Saturday, May 14, 2011

What signals did 2 million voters send in GE 2011?

May 14, 2011

As the dust settles on a watershed general election which saw an unprecedented six-seat win by the opposition since independence, Insight takes a closer look at the results: What were the 2.06 million voters signalling to the ruling party and the opposition? How were their aspirations and expectations reflected in the ballot box?

By Zakir Hussain

AS THE final tally of counted votes emerged in the wee hours of Sunday, a new chapter in Singapore's political history unfolded.

The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) was returned to power with 60.1 per cent of the popular vote, a low never seen since Independence. It won 76 out of 82 seats that were contested, giving it a total of 81 out of 87 seats in Parliament.

But for the first time since group representation constituencies (GRCs) were introduced in 1988, the opposition Workers' Party (WP) secured one - the five-seat Aljunied GRC - while entrenching its presence in stronghold Hougang.

At the post-results press conference, two lines in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's remarks summed up what many would consider to be the chief takeaway from General Election 2011.

Mr Lee said: 'All Singaporeans of different strata and groups have higher aspirations and expectations, and many of them wish for the Government to adopt a different style and approach to government, in keeping with a new generation and a new era which we're living in.

'And I think many of them desire to see more opposition voices in Parliament to check the PAP Government.'

How did citizens vote across the 26 contested electoral divisions? What were they telling the Government - and the opposition? How did their different aspirations and expectations coalesce at the ballot box?

Signal in Aljunied

ONE unmistakable signal is that voters want an elected opposition in Parliament, and that if a strong team emerges, they are prepared to vote it in even at the expense of losing a heavyweight minister and other office-holders.

In Aljunied GRC, a convincing 54.7per cent of voters elected the opposition's strongest team led by WP chief Low Thia Khiang in what observers called a 'major psychological breakthrough' for the opposition.

In doing so, voters ousted Foreign Minister George Yeo, Second Minister for Finance and Transport Lim Hwee Hua, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed, town council chairman Cynthia Phua and potential fourth-generation minister Ong Ye Kung.

To WP's credit, its members have been walking the ground there over the past eight years, making themselves known to residents and hearing their grievances. During the nine-day campaign, the party focused on the national issue of opposition representation in Parliament as the PAP team tried to pin it down on its local plans.

But the WP's efforts to woo voters paid handsome dividends. GE 2011 saw a 10.8 percentage point vote swing towards the WP from the 43.9 per cent it got in Aljunied in 2006.

Political scientist Lam Peng Er describes the election outcome as 'a calibrated and considered response from sophisticated voters'.

The senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) East Asian Institute says the WP's emphatic victory in Aljunied was a clear signal by the electorate that it values alternative voices in Parliament.

'The voters prefer opposition MPs with full voting rights rather than toothless Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) to check a hegemonic ruling party,' Dr Lam tells Insight.

[PAP should have granted full voting rights to NCMP. It wouldn't have made a difference as with NCMP in parliament, there would never have been more than 9 opposition MPs and they could not have stopped any PAP votes anyway. As it is, it is now moot.]

Last year, the law was amended to guarantee a minimum of nine opposition candidates in Parliament through the NCMP scheme. PAP leaders told voters that this move would ensure that alternative voices would be aired.

The appeal of this liberalisation, it now appears, has been mixed.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin points out that voters in Aljunied did not vote for the WP because they found the PAP candidates wanting.

Rather, he says: 'They voted ideologically, not on local issues: They carried the hopes of people from the rest of Singapore who wanted an alternative voice. That can only happen with the WP.'

The WP's win in Aljunied capped the nationwide trend of a decline in vote share of 6.5 percentage points for the PAP, which had scored 66.6 per cent of the popular vote in 2006.

Signal in Ang Mo Kio

AT THE other extreme to Aljunied, voters sent a crystal clear signal in the Prime Minister's constituency: They are willing to support him even if their neighbours in adjoining constituencies are less than warm towards the ruling party.

In Ang Mo Kio GRC, which shares a border with Aljunied, voters bucked the national trend by giving the six-member PAP team led by Mr Lee a strong mandate of 69.3 per cent.

