Seah Chiang Nee
In the chase for the young vote, the PAP has sent in Zorro and a hip-hop dancing team to counter Danny the Bear’s foray into its heartland town centre.
Residents of a suburban estate were taken aback one recent Saturday when a group of strangers, led by a well-dressed teddy bear, came a-calling.
They shook hands with the residents and handed out pamphlets in a not so routine run-up to the general election expected within a few months.
The star attraction, Danny the Bear, pranced around the heartland town centre to attract public attention for the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).
In another country, the stunt would have been a routine event, but not in straight-laced Singapore. This highly-regulated society has long been groomed to regard elections as “very serious business, not fun and games”.
But times are changing, and so is Singapore’s voter profile, many now younger citizens.
Danny will have rivals. Various political parties, including the no-nonsense People’s Action Party (PAP), are pondering over less orthodox ways of securing the young votes.
Years earlier, another opposition figure, Desmond Lim, went around campaigning with a giant stuffed ant.
Few people, however, can match the audacity of Lim Swee Say, the Chinese-educated Minister without Portfolio, who attended a Nurses’ Day celebration dressed as Zorro, complete with mask.
“Zorro versus Danny the Bear: who will prevail?” asked a cynical Singaporean tongue in cheek.
Several years ago, a group of young PAP Members of Parliament performed a hip-hop dance at a chingay parade with the expressed objective of gaining acceptance among the new generation.
Why are so many serious grown-ups behaving like a bunch of teenagers these days?
For veteran journalists who had covered Lee’s island-state since independence, the sight of PAP representatives indulging in such stunts seem unreal.
Politicians on both sides are doing it for a crucial reason.
In the coming election, voters aged 20-39 will make up more than one-third of the 2.3 million-strong electorate. About 100,000 will be first-time voters.
This makes them a powerful force, and every party is going flat out to get them.
As the austere Lee Kuan Yew gradually withdraws, his successors, who are mostly bureaucrats, have stepped up their efforts to win over the young.
It will not be easy. For these youths, Lee’s party often comes across as stodgy, authoritarian and separated by a wide gap from the new generation of Singaporeans.
Realising this, the PAP has been shifting its strategies to loosen up on controls, and to move itself closer to the Internet-savvy, hip hop crowds.
It plans to replace 25 older MPs with younger candidates as part of its rejuvenation exercise.
“In every election, we replace about a quarter of the older MPs so that the party can better reflect the views of the younger population,” said a party stalwart.
This year it may widen its traditional political perimeter. For the first time, the PAP is considering fielding a well-known television actor as a candidate.
Tay Ping Hui, 41, who works for state-owned Media Corp, told reporters that he would seriously consider any invitation to stand as a PAP candidate, reported Lianhe Zaobao.
“If invited, I consider it an honour,” said the actor, whose films are known to many Chinese-speaking homes both here and in Malaysia.
Asked by the press, Tay acknowledged that being a celebrity could be a boost.
“The PAP is going dancing with the Stars!” exclaimed a blogger. “You’ve got to give them credit where credit is due.
“They said they were going to come out with a different slate of candidates, different from the old archetypal scholarly types. Now they have.”
Early last year, stories circulated that film-maker Jack Neo was to be named a PAP candidate. The speculation was given credence when a Cabinet minister and another PAP Parliamentarian threw their support behind Neo.
If political high office had indeed been the film personality’s ambition, it was blown apart by a scandal.
Neo, a family man, subsequently confessed to a two-year affair with a model half his age.
Tay Ping Hui may have better luck.
If a film star really makes it into Singapore’s Parliament it will be a significant change.
I recall past occasions when senior PAP leaders had laughed at India, the Philippines and, of course, America, when the reel world got mixed up with the real world.
“These people are foolish to believe that the screen hero they’ve seen demolishing evil must surely be able to destroy tyrants and corrupt officials in real life,” one PAP minister had told me.
“They would find out very quickly that things don’t work this way.”
Yet the derision may soon be turned around.
Today, it is hand-shaking bears, hip-hop dancing MPs and minister disguised as Zorro; voters can expect more.
Will elections one day be the noisy, flag-waving affairs with high-kicking cheerleaders one sees in an American party convention?
My inclination is to say never, but that’s too long a time. I must admit that I can’t think of an easier or faster way to whip up political excitement.
One thing is for sure. With or without Lee, the PAP will continue to beat the drum to tell young Singaporeans that the party is not all work and no play; it can be a fun party as well.
As I was ending this, I read that kung fu star Jet Li had just confirmed that he is indeed a Singapore citizen.