The controversy over Mr Ivan Lim and his withdrawal as one of the People’s Action Party’s new candidates in the July 10 general election has turned the spotlight on the candidate selection process by political parties.
Unfortunate as the incident was, including for Mr Lim, there has been broad agreement across the political spectrum that any selection process is not foolproof.
With the nine-day campaign period beginning today, the furore has threatened to overshadow the PAP’s intent to focus on key issues – jobs, lives and Singapore’s future – and its slate of candidates who were going to help deliver on its raft of measures for these challenging times and beyond.
But the party is staying the course, holding firm in its belief that the 27 new candidates on its ticket – including Mr Lim’s replacement Xie Yao Quan, 35, head of healthcare redesign at Alexandra Hospital – are capable of meeting the expectations of the electorate, including the desire for greater diversity and points of view.
Party secretary-general and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the PAP would look into the allegations against Mr Lim after the election. But he expressed confidence in the party’s selection process, pointing out that it has produced a solid team of 27 new faces.
This is reflected in the backgrounds of the new candidates, their range of professions and, in particular, the unusual personal journeys that several of them took to get to where they are today.
While there are candidates who work as lawyers, are corporate leaders, operate in the people sector and have held senior positions in public service, many found their way to success by taking unconventional paths.
What this points to is that the PAP has broadened its search for talent beyond its traditional catchment areas, and is also fielding candidates with a strong feel for sentiments on the ground – people whom the average Singaporean can relate to more easily.
They include those who have persevered through the hard knocks that life threw at them and took unusual paths to success.
Like Mr Alvin Tan, 40, who stayed back for a year in junior college and did not get the A-level grades to make it to a local university. He signed on with the military and did well enough that he was given a scholarship to study economics at the University of Sydney. He is now Asia-Pacific head of public policy and economics at LinkedIn.
Or UOB senior vice-president Don Wee, 43, who studied part-time for his accountancy degree at the Singapore Institute of Management, while working as a junior bank employee.
Others such as Republic Polytechnic senior lecturer Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah, 42, and lawyer Hany Soh, 33, were in the Normal (Academic) stream in secondary school before going on to the polytechnic and university.
Whether it’s their background, their determination or the effort they put in to better themselves, they are seen as individuals whom voters will likely be able to identify with more closely.
Speaking on Saturday at the launch of the PAP’s manifesto, PM Lee said: “Because they are like you, they understand you and your concerns, and they care for you. You can trust them to speak up on your behalf, and to work closely with you to find good solutions for you and for Singapore.”
This batch is also noticeably older. The median age of the 27 new faces is 43, with the bulk of them in their 40s and older. The oldest is Dr Tan See Leng, who at 55 is the oldest newbie the PAP has put forward since 1997, when Mr Peter Chen was fielded at 58.
The party has been steadily fielding older new candidates since 2011, when the median age was just 38.5. This batch is the oldest group of newbies in more than 40 years.
With age comes maturity and life experience, something that will stand candidates in good stead to deal with and give voice to the more complex concerns that residents have, and when they provide inputs for the policies needed to navigate a more uncertain world.
Beyond their unconventional journeys, there are also more new candidates from the private and non-profit sectors – 18 this year, compared with 15 in 2015.
By contrast, the 2011 batch of new candidates had 16 from the public sector – including current Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing – leading some to criticise the party for drawing too many from the ranks of the Government, military and from among scholarship holders.
This time, several new candidates from the private sector are the sort that the PAP had struggled to attract in the past.
Take Dr Tan, for instance, who is the former group chief executive and managing director of IHH Healthcare, which used to have 84 hospitals across 11 countries in Asia.
There is also Mr Edward Chia, 36, co-founder of Timbre Group, who started his business at 21 when he was an undergraduate.
As for gender representation, there are 10 new women candidates being fielded, double the number in 2015.
Among them is Ms Mariam Jaafar, 43, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group.
Party leaders have been speaking about the diversity of the new slate, pointing out that the candidates will bring a broad range of issues for debate in Parliament if elected.
It is perhaps also a recognition that the complexity of the challenges facing Singapore in a post-Covid-19 world is one that needs to be met with a wider diversity of views, opinions and inputs.
Political observers like Dr Mustafa Izzuddin believe the PAP is “trying to expand and diversify the perspectives that are getting into Parliament”.
“The more the PAP does so, the more it can enrich debates in Parliament and through that, you get more sound and robust policies for the country,” he said.
One other significant feature of the new candidates is the experience that many have had being in and among the community, and having walked the ground, even before their move into the political arena. Many have years of experience volunteering at the community level, and a few have set up non-profits or social enterprises.
The PAP’s youngest candidate, lawyer Nadia Samdin, 30, has been volunteering since she was 15. She started a programme that helps underprivileged children top up their ez-link cards for transport.
Others such as Mr Wee and lawyer Raymond Lye, 54, came from grassroots organisations such as citizens consultative committees, where they helped out for years.
Even the former public servants have had regular dealings with residents in the heartland, such as former People’s Association CEO Desmond Tan, 50.
Through their community interactions, many of the candidates have developed a familiarity with the issues, have become familiar faces in neighbourhoods, and gained experience in organising and attending to the needs of residents.
In fielding those with knowledge and a feel of the ground, the party has addressed, in part, one of the biggest grumbles that activists and critics have had – about candidates being “parachuted” in to constituencies just months or weeks before an election, and who do not have enough time to develop a sense of what voters are concerned about.
With Nomination Day today marking the formal start of the election campaign, these candidates will have the opportunity to show, in the heat of the hustings, that they are all they have been made out to be, and convince voters they can deliver on what the party has promised.
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