It was more than 3 percentage points above the GRC's showing against a young WP team in 2006, and more than 9 percentage points higher than the PAP's national average.

Observers view this as a strong endorsement of Mr Lee, especially after his apology for the PAP's mistakes midway through the campaign.

Responding to ground discontent over policy shortfalls in areas like housing and transport, the PM had admitted that the Government could have moved faster to address these. He said he was sorry for these mistakes, and added that he and his team were doing their best to fix the problems.

As Dr Lam sees it, Ang Mo Kio GRC's voters were 'not prepared to dent his standing at the polls and his credibility to lead the country'.

What also worked in Mr Lee's favour was that the opposing Reform Party (RP) team was cobbled together at the last minute, led by an unknown human resources supervisor and comprising members 'on loan' from other small parties.

Only one other GRC team saw a vote share higher than 2006's national average of 66.6 per cent: the Jurong GRC slate led by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, which faced a weak National Solidarity Party (NSP) team led by fourth-time opposition candidate Christopher Neo.

Signal in hot seats

A THIRD signal is that voters will not hesitate to vote against ministers whom they hold responsible for policy shortcomings, and for entire teams with members of whom they disapprove.

In East Coast GRC, Transport Minister Raymond Lim came under fire for overcrowding on public transport, while in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng saw a dent in votes, which could be partly due to dissatisfaction over security lapses when he was minister for home affairs.

Tampines GRC, in particular, saw an 11.3 percentage point vote swing against the PAP team led by National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan.

A not-so-prominent NSP team led by secretary-general Goh Meng Seng secured a sizeable chunk of protest votes in the wake of anger over rapidly rising HDB flat prices and a shortage of supply of new flats in recent years.

In Marine Parade GRC, which had not been contested for close to 20 years, another NSP team won 43.4 per cent of the votes against the PAP team led by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

The NSP criticised Mr Goh for policies under his watch when he was prime minister - such as the introduction of the goods and services tax and the use of upgrading as an election carrot.

All four were among the 11 ministers who received less than 60 per cent of the votes in their GRCs.

In Marine Parade, the NSP also rode on a groundswell of discontent over the suitability of the PAP's youngest candidate, 27-year-old Tin Pei Ling, to be a parliamentarian.

Criticisms were also levelled at the GRC system, which assured inexperienced candidates like Ms Tin of a seat as they rode on the coat-tails of ministers.

NSP secretary-general Goh Meng Seng said this week that he felt the party's 'minister-specific strategy' of targeting ministers for mistakes under their watch had worked somewhat as its teams in Tampines and Marine Parade yielded better results percentage-wise.

'However, (an) issue-based minister-specific strategy is just (a) necessary but insufficient strategy for parties without strong branding to win the elections,' he adds.

Or, as Mr Zulkifli puts it: 'You cannot be a very serious party if you vote against the other person, rather than for what the party stands for.'

Personality over party? Branding.

MAYBE, but not always. A fourth signal that voters sent is that they are willing to vote for candidates who appeal to them, but party affiliation may make all the difference.

Take Marine Parade GRC, where the NSP's eloquent 24-year-old candidate Nicole Seah was pitted against Ms Tin, and her NSP team secured 43.4 per cent of the votes, the highest score an opposition party got in a GRC after Aljunied and East Coast.

It is not possible to tell how much of these are votes that express anger against the GRC system that allows untested candidates an easy ride into Parliament, and how much of these are votes drawn by Ms Seah's appeal.

But would Ms Seah have been even more appealing were she with the WP?

A closer look at the results across constituencies shows that the non-WP high-calibre candidates did not do as well as the WP's weaker ones did, whether in single member constituencies (SMCs) or GRCs.

Take former government scholarship holders Hazel Poa and Tony Tan Lay Thiam of the NSP in Chua Chu Kang GRC and former senior public servants Tan Jee Say and Ang Yong Guan of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC.

Granted, both their teams began working the ground in their respective constituencies much later in the day, but many voters on the ground still did not know enough about their parties to want to give them their votes.

