Among Protest, Pity and Passion voters, the opposition needs to grow the last group most
Kor Kian Beng
The opposition here used to be able to rely on three "P"s for support during an election period.
These are: Protest votes, arising from dissatisfaction among those in the electorate who have been unhappy over government policies;
Votes from those who Pity, sympathise and see opposition parties as underdogs who need their backing for taking on the might of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP); and
Votes of Passion - from those who are true believers and share in the opposition's cause to serve as a check on the Government and, at some point down the road, to become that government.
But going forward, the opposition parties may have to focus more on the last "P" to avoid the big swing in the national vote share and also the winning margins in almost all the 29 battlegrounds towards the PAP at the Sept 11 General Election.
The lesson is clear: Opposition parties must start building up a critical mass of Passion voters. But this is the toughest type of voter to cultivate and satisfy. One just has to look at the WP's progress over the past decade, and its setback at the latest election, to understand why.
It could be the biggest lesson for opposition parties as they take stock and pick up the pieces after a surprisingly heavy defeat by the PAP at the ballot box.
The voting results showed that all parties, including the Workers' Party (WP) and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), have suffered from and will continue to be hit by a decline in Protest and Pity votes.
It is either as a result of their own will or the PAP's actions.
In the past, opposition parties could count on a minimum level of support by Protest voters who believe they have suffered from government policies or perceive the PAP to be out-of-touch with the masses, or placing economic growth at all costs above the people's welfare.
They cast their votes not so much to support the opposition but in pique and anger at the PAP.
But since the 2011 polls which saw a historic loss by the PAP to the WP in Aljunied GRC, policy tweaks by the Government in key areas such as housing and immigration have managed to quell discontent to a large extent.
It is hard to imagine that the PAP - buoyed by its 69.9 per cent vote share at the polls - its best performance since the 2001 election and a 9.8-point surge from the 60.1 per cent it received in 2011 - would stop doing what has clearly worked for it at the 2015 elections.
As for the "Pity" votes, opposition parties could once count on a substantial level of sympathetic supporters who want to reward them for their willingness to take on the PAP, come what may.
Many also wanted to help ensure that the party and its candidates do not lose their electoral deposits.
But such sympathetic sentiments have dwindled now, given changes in the political climate here which have resulted in more people willing to come out, join an opposition party, and stand as candidates against the PAP.
At the 2011 polls, 82 out of the 87 parliamentary seats were contested, marking a record high since the 1972 polls.
The election on Friday had contests in all 89 seats, a development not seen since Singapore's independence in 1965.
With seemingly no lack of opposition candidates in the pipeline, the electorate is no longer as moved by the need to cast the Pity vote just so the opposition can stay in the game .
For the more established parties, like the WP, such votes have been on the wane, especially as voters recognise that the party has been able to attract more high-calibre candidates to its ranks in recent years. Under such circumstances, it is also disingenuous of opposition parties to expect voters to see them as weak and in need of support.
The decline among those who would cast the Protest and Pity votes, coupled with an insufficient rise in the number of Passion votes, goes some way to explain the PAP's handsome victories of above 70 per cent of the vote share in six out of 13 single-seat wards, and nine out of 16 group representation constituencies (GRCs).
The lesson is clear: Opposition parties must start building up a critical mass of Passion voters.
But this is the toughest type of voter to cultivate and satisfy.
One just has to look at the WP's progress over the past decade, and its setback at the latest election, to understand why.
Since 2001, when Mr Low Thia Khiang took over the reins as secretary-general, the WP has been trying to attract Passion votes from Singaporeans who seek a "rational, responsible and respectable" opposition party capable of being a check on the Government by having at least one-third of the MPs in Parliament. That's the minimum required to prevent changes to the Constitution.
The WP still does tap the Protest and Pity vote by pointing out what it deems to be unfair treatment or bullying by the PAP. But its priority has been to have a large core of voters who believe in its cause.
For this approach to succeed, the WP needs voters to believe in the need for an opposition party to play the role of watchdog on government - and to believe even more, that the WP is the party capable of playing that role well.
The WP's performance at the Sept 11 polls - losing Punggol East, narrowly retaining Aljunied GRC, seeing its margin cut in its stronghold of Hougang, and failing to capture East Coast GRC and Fengshan - shows that it does not have enough of such voters yet.
Why so? It may be that not enough people are convinced of the need for a check on the Government. And among those who believe in the need for such checks, the question some might have is whether the WP has the ability to take on such a role.
There is little doubt the ongoing dispute between the WP and the Government over financial lapses at the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council has contributed to voters wondering if the party has what it takes.
Also, there are those who ask if the WP is trying to grow too big too fast, and whether it has become too cocky after its recent successes in winning a GRC in 2011 and two by-elections thereafter.
The WP's 2015 campaign began conservatively with Fengshan and East Coast appearing to be its main targets. But after the mid-point, it moved up a gear and launched an offensive to also snag Marine Parade GRC helmed by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.
Its criticisms at a rally last Monday of "bad policies" during Mr Goh's 14 years as prime minister appeared to have triggered concerns among voters and brought to the fore the reality that it was intent on ousting a popular and former prime minister. The party would have come across as being overambitious without having proved convincingly that it had the ability to take on bigger responsibilities, such as overseeing additional town councils.
A dash for three GRCs at one go - when questions had been raised about its ability to manage just one - may have contributed to its undoing at the polls.
Grooming Passion voters will require the WP to exercise more finesse in the messaging of its goals and to move towards its political goals at a pace at which voters are comfortable with.
For the SDP, it is a similar story as voters appear to still have reservations over whether the party and its chief, Dr Chee Soon Juan, have truly shed their previously combative style for a more constructive path.
