20131221 Downtown line stage 1 officially opened by PM Lee 1

In the past week, the Public Transport Council announced a fare hike for public transport in Singapore – a 3.2% increase in 2014 and an increase of 3.4% to be further considered next year. To mitigate the fare increase, Singapore’s Ministry of Transport announced a slew of concessions for various groups of people such as senior citizens, children, low-income workers, full-time national servicemen, and persons with disabilities.[1] Most interestingly, polytechnic students, who have long been considered tertiary students like university students, will finally enjoy dramatically lower concession transport fares similar to their same-age counterparts in junior colleges and technical institutes. The struggle over polytechnic students’ public transport concession fares has been ongoing since 2001.[2]

In response, the Workers’ Party (WP), currently the largest opposition party in Singapore’s Parliament with nine parliamentarians, issued a statement welcoming the new concessions.[3] In that statement, the WP appeared to claim credit for the Government’s move for new concession rates, saying that “These groups will finally enjoy some overdue relief for their travel needs, for which the public and the WP have lobbied for years.”

Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport Josephine Teo retorted on her facebook page that the WP’s response was “predictable” because it “never misses an opportunity to pander” through its attempt to “claim(ed) credit for the concessions.”[4] It is not the first time that a parliamentarian from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has taken to facebook to attack the WP. PAP Member of Parliament Hri Kumar was unrelenting in his criticisms in two facebook posts late last year.[5] He even attached a comic of Humpty Dumpty in WP uniform sitting on the fence.[6]

Casual observers will dismiss such statements and counter-statements as petty politics. Indeed, nothing looks more immature as politicians slamming each other via facebook posts, as if they were a bunch of teenage bloggers throwing tantrums at each other. Yet, upon closer inspection, the deeper tension that undergirds the rhetoric of both sides is the desire to claim credit for recent policy changes in preparation for upcoming general elections due in 2016.

In 2011, the WP campaigned on the platform of “Towards a First World Parliament,” with its leader Low Thia Khiang cleverly using the analogy of a co-driver of a car slapping awake the sleepy main driver at the wheels. When the main driver finally changes direction, of course the co-driver is now eager to claim credit for slapping the sleepy main driver. Moving forward, the WP will continue to be eager to claim credit for any positive policy changes made by the PAP Government to further buttress its own narrative.

The PAP, on the other hand, is anxious to implement popular public policies while vigorously denying any credit to the WP at the same time. Any positive change will be a result of its own wise and difficult work. Through its subtle control of the mainstream mass media, it will magnify the goodness and popularity of its new policies to broadcast a clear signal that it has learnt the error of its ways since the historic general elections in 2011 when it scored its lowest vote share ever. Concurrently, it will attempt to subvert and blindside the WP through its attacks whenever possible.

Will the PAP be able to continue to deny credit to the WP while keeping it on the defensive with relentless attacks both online and offline? Much will have to do with whether it will suffer a public backlash for the type of knuckle-duster politics that appears to be re-emerging. At the PAP convention held late last year, Minister of Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing, seen by many as the Prime-Minister-in-waiting, said that the PAP must “fight to get our message across at every corner” and “do battle everywhere as necessary.”[7] For example, earlier in 2013, the Government’s National Environment Agency slugged it out in the mainstream press with the WP over the procedures for cleaning the ceiling at two hawker centres in WP’s Aljunied GRC.[8]

If Singaporeans decide that such “battles” are fair in democratic politics, then the WP will have a real fight on its hands. However, if Singaporeans are sympathetic towards the WP, then it is the PAP that will have to tread carefully. Either way, the next two years in the run up to the 2016 general elections promises to be an eventful period in the continued political development of this tiny island-state.

Elvin Ong is currently a PhD graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Emory University. He is a graduate of Singapore Management University and holds an MPhil in Politics (Comparative Government) from the University of Oxford. He can be reached at [email protected].