This year marks the 20th anniversary of the use of the 'by-election strategy' in the 1991 polls, which saw the election of four opposition MPs. This opposition strategy ensures the PAP is returned to power on Nomination Day so that voters can elect more opposition candidates. Should it be revived? Insight examines the pros and cons
By Elgin Toh
AUG 21, 1991: It is Nomination Day and the clock is ticking.
Three hours before the nomination deadline for the general election (GE), three Workers' Party (WP) comrades are still locked in a heated argument.
At the Colombo Court law office of WP leader J. B. Jeyaretnam, Mr Maurice Neo and Mr Jufrie Mahmood take issue with his party strategy.
The duo are opposed to Mr Jeyaretnam's longstanding practice of fielding as many candidates as he can.
They argue that the 'by-election strategy', a new opposition game plan adopted by Mr Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), would work better.
Under this strategy, the opposition parties deliberately limit the number of candidates to fewer than half of all seats. This ensures that the People's Action Party (PAP) will be returned to power on Nomination Day, before the first vote is cast.
Thus voters who want both a PAP government and more opposing voices in Parliament can vote freely for the opposition - they can have their cake and eat it. It is also said to be an effective counter to the PAP's warnings, put out during the 1988 GE, that a 'freak' election result might inadvertently put the opposition in power.
In the heat of the moment, Mr Neo tears up the nomination papers of one Professor Zeng Guoyuan, who had the backing of Mr Jeyaretnam. 'He had a string of degrees leading up to a PhD from Sri Lanka, but he couldn't speak O-level English. No credibility whatsoever,' recalls Mr Neo, 20 years later, in an interview with Insight.
But Mr Jeyaretnam manages to rustle up another set of papers for Prof Zeng, an acupuncturist, to run in Bukit Timah. Prof Zeng would later lose in a landslide, receiving just 26 per cent of the votes to Dr Wang Kai Yuen's 73 per cent.
Mr Neo and Mr Jufrie filed papers as candidates for Eunos GRC, while Mr Jeyaretnam had to wait out a five-year ban from standing for elections, following a 1986 conviction for a false declaration and fraudulent transfer of party funds.
But elsewhere, the advocates of the by-election strategy had better luck.
Mr Chiam's SDP fielded just nine candidates, down from 18 in the 1988 GE, by persuading several prospective candidates to back down.
SDP veterans from 1988 who took a back seat in the name of the by-election strategy included Mr Ng Teck Siong, Mr George Sita, Mr Abdul Rasheed and Mr Mohd Shariff Yahya.
One SDP man, Mr Kwek Guan Kwee, insisted on running but was told that the party would not support his nomination. He stood as an independent.
On the WP side, Mr Neo says he talked at least three men out of standing: Mr Goh Teng Hoon, Mr Seow Khee Leng and Mr Lim Lye Soon.
But up until the eleventh hour, the fate of the by-election strategy hung in the balance. More nail-biting suspense was to come.
The proposer for independent candidate M. Ramakrishnan arrived 10 minutes late at the nomination centre for the Kreta Ayer ward. That proved vital because when the final tally was made, the opposition had contested 40 of the 81 seats - a whisker short of the half-way mark.
By a mixture of luck and design, the opposition had handed power to the PAP on Nomination Day for the first time since the 1968 GE, when a boycott by the Barisan Sosialis resulted in only seven seats being contested and the PAP taking all 58 seats.
Impact of the strategy
NO ANALYSIS of the 1991 election is complete without a discussion of the role of the by-election strategy in helping the opposition pull off what is still its best showing in post-1965 history.
Four seats were captured from the ruling party, whose leader, Mr Goh Chok Tong, was clearly reeling from the results of his first GE as prime minister.
At a 4am press conference the day after the results, he credited Mr Chiam for his use of the by-election strategy. Other PAP candidates who survived close fights - Mr Teo Chong Tee in Changi (who polled 53 per cent) and Mr Lim Boon Heng in Ulu Pandan (56 per cent) - also told reporters the strategy had worked.
