked earlier?
Determining objective truths
The Brexit campaign shows that it will never be easy to determine objectivity and truth when listening to campaigners who aim to rouse crowds with their words.
This includes politicians and candidates in the heat of the hustings and speakers with vested interests in the outcome of divisive issues playing out in the public sphere.
Take for instance, this year’s May 7 Bukit Batok by-election, which was keenly contested.
While it was exciting to see the verbal sparring between candidates from the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), the poll was not just about the contest for a parliamentary seat but also about the character of Singapore’s politics and democracy.
Some politicians were economical with facts. The most prominent example included SDP’s Chee Soon Juan who did not provide the full context of official employment statistics published by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
He said at a rally that in 2015, “the Government only created 100 jobs,” only to be later corrected by the MOM for “painting an alarmist picture” of the job market.
MOM clarified that there was a net increase of an estimated 700 new jobs, and this figure also did “not reflect the total number of new jobs for locals.”
The PAP’s move to question Dr Chee’s character and track record also came under the spotlight, with a group of Singaporeans penning an open letter, in the midst of the hustings, to protest the party’s “personal attacks and character assassination” against Dr Chee.
In political contests, it is to be expected that supporters of either camp will readily say that the other side is behaving in an unacceptable manner. Emotions will run high but voters must keep a clear mind to decipher the debate in front of them.
Voters exercising discernment is an important part of responsible and active political participation.
Why do voters matter?
Elections are not the exclusive battlegrounds of politicians. Voters need to recognise that they are key drivers of the debate as well. As the level of political pluralism rises in Singapore, voters will have to cut through the rhetoric, falsehoods, empty promises and show themselves to be strategic-thinking, pragmatic and ethically-oriented citizens — both in areas that affect us economically and in the field of politics.
Voters will have to make the effort to seek multiple perspectives to get a balanced view of things, look for authoritative sources of information, and take the time to decode the subtexts of politicians’ speeches and the interests they represent.
Singapore cannot risk a situation of political limbo like in Britain, or risk buying into false promises. After Brexit, all the information and promises on the “Leave” campaign’s website were deleted.
But a Web developer rebuilt the site, as he believed that the “misinformation” presented by the “Leave” campaign should remain, and those who published the information should be held accountable.
If Singaporeans are to call out politicians for unacceptable behaviour and get them to remain accountable to people, they will have to be informed and prepared to cut through the electioneering to understand what is the national interest.
Even as we champion our civic interests and causes, we must not degenerate into a politics based on misinformation, or divisive identity politics like the Brexit debate in the UK, that will derail us from building a robust and meaningful democracy.
This will be especially crucial when the next big political campaign season for the Presidential elections begins.
Cassandra Choo is an intern at the Institute of Policy Studies and a final-year global studies undergraduate at the National University of Singapore.
This piece was first published in TODAY on 28 July 2016.
Top photo from Flickr | Ed Everett.