The stark difference a party brand makes can be best seen in the election's only three-way fight in Punggol East SMC, where Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) candidate Desmond Lim won just 4.5 per cent of the vote despite having worked the ground in the area for several months and proposing an upgrading plan for the ward.

After his defeat, Mr Lim lamented that voters chose a 'brand name' party - 'the WP parachuting in without a proper five-year plan being offered'. The WP's candidate was a young female newcomer, Ms Lee Li Lian.

The SDA team in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC next door obtained 35.2 per cent of the vote - just above the minimum one-third that is usually in the bag for most opposition parties, even though its activists had been walking the ground there for several years.

Likewise, the new - and weak - RP received just 33.4 per cent of the votes in West Coast GRC, even though it had been on weekly walkabouts in the area for two years.

The rise and rise of WP

THAT the WP was uniformly able to clinch above 41 per cent of the vote in constituencies it was new to signals that a significant number of voters are prepared to vote in a credible opposition party with a strong slate of candidates.

Even as its GRC teams and SMC candidates campaigned door-to-door and in markets, the party hammered home the key message that it wanted a First World Parliament with a critical mass of opposition MPs to check the Government.

Where the PAP had posters of PM Lee all across the island, the WP had huge banners with pictures of party leaders Mr Low and Sylvia Lim flanking its campaign slogan: Vote WP - Towards A First World Parliament.

Observers believe the party will continue to build on its strong showing, with supporters optimistic of winning another GRC or two come 2016.

Political risk consultant Azhar Ghani says the WP has to step up its game if it wants to make further gains so that 'most of the vote that goes to the opposition is for them, not against the PAP'.

Referring to the WP's campaign platform that it wants to be a co-driver alongside the PAP should it falter, he adds: 'They should be able to show they are not just a co-driver, but can potentially take over the wheel.'

Did class matter?

AlLJUNIED aside, the WP came close to taking over in Joo Chiat and East Coast, where there is a higher concentration of private property dwellers who feel more strongly about the need for an alternative voice in Parliament.

Even in Aljunied, private property dwellers in Serangoon appeared to turn against the PAP. Some might have been unhappy that they do not get as much as HDB dwellers from government giveaways and rebates.

But by and large, these upper middle class voters who are better informed and well-travelled sent a strong signal that they wanted more diverse views and checks, contrary to conventional wisdom that they tend to be solidly pro-PAP.

Dr Lam notes that according to psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, once a person's basic needs are met, he often aspires to higher, intangible things like self-actualisation - which may include greater voice and participation.

But he thinks the upper middle class voters of Holland-Bukit Timah might have voted for the SDP in greater numbers if the party did not have what he terms an 'anti-rich' manifesto, which included reintroducing estate duty, imposing a tax on luxury goods and raising personal income tax from 20 to 30 per cent.

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser believes that the upper class probably voted PAP, while the middle class was more ambivalent, straddling between fearing it may lose what it has and wanting a strong opposition to provide checks and balances, partly to address the 'middle class squeeze'.

A large chunk of this broad middle class lives in the HDB heartland, where votes seem tilted in favour of the PAP. Many are as concerned about their estates as much as they are about the future of their children and political stability.

Associate Professor Tan says that the middle class feels squeezed because it experiences the anxieties of job and income insecurity, while being affected most by means-testing. Within this group, some face a double whammy, he points out.

They form a sandwiched generation, who has to look after school-going adolescents and medically uninsured elderly folk at the same time, with the attendant cost pressures.

While cost of living is a mounting concern, many of these voters feel that the PAP still offers the best strategy to tackle this problem. If not, there is always the next election, they reckon.

Did age matter?

STRIKINGLY, the areas with a larger share of older residents tended to be more supportive of the PAP, such as the ageing estates in Radin Mas and Whampoa.

Opposition veterans in their 60s, like Mr Yip Yew Weng and Mr Ken Sun from the NSP, who were drawn to these wards believing that they stood a better chance there, were proven wrong.

They received only a little over 30 per cent of the votes. Could this be a signal that it is time for these warhorses to ride into the sunset, when even voters of their age whom they wanted to represent turn their backs on them?

