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Hearts or Minds: A voter’s dilemma in the general election

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
Hearts or Minds: A voter’s dilemma in the general election
Voters are urged to support opposition parties so as to get more diverse representation in Parliament. But how should the candidates be judged? What if some of them fundamentally clash with your beliefs? How should one vote then – with the head, or with the heart?

When 11 September comes voters will be faced with a choice, not necessarily of whom to vote, but how to vote. Should one make a strategic decision to vote against the PAP in the hopes of a more diverse Parliament? Or should one stick to one’s beliefs and vote for the candidate most aligned with one’s values and causes?

The latter could prove to be difficult: with only nine days of campaigning beginning on 1 September, election campaigning is like a whirlwind relationship in which you start to understand the other person only after a commitment has been made. 

In the week between the Writ of Elections and Nomination Day, candidates are introduced by the political parties. They might be revealed to be standing in your constituency, and you get a potted bio including age, occupation and educational background (also the economic background if the candidate came from “humble beginnings”, so we can all be assured that he/she can “connect with the ground”).

In the next nine days you’re meant to be able to figure out if you want this person to be your representative for the next five years. If you’re in a Group Representation Constituency – where people vote for teams of four to six rather than individual candidates – you need to find out about each candidate, then decide which team has the most number of members you like, or, at the very least, the least number of members you dislike.

It’s precious little time to get to know a person and where he/she stands on a variety of issues from everyday concerns like transport and housing to broader issues like anti-discrimination and equality.

And so we only make up our minds based on a narrow band of election issues. One might be able to refer to party manifestos for more. At the time of writing, the parties are just beginning to release their manifestos – about 12 days before Polling Day. (Let’s hope all Singaporeans are speed-readers.)

Sometimes one picks up tidbits, or hears worrying comments from candidates and parties. Luke Koh, a recently-introduced Workers’ Party candidate, made a comment about an old population policy that sparked concerns over whether he was a religious pro-lifer. Apart from a botched translation that suggests Singaporeans First made no effort to check their slogan with a Tamil speaker, the rhetoric of the party is often worryingly xenophobic. Based on short conversations I’ve had with them, candidates across a number of parties appear to believe that issues such as LGBT equality are non-priority problems that will only be broached when ‘matters that directly affect voters’ are solved (conveniently forgetting that LGBT people are also voters, and that in an ever-changing world issues like population and housing are rarely solved). 

Voters whose concerns extend beyond municipal and bread-and-butter issues thus find themselves caught in a dilemma on Polling Day. If one believes in the need to move away from the one-party state, the most logical choice would be to vote for the opposition, whichever party that may be. But what if the candidate(s) hold views you cannot agree with? What if voting for the opposition involves voting a xenophobe, or a homophobe, or a misogynist? Would you vote for someone who fundamentally clashes with your personal values, all for the sake of a more diverse Parliament?

The same actually goes for PAP voters – one might want to vote for the incumbent, yet be disappointed in their human rights track record. Should one simply vote for them anyway in the hopes that the party will one day have an epiphany and do better?

This dilemma is compounded by the fact that the opposition parties have by-and-large carved up different territories for themselves to avoid three-cornered fights. Voters have limited options: you can vote for the PAP, or for the other party. If you don’t like the opposition party in your ward, that’s tough. There’s no other choice.

It’s an unfortunate way to practise democracy; one in which voters are still restricted in their choices and reduced to a binary. It's a sign of how under-developed Singapore's democracy is, and how much more work there is to be done.

#politics, #democracy, #elections, #singapore, #campaigns