By Kor Kian Beng
TO MANY supporters of the Workers' Party (WP), its performance in the Punggol East by-election was a result beyond their wildest expectations.
Its candidate Lee Li Lian, 34, a trainer in the financial industry, won the single-seat ward with 54.5 per cent of the vote and a convincing margin over her main opponent, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) rookie Koh Poh Koon.
Yet at the post-result press conference last Saturday, WP chief Low Thia Khiang had a sombre expression. The only substantive answer he gave during the 20-minute press conference was even more intriguing.
Instead of expressing joy over the big win or rubbing salt into the PAP's wounds when asked about the by-election's significance to the WP's future growth, Mr Low replied that the party would assist "whenever we can" alongside the Government in improving policies and Singaporeans' lives.
Clearly, there is something about the by-election outcome that has startled the WP chief, and he has good reasons to be.
First, are Punggol East voters putting a lot of hope in the WP?
Party leaders and insiders told The Straits Times that they were surprised by the polling outcome as they thought they would at most win by a slim margin, instead of the eventual 10.8 percentage point margin over Dr Koh.
Even Mr Low himself admitted as much to reporters at the press conference, saying: "We did not expect such a good result."
If even the WP - known for its indefatigable legwork and close reading of the ground during elections - did not foresee such an outcome, which was also beyond the predictions of many others, one is tempted to ask whether this was as close as possible to a freak election result that Singaporeans should be concerned about.
Of course, voters cast ballots based on a myriad of reasons, ranging from their belief in a political party's cause to their preference in a particular candidate, and to their trust in the candidate's ability to improve their lives either on the local or national level.
But this time round, one of the key factors cited for the WP's big win in Punggol East is the lingering dissatisfaction among Singaporeans towards the PAP over bread-and-butter issues like the cost of living and immigration.
In short, it would appear that the WP has benefited from a protest vote against the PAP.
What do voters want from the WP in return though? To be a check, a stronger and firmer voice against the issues that matter to them.
But these protest voters likely backed the WP as they see it as the next-best thing around, even though the opposition party has been criticised for not living up to expectations over its performance in Parliament since the 2011 General Election.
Mr Low must in his heart know that such support can be ephemeral in nature and could vanish any time, when the WP fails to live up to expectations or if the PAP delivers, or changes so radically.
Second, the polls outcome has burnished the WP's image of a party on the rise with higher chances of winning at future polls.
But such hopes could trigger higher expectations of the WP and invite more criticism too, if it fails to meet them. This possible scenario explains why, during a thank-you parade on Sunday morning, Mr Low tried hard to moderate expectations by saying the by-election result was not indicative of trends at future polls.
Third, the WP's internal dynamics and current state of unity could also come under challenge as its latest win would surely attract more potential candidates.
But unlike existing WP members who had joined Mr Low early in his efforts to transform the WP into a political force today, those who join later are more likely to be lured by the rising prospects of success and the allure of being associated with a winning side.
As it is, some former candidates are murmuring over whether they would get to contest future elections given the influx of new faces since 2011.
Mr Low is thus a man burdened by a mountain of expectations that he knows his party may not yet be able to deliver.
Amid these concerns, what is the WP to do?
First, of course, is Mr Low's attempt to temper and talk down what the WP can deliver.
Second, the party has to be more strategic and careful with the wards it chooses to contest next. If the WP is not ready to form the next government as of now, it is unlikely to be able to do so by 2016.
But given the current state of voter sentiment towards the PAP, and all things being equal, the last thing the WP wants is to accidentally trigger "freak" election results, which could seriously jeopardise Singapore's stability.
[i.e. win enough seats to kick PAP out, and to try to form the govt.]
Third, the WP has to do its part in educating its supporters and voters at large so as to foster a more mature and discerning electorate. It means the WP should not just play to the voters' fears of a dominant PAP but also continue to be frank with its own limitations and constraints.
[But how can he? Politics are about showmanship and hyperbole.]
When to do so and how far it should go will be a judgment call, as such rhetoric could lower the party's chances of winning future polls in the short term.
But long-term political stability should be the top priority on Mr Low's mind.
This article first appeared in The Straits Times' blog www.singapolitics.sg