It is true the SMCs they stood in were newly carved out. But younger WP candidates in similarly new areas were able to get some 10 percentage points higher than these old-timers.

On the other hand, the impact of younger voters is harder to determine as they are more evenly spread out across the island.

Candidates and their helpers from various parties feel that perhaps young voters were leaning a little more towards the opposition camp than the rest of the electorate, but not overwhelmingly so either.

The spike in support for the opposition came from across the board, they note.

Did race and sex matter?

IN SIMILAR fashion, the increase in support for the opposition parties also appears to have cut across ethnic lines.

The evidence is anecdotal at best: a larger number of Malays and Indians at opposition rallies and walkabouts than in previous years, and the swing to the WP in Aljunied, Moulmein-Kallang and Nee Soon GRCs, where the proportion of minorities is slightly above the national average.

But the Malay vote, which many believe had disproportionately gone to the PAP in recent elections, may have been split this time.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said on Sunday he did not think Malay-Muslim support for the PAP at the ballot box had been affected by comments he made in his latest book, Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, questioning the Malay community's commitment to integration.

But Mr Zainul differed, saying this week: 'You need only ask the Malays and Muslims in Singapore - many were hurt by those remarks and remain so.'

Taken together, these suggest that minority voters may no longer be a safe vote bank for the PAP, even though it fields minority candidates with better credentials than those from the opposition parties.

Some observers, however, welcome this trend as a sign that minority voters are increasingly voting along national rather than ethnic lines.

Mr Zulkifli notes that there were attempts by WP candidates to raise the underperformance of Malays at rallies. But this did not become an election issue, because Malays face the same issues as other voters, he says.

There is, however, one niggling point.

Other than Aljunied, Potong Pasir and Joo Chiat, the PAP's next lowest vote share was in Punggol East, where the first minority candidate in an SMC since 1988 secured just 54.5 per cent of the vote.

Mr Michael Palmer, a Eurasian who could speak Mandarin, was in a three-cornered fight against SDA's Mr Desmond Lim, who lost his deposit, and WP's Ms Lee Li Lian, a female Chinese candidate.

Had Mr Lim not entered the race and assuming all his votes went to her, Ms Lee would have scored 45.5 per cent and been an NCMP.

Did race matter, or did it not matter, to a small but sizeable number of voters - especially as Mr Palmer was a one-term MP for the ward and the ruling party was confident of his chances there?

[Factors: Incumbent, Caucasian.]

On the other hand, gender does not seem to be a factor, with the PAP's two women standing in SMCs pulling in a high share of votes: Mayor Amy Khor in Hong Kah North with 70.6 per cent and Senior Minister of State (National Development and Education) Grace Fu in Yuhua with 66.9per cent.

Incidentally, both have been spending a lot of time walking the ground and have gained a reputation as hands-on MPs.

Did the middle ground shift?

NO MATTER how good a PAP MP is, most observers believe there will be a core 30 per cent of voters in a constituency who will vote for the opposition.

One theory is that this threshold is slowly edging upwards in the light of unpopular policies of recent years. But the branding of some parties and the quality of their candidates leave much to be desired, and so the pool of PAP votes remains at just above 60 per cent.

Dr Lam argues that this can be interpreted as 'voters' preference for evolutionary rather than radical change'.

The across-the-board tide against the PAP has led to party leaders pledging to change the party and make it better.

But on that same note, opposition leaders have to rethink what they are offering voters beyond an alternative voice.

Noting the swing towards the opposition, Prof Tan says: 'Voters want the PAP to show empathy and understanding, and the opposition to provide alternative voices, checks and balances. The latter can be addressed only by an effective opposition.'

At a TV forum with various political parties last month, Mr Tharman agreed that a strong opposition was good for Singapore.

The next election may not be due until 2016 but the questions that will keep coming back are: How is the PAP gearing up to be more responsive to voters? And how are opposition parties gearing up to play the role that voters have signalled they are willing to vote for?

How these questions are tackled in the coming months and years will be awaited with bated breath by a politically awakened electorate who have discovered the power of the ballot box.

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