But it is not the end of the world for the opposition. The inability to make further gains on what was achieved in 2011 suggests that more effort needs to be made to convince and grow the Passion voter pool.
If they fail to do so, then opposition parties and politics here will continue to be subject to the vagaries of swings in the mood and perception of the electorate. And voters will regard the opposition as useful only when they want to send signals of unhappiness to the PAP.
Opposition at a loss to explain drubbing
By Loh Chee Kong
SINGAPORE — In a stunning victory, the People’s Action Party (PAP) romped to a landslide in the country’s 12th General Election (GE) since Independence, reversing its performance in 2011 and winning 83 out of 89 Parliamentary seats yesterday.
The ruling party improved on its showing in all constituencies, compared with the previous elections four years ago, and even wrested the Punggol East Single Member Constituency (SMC) from the Workers’ Party. In Tanjong Pagar Group Representation Constituency (GRC), which was being contested for the first time since 1991, the party won 77.71 per cent of the vote. Even in defeat, the PAP polled well: The Workers’ Party retained Aljunied GRC, but with a razor-thin 50.95 per cent majority. In winning the first GRC by an Opposition party in 2011, the WP polled 54.7 per cent of the vote. The picture was much the same in the WP’s traditional stronghold in Hougang SMC.
Some 2.3 million votes were cast in the election, which saw all constituencies contested for the first time since Singapore’s independence.
The PAP’s crushing win saw it significantly improve its vote share to 69.9 per cent — the highest since 2001 — from 60.1 per cent in 2011 GE. In more than half of the 29 constituencies contested, the PAP won by more than 70 per cent of the popular vote, with the biggest margin — 79.28 per cent — coming from Jurong GRC, which is helmed by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
Shell-shocked Opposition leaders spoke of a nationwide swing towards the PAP that they struggled to reconcile with. They said the feedback and response garnered from voters made yesterday’s result a veritable bolt from the blue, and most who spoke to the media had few answers, saying they needed more time to do a post-mortem to fully comprehend what went wrong.
At a press conference that began after half past three in the morning, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong thanked Singaporeans for the strong mandate. He added that he was particularly satisfied with recapturing Punggol East from the WP. “To Singapore, this is a great result,” he said.
“I wholeheartedly thank voters of all backgrounds and races ... without your support, we wouldn’t have such a good result. We also successfully got many young voters’ support,” Mr Lee said. “I’m very glad that our overall votes have gone up, but we won’t be complacent, because you’ve given us a great responsibility and we will continue to improve and work for the people. We will do our best and fulfil our responsibility with all our hearts ... For those who didn’t vote for us, we too need to work with you, because this is our Singapore, this is a home that belongs to everyone.”
Mr Lee also paid tribute to the PAP’s Aljunied GRC team for putting up a valiant fight. “I’m very pleased with the results ... We missed by only 0.9 percentage points, and that’s it. But next time, we will get there,” he said.
Mr Lee said he looked forward to having the elected WP candidates “coming fully prepared to engage” in Parliament for a “robust exchange on significant issues, including all the issues they’ve raised in the hustings”. He noted that the minimum wage issue was one that was raised for the first time by the WP during campaigning.
WP chief Low Thia Khiang had set a goal of at least 20 Opposition Members of Parliament to achieve what he described as a “balanced” legislature.
In the end, the party wound up with its representation in Parliament cut by one, to six. After the final result — for Aljunied GRC, which had a recount — was announced, Mr Low said a lot of people, including the PAP itself, did not expect the “massive swing” of votes.
He was asked whether the WP’s weaker showing could be due to the financial management lapses at the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council, which the PAP had brought up during the hustings. In response, Mr Low said he was “not able to assess conclusively”, but noted that the vote swing was across the board, and did not affect only the constituencies that WP was contesting in.
“We could have lost our seats, given that massive swing of (about) 10 percentage points, and we won (in Aljunied GRC),” he said. WP chairman Sylvia Lim pointed out that the swing was less than four percentage points in Aljunied GRC.
[This is all speculation. The AHPETC issue could have be a neutralised issue - voters equally incensed by the hint of mismanagement or the obfuscation by the WP, and by the suggestion of harassment and bullying by the PAP.
Alternatively, WP might be seen as a "different" category of opposition and a swing away from other opposition might have resulted in a further surge for WP... if not for AHPETC.]
Nevertheless, Hougang MP Png Eng Huat, who successfully defended his seat, felt that the AHPETC issue had an impact “to a certain extent”. “But we have done our best ... We have been rushing our accounts (to get them ready),” he said.
Mr Low said he was satisfied with his party’s performance. “I wish to congratulate the PAP (for having) a strong mandate to configure the fourth generation of leaders and I hope they will do well to secure the future of Singapore,” he said. “What I want to remind the PAP is this: It is important to build trust between the people and the national institutions ... including the civil service, the judiciary, and the mainstream media.”
Adding that he hoped the PAP would reflect on this issue, Mr Low said: “They have to ... not only act fairly but to be seen to act fairly ... I think it is important for the future of Singapore ... Any politicisation of these institutions to gain political advantage, to me, is against the national interest.”
[One might read the above as Low politicising the issue. But I feel that he is being sincere and he truly feels that this is the right way to go. Perhaps because I feel that he is right.]
There will be three Non-Constituency MPs in the next Parliament. WP candidate and former Punggol East MP Lee Li Lian, who was the best loser, said she would not be taking up the NCMP seat. “I should give this chance to my other WP colleagues. We really have some good people who deserve the slot,” she said on Facebook.
‘A PERFECT CONVERGENCE OF FACTORS’
This election was the most intensely fought in Singapore’s history, with a record 181 candidates vying for 89 seats in Parliament. In all, eight Opposition