The SDP won Potong Pasir, Nee Soon Central and Bukit Gombak. WP took Hougang. Mr Chiam, who romped home in Potong Pasir with 70 per cent of the votes, was declared leader of the opposition.
But PAP MPs were not the only ones to link the unprecedented outcome to the surprise strategy sprung by the opposition. Pundits were quick to pronounce it a 'crucial factor'.
Voters seemed to understand the strategy. When a Straits Times reporter visited Hougang after the election, at least four voters told her that the by-election strategy made residents feel safer voting in an opposition MP.
But 20 years on, the picture has blurred somewhat. The strategy said to have worked wonders appeared far less effective in the GEs of 1997 and 2001, both of which also saw fewer than half the seats in Parliament contested. The opposition kept only two of the four seats from 1991. The PAP's vote share rose from 61 per cent (1991) to 65 per cent (1997) to 75 per cent (2001).
Of course, whether the by-election strategy was being used consciously in 1997 and 2001 is debatable.
By 1997, a rift between Mr Chiam and an SDP central executive committee led by his protege, Dr Chee Soon Juan, resulted in the former being forced out of the SDP. The Singapore People's Party (SPP), which he joined as soon as Parliament dissolved in 1996, was too inconsequential - it ran for only three seats in 1997 - for him to credibly coordinate any opposition-wide strategy.
So the man seen as the key architect of the strategy in 1991 was in no position to promote it again in 1997.
After 1997's poor opposition showing, Mr Chiam's faith in the strategy waned. In the run-up to the 2001 GE, he said the strategy had become 'stale' and that the opposition needed something new.
But when the PAP was returned to power on Nomination Day again that year, Mr Chiam appeared to flip-flop when he suggested to reporters that the by-election strategy was in effect: 'We will tell the people of Singapore that they are free to vote for the rest of the opposition candidates. There is no fear of toppling the Government because the Government has already been formed.'
In 1991, PAP leaders criticised the opposition for 'making a virtue out of a necessity' in trumpeting the by-election strategy, arguing it did not, in fact, have enough candidates. Ironically, the evidence suggests this was not the case in 1991 - since many willing candidates refrained from standing that year - but prophetically spot-on in 1997 and 2001.
WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, in an e-mail interview with Insight, admits as much.
'I do not think the opposition, or at least the WP, was employing this strategy in the 1997 and 2001 GEs,' he said. 'The fact was that the opposition as a whole was unable or too weak to field enough candidates to contest during those GEs.'
Speaking to Insight, Dr Chee from the SDP agreed with this assessment, noting the difficulty in uniting the opposition behind the strategy: 'So you could really say onlyafter Nomination Day whether you were going to have the by-election effect.'
Was it a decisive factor?
INDEED, the failure of the opposition to replicate the success of 1991 has cast doubt on whether the by-election strategy was a major factor in that election.
Revisionist interpretations are now coming from scholars and opposition politicians, who say a feeling of alienation in the Chinese community and the leadership transition within the PAP were among a host of factors behind the vote swing.
Says Reform Party secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam, whose father J. B. Jeyaretnam never supported the strategy: 'There is no counterfactual. We will never know what would have happened if the strategy had not been used in 1991.'
Singapore Management University law lecturer Eugene Tan goes so far as to say that the use of the strategy may have been 'purely incidental' to the success.
'There was a sense that the PAP was vulnerable. The seven-year period from 1984 to 1991 saw massive constitutional engineering. Group representation constituencies, nominated MPs, non-constituency MPs and the elected presidency were all invented then. Yet the PAP's vote share declined in three consecutive GEs. Voters may have been reacting to what they saw as unfair tactics to keep the ruling party in power.'
Agreeing, National Solidarity Party (NSP) secretary-general Goh Meng Seng adds: 'The new leadership under PM Goh lacked political capital and a strong track record, which led to a slip in confidence among the electorate.'
