Dr Vivian Balakrishnan is in the fight of his political life. This is his first contested General Elections; he had walkovers in both 2001 and 2006. For the first time, he will be without the popular Mr Lim Swee Say at the helm of Holland-Bukit Timah GRC (Mr Lim has been moved to East Coast GRC). Dr Balakrishnan is also at one of the lowest points of his political career to date – there is a general perception that he has fallen off the speeding boat despite his promising beginnings, he has failed to establish rapport with his constituents, and is the center of issue after issue after issue that Singaporeans are unhappy with (also read this). And his opponents in GE2011 will be some of the strongest opposition candidates to ever contest a GRC – Dr Vincent Wijeysingha, Mr Tan Jee Say, Dr Ang Yong Guan and Ms Michelle Lee Juen. Much has already been described about these SDP candidates elsewhere so there little need for me to belabor the point that this is significant competition for Dr Balakrishnan’s team.
Is Dr Balakrishnan rattled? I cannot say because I know not the man. But he and his team have decided to play a very risky tactic by first by slinging not very clear accusations about the SDP team (more on this later), and then finally calling out Dr Wijeysingha’s motives for entering politics. Since then, Dr Chee Soon Juan had released a video “categorically” denying that the SDP has a “gay agenda”. I’m not very sure if that was a good move by Dr Chee (since his party openly supports the repeal of 377A), but Alex Au thinks the SDP are right (if I understand him correctly) mainly because the “gay agenda” is a scare tactic and not a true representation of what gay activists wish to push for.
But back to Dr Balakrishnan. As Alex Au has pointed out, Dr Balakrishnan’s original accusation was actually regarding Mr Tan Jee Say, a Christian who is linked to City Harvest Church and hence (Dr Balakrishnan assumes) is anti-gay. Dr Balakrishnan insinuated that Mr Tan has not done “due diligence” in choosing to join the SDP who also fields Dr Wijeysingha (who has links to gay activism, and as is publicly known by now, probably a homosexual himself). What Dr Balakrishnan does not want to do is to appear anti-gay himself (note: I believe Dr Balakrishnan attends a Methodist Church), and that is mainly the reason why his initial accusations were so unclear. He understood Web 2.0 well enough to know that netizens would soon dig up the video in question, expose Dr Wijeysingha’s sexual orientation, and arrive at the same conclusions about Mr Tan (btw, Alex Au similarly calls out Mr Tan to clarify his intensions for joining SDP). Perhaps unsurprisingly, all netizens are interested in talking about is Dr Wijeysingha’s sexual orientation (and totally fail to understand Mr Balakrishnan’s argument about Mr Tan), and what I believe happened is that he and his team changed tactics to focus attention on Dr Wijeysingha’s sexual orientation instead, and question his political motives (i.e. pushing the “gay agenda”).
It is understandable why Dr Balakrishnan would attempt this tactic. There is still a conservative “middle ground” who is likely to be very emotionally adverse to any whisper of the “gay agenda”. By accusing this of Dr Wijeysingha, Dr Balakrishan would instantly win himself some votes by playing into homophobic sentiments. Dr Balakrishnan’s team has also (rather insidiously, in my opinion) insinuated that the SDP is advocating pedophilia (lowering the minimum legal age of sex to 14), and this will cause even more fear and potentially swing more votes.
Since this is already out on the mainstream media, I think it is inevitable that the conservative vote would swing to the PAP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC. If this wins Dr Balakrishnan the elections, he may very well claim these tactics were justified (pragmatism – ends justify the means again). Nevertheless, I think this is a very risky move, and here is why. Firstly, the pedophilia insinuation is a low blow, a clear cut opportunistic misrepresentation of opponent for one’s own political gain. Since this insinuation is easily refuted, Dr Balakrishnan’s credibility has already dropped among the netizens who saw through this. If the SDP should push this counter-argument through to the mainstream media (a risky move in itself), they can damage Dr Balakrishnan’s credibility even further.
Secondly, playing the “gay agenda” card intentionally polarizes the Singaporean community into conservatives and liberals. While Dr Balakrishnan claims that Dr Wijeysingha’s sexual orientation is “not the issue” so that he does not come across as homophobic, the liberal community is not likely to buy that at all since they would be politically savvy enough to know that Dr Balakrishnan is intentionally stirring up homophobic sentiments just to gain votes. Whether or not Dr Balakrishnan is homophobic is besides the point, the point is that he has set back the hard work of the liberal community in trying to change perspectives about homosexuals and transforming Singapore to be a more inclusive society, and they will be pissed at Dr Balakrishnan for sacrificing the welfare of the community (as they understand it) to gain votes.
Pissing off the liberal community is not a good idea. While the PAP assume that the “middle ground” is dominated by conservative-minded folk, this majority should be much reduced in the upcoming elections due to the increase of young people aged 30 or younger who are much more likely to more globalized and liberal-minded. The gain in swing votes might be less than Dr Balakrishnan envisioned it to be. Also, the liberal-minded folks are those that go no-holds-barred (I believe Sammyboy and Temasek Review need no introduction), and they will claim the high moral ground that Dr Balakrishnan engaged in gutter politics first. [Incidentally, I know of someone who knew Dr Balakrishnan’s daughter personally. From what I heard about her, I would advise Dr Balakrishnan to tell her to stay indoors and never talk to anyone from the public until the elections is over. But this is what I mean by no-holds-barred.] And by the way, Dr Balakrishnan better prepare some defense about the YOG budget. If his election strategy is merely continual silence on YOG and to continually attack SDP on the “gay agenda” issue, he will appear to the general populace (even the conservatives) to be guilty of hiding something and being vindictive. I have already found a Christian blogger who is unhappy with Dr Balakrishnan’s tactics, based on religious grounds furthermore.
Lastly, the liberal community does not forget, particularly the gay activists. Most of us believe it is only a matter of time when the conservative majority would eventually concede to the growing number of the liberal-minded, 377A would be repealed, and everybody would be more inclusive of the gay community in general. When that day happens, the liberal-minded (by then the majority) will remember that Dr Balakrishnan tried to stand in their way back in 2011, and they will not be kind to him then. In fact, I believe they will not be kind to him ever, from this GE onwards until the end of his political career. For a Minister who seems to be struggling to rise up the Ministerial ranks as compared to some of his Super 7 peers, is this the price he is willing to pay just to swing some votes for this election?
[Just to throw a bone out there: MM Lee has said that he has no qualms with a homosexual Member of Parliament. ]
[Addendum: found another Christian view supportive of Dr Vincent Wijeysingha.]