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The rooster crows on the unicorn ship: Election campaigning in Singapore

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
The rooster crows on the unicorn ship: Election campaigning in Singapore
Does the sun rise when the rooster crows? Are we on a cruise ship to nowhere? Why is Singapore's politics populated with mice and tigers? What does this say about the way we run election campaigns?

Following politics in Singapore is like tuning into an epic episode of Story Time. It’s not about the cut and thrust of debating political ideologies, but a life-and-death battle between mythical creatures and petting zoo animals. Here in Singapore, similes, analogies and metaphors – the more extended the better – are political crack; our guys just can’t resist.

Here’s a list of some examples:

- Lee Hsien Loong, leader of the ruling People’s Action Party, said that Singapore is a unicorn; we’re special and need to be kept that way. (This presumably can only be achieved by voting the PAP.) 

- Goh Chok Tong asserted that the Workers’ Party cannot claim credit for having brought about certain government policies or policy changes, saying, “The rooster goes around boasting that its crowing causes the sun to rise.

This analogy was later extended by Chen Show Mao and Yee Jenn Jong of the Workers' Party.

- Criticising the opposition’s performance in Parliament, Lee Hsien Loong said that people had “voted for a tiger in the chamber and you got a mouse in the House.” He also said that the WP was a Frankenstein monster that morphs from a tiger into a mouse in Parliament.

- Goh Chok Tong later described the PAP as a cruise ship: "If you go with the PAP, you're embarking on a cruise ship with a definite destination... You know the captain, the crew members, you know the quality." 

He then went on to say that voting for the opposition would be like being on board a gambling ship: "These are gambling ships, casinos. Very exciting. So you can take this ship, you can gamble, but you go nowhere."

- Hitting back at Goh, WP leader Low Thia Khiang then said that the PAP’s cruise ship was the Titanic: "There are not enough lifeboats, no preparations or provisions for failure.”

He later said at a WP rally that while the PAP has been on a cruise ship, Singaporeans have been on a sampan (a flat-bottomed Chinese wooden boat).

This ridiculous back-and-forth of (not so) witty analogies has not gone unnoticed. In his speech at a Singapore People’s Party rally, lawyer Choo Zheng Xi quipped:

Over the campaign period you’ve seen the mudslinging, you’ve seen the stupid analogies about whether the rooster crows, or the mice speaks, the lion roars… what does the fox say…

Why is our political discourse so populated with such vacuous analogies? Are Singaporeans so incapable of talking politics without it having to be broken down into such simplified fables?

Analogies do serve a purpose from time to time in helping to push home a point or strengthen an argument. It can also be use to lighten the mood so things aren't always so academic or serious. But the constant use of such analogies and metaphors can also come across as infantilising; politicians talking down to the masses as if we can only understand politics when dressed up as arguments between farm animals.

In the context of a general election, the popularity of analogies might perhaps also be explained by the short campaigning period we have, as well as the style of the campaigning. 

When you only have nine days, there's no real time for multiple formats of discussion. You need soundbites and quips for the press, emotive one-liners that can be shared in tweets and on Facebook, stories that stick in people's minds. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, but can become a problem when it is practically all we have.

This year Singaporeans got a party debate of sorts on both Mandarin and English channels, but it ultimately proved disappointing as hosts spent more time telling party representatives that their time was up rather than allowing for any real exchange. The main campaign was still conducted through walkabouts, leafleting, rallies, and old-school pickup trucks with loudhailers.

If the election period were longer, we could have more formats. Town hall discussions, televised question-and-answer sessions and leaders' debates, for instance. Voters would have more time to sit down with candidates and grill them on their election promises and policies, to make sure that there is substance behind the stirring rhetoric on a rally stage. 

Candidates too would have better opportunities to connect with the electorate, to give people a sense of who they are and what values they hold.

The short campaigning period that we currently have often restricts political discussion to platitudes and motherhood statements, and end up being quite top-down as candidates shout into microphones from rally stages separated by security barriers. Singaporeans are more than capable of having in-depth conversations on a wide range of issues from housing to gay rights, and these conversations are regularly held outside of election time in the form of forums and talks organised by civil society organisations and think-tanks. So why not allow such exchanges during the campaign period as well?

That's not to say that Singapore's campaigning period should become tediously long and hugely expensive. But people only get to vote once every five years (or four, in this case). With that one cross next to a name one has to decide on a representative for the next term. It's a serious decision that needs much consideration and personal reflection. Having more than nine days to properly communicate with and learn about the candidates can't hurt.

#singapore, #democracy, #politics, #elections, #campaigning, #soundbites, #analogies