Mr Low, who was first elected Hougang MP in 1991, points to a slew of local factors, such as the lack of incense burners in Nee Soon Central, and national ones, such as rising costs, that worked against the ruling party: 'I am unable to assess how much of the 1991 GE was attributable to the by-election strategy.'
But there are others who hold that the strategy had indeed been decisive.
Among them is Mr Neo, the man who conceived the strategy as early as 1988, before Mr Chiam adopted and implemented it in 1991: 'It contributed to a large extent. The PAP's arguments were not skewed towards it. They couldn't say: Can you name your Finance Minister? We stated at the outset that we were not ready for government. We wanted only to be the opposition. And for the first time in over two decades, the opposition could set the election agenda.'
Adds Dr Derek da Cunha, author of The Price Of Victory: The 1997 General Election And Beyond: 'Just before Nomination Day, the ground was sweet for the PAP. But on Nomination Day itself, when the election became a by-election, the ground became somewhat like Chinese cuisine - sweet and sour.'
To the likes of Mr Neo and Dr da Cunha, the strategy faltered after 1991 for a number of reasons.
Expanding GRCs swallowed up single wards where the opposition came close to winning in 1991, such as Bukit Batok, Nee Soon South and Braddell Heights. The poor performances by opposition MPs Ling How Doong and Cheo Chai Chen during their term did nothing to convince the electorate that the opposition could be trusted with more responsibilities.
But most importantly, it was the 'local election strategy' that the PAP first used in 1997 that proved the most effective antidote to the by-election effect. The PAP's threat that opposition wards would lose benefits such as Housing Board upgrading meant that voting against the ruling party once again involved real dangers. Indeed, PAP leaders freely admitted that this was a direct response to the by-election strategy - Mr Goh during a PAP conference in 1996 and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in the second volume of his memoirs, From Third World To First.
The opposition finally abandoned the strategy in the 2006 GE, contesting in 47 out of 84 seats that year.
Should it be revived?
But if the Housing Board upgrading carrot was indeed what delivered the proverbial knockout punch to the by-election strategy, might the coming GE, then, be an opportune time to bring it back? After all, most estates eligible for various upgrading projects have been offered upgrading - including those in opposition-held Hougang and Potong Pasir. The Lift Upgrading Programme, for instance, will be completed by 2014. So, by then, even the most opposition-leaning precincts will be offered lifts on every floor. As analyst Kevin Tan puts it, 'you cannot offer more and more of the same'.
At least one opposition leader, SPP chairman Sin Kek Tong, believes the strategy should be revived - if all parties can agree to it.
His proposal is for the opposition to field a 'dream team' of 12 candidates in just the 12 single wards. 'There would be a strong by-election effect, and we would also be sending a message that we are boycotting the unfair GRC system,' he says.
For this to work, the fragmented opposition camp has to come together to decide on the strongest 12. Mr Sin has drawn up his own 'dream team': Mr Chiam See Tong, Mr Low Thia Khiang, Ms Sylvia Lim, Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Mr Steve Chia, Mr Goh Meng Seng, Mr Chia Ti Lik, Mr Sebastian Teo, Mr Yip Yew Weng, Mr Jufrie Mahmood, Dr Tan Bin Seng, and Reform Party new face Mr Tony Tan. Sharing this view is Mr Neo, who has since left politics: 'It is needed until there is a critical mass of opposition MPs with a party ready to govern.'
However, most opposition leaders and analysts say it would probably be counterproductive to go back to the two-decade-old strategy.
Says Dr Tan: 'It would be a retrograde step because you obviously do not believe that you have a party with a doctrine or manifesto that appeals to the wide public. And also, at the last GE, a group of newbies that went to Ang Mo Kio GRC, which the PM called the suicide squad, took over 30 per cent from him. So the opposition ought to be thinking: Why limit yourself?'
Another argument, put forth by Mr Eugene Tan, is that contesting more seats would lock down the PAP top guns and dilute PAP branch resources.
'So people like PM and SM Goh cannot act as roving cheerleaders. In the past, they had been effective in drumming up support for the relatively weaker or new PAP candidates.'
The NSP's Mr Goh believes the by-election strategy hurts both the opposition cause and the nation in the long run. Denying Singaporeans the chance to vote will cause them, over time, to lose their sense of national identity. At the same time, parties are forgoing the opportunity to make Singaporeans more politically aware through the voting experience.
There is also the question of party renewal, he says.
'Young opposition members receive their baptism of fire when they stand as candidates. The by-election strategy prevents them from running because you have to limit candidates. So there is discontinued leadership.'
From the way the coming GE is shaping up, however, this discussion may be entirely academic, as the opposition appears to have no intention of reusing the strategy. Dr da Cunha estimates, based on his conversations with opposition leaders, that 80 per cent of the seats will be contested this time.
New rules increasing the number of non-constituency MPs will, if anything, encourage more opposition candidates to come forward and try their luck in more constituencies. Mr Goh reckons this effect may even spawn the dreaded three-cornered fights.
If so, the by-election strategy looks set to die a natural death. Some may argue that it has fulfilled its historical purpose, and that it is time for the opposition to model itself after the oppositions in more mature democracies: by seeking to offer an alternative government.
No, it wasn't Chiam's idea
By Elgin Toh
WHO was the brain behind the by-election strategy in the 1991 polls which saw four opposition candidates being elected into Parliament?
Mr Chiam See Tong, the then leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) who led the election campaign, has often been assumed to be the mastermind. But was he?
During court hearings in 1993 over the legality of his expulsion from the party he led, Mr Chiam claimed credit for the strategy, but his erstwhile comrade, SDP chairman Ling How Doong, replied that it was actually Mr Jufrie Mahmood who came up with the idea.
Speaking to Insight, Mr Jufrie, who was on the SDP central executive committee (CEC) in 1991, makes it clear that the strategy actually originated from another opposition politician, Mr Maurice Neo.
Just before the 1991 General Election (GE), Mr Jufrie and Mr Neo had crossed over to the Workers' Party (WP) so they could contest Eunos GRC with WP veterans Lee Siew Choh and Wee Han Kim.
As Mr Jufrie recalls, Mr Neo had coined the term and outlined the strategy in an editorial in a November 1988 issue of the SDP magazine Demokrat, several months after the 1988 GE.
Having bought the idea, Mr Jufrie then raised it at a pre-election SDP meeting in 1991, where it was accepted as the official SDP strategy.
Mr Chiam later became the public face of the by-election strategy, often articulating it at press conferences where he introduced SDP candidates. As a result, he was seen as the strategy's architect.
Insight tracked down the Demokrat editorial. In it, Mr Neo lamented that the opposition would have performed better in the 1988 polls if it had contested fewer seats and called for the 'by-election effect' to be used in the next GE.
Mr Jufrie's version is corroborated by both Mr Neo and another SDP CEC member from 1991, Mr Kwan Yue Keng.
Says Mr Kwan: 'It certainly wasn't Mr Chiam's idea. I remember very clearly being present at the pre-election meeting when Jufrie brought it up. Later, he told me that Maurice had written about it first.'
Mr Neo, 61, a writer who has since left opposition politics, says the idea occurred to him during debates with WP leader J.B. Jeyaretnam in the late 1980s. He disagreed with Mr Jeyaretnam's policy of fielding as many candidates as possible, even less credible ones, just to make up the numbers.
'I told him not to flood the market with candidates. I envisioned instead a strategy of gradualism - we would field only quality candidates.
'Step by step, we would prove to voters our technocratic abilities, and slowly convince them to vote more of us in. But in the meantime, we challenge fewer than half the seats, so voters have peace of mind when they give us their votes.'
Mr Neo would affectionately refer to his strategy as 'BEE', or the By-Election Effect. In a book he later wrote on his political experiences, Ruthless Honesty For A Change, he named the chapter on the strategy after a famous quote from boxer Muhammad Ali: 'Float like a butterfly, Sting like a BEE.'
When contacted by Insight, Mr Chiam declined to comment.