When government ministers appear in televised forums before the elections, it’s a reminder of one of the advantages that the incumbents have: as established newsmakers, they can command a hugely disproportionate share of news coverage. However, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s recent dialogue with a group of young Singaporeans also showed that such opportunities can backfire if not managed properly.
The dust has not yet fully settled, but it is already clear that the net effect of the programme has been negative for the PAP. That is not to say that most viewers believe Mr Lee “lost” the combative encounter. Rather, it’s simply to point out that, even if his critical interlocutors were speaking for a minority, the PAP would be better off today had the dialogue never taken place. The PAP's immediate battle is not for the majority, whose support is quite secure in the short term. It is courting the marginal voter: the one in 10 that makes the difference between a 60+ percentage vote share and a 70+ share. It is also that one in 10 swing voter who will decide, for example, whether Potong Pasir falls to the PAP, and the fate of other closely-fought seats. So, the correct tactical question to ask of the TV forum is, how did it affect the marginal voter. I don't think even MM's biggest fans would say that the programme helped win over that marginal voter. It is probably fair to say that the show pushed that marginal voter further away.
Some may argue that it has been an educational experience, illustrating a generational/cultural divide in society. However, we did not need the dialogue to tell us that. Singapore has all sorts of divisions, and it is arguable whether highlighting these divisions and making them salient is healthy for society at any time; and during in election period it certainly doesn’t help a ruling party that advertises itself as the national party of unity.
For the PAP, the irony is that the forum was probably unnecessary in the first place. It appeared to be a response to a perception of unhappiness or alienation among young voters. Sure, there are pockets of young people with critical views. However, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has done an astonishingly good job in appealing to the young since he came to office in 2004. He has hardly put a foot wrong, and indeed his speeches have succeeded in inspiring many. Instead of leaving well enough alone, the PAP felt the need to win every last argument and convert every last man (and, if unsuccessful, scolding him), and in the process losing some of the political capital that has been painstakingly accumulated.
Even if a dialogue was deemed necessary, it is arguable whether the minister mentor was the right person to field for such a task. The prime minister has shown himself a master of the dialogue format, has more recent practice in dealing with the young, and would probably have been far more effective at wooing the youthful marginal voter. PAP strategists could also have done a post-mortem of the series of TV dialogues that the newer ministers had with students a year or two ago. They would have probably found that ministers Khaw Boon Wan and Lim Swee Say, for example, are perfectly capable of connecting with young Singaporeans even as they make no apologies for the PAP’s hardball policies. Instead, not only has the PAP as a whole lost points, but, in addition, the stature of its most iconic leader has been compromised – all in all, an unnecessarily expenditure of political capital in an altogether ill-conceived mission.
The episode highlights possible weaknesses in the quality of the PAP’s media strategy and advice, which may dilute the inherent advantages it possesses in the media battleground. Unfortunately, instead of looking into the mirror and learning from its tactical errors, it may be easier in the short run for the PAP to blame others. Hence, the vocal young have already been criticised by the PAP, and, since the majority of participants in the forum were reporters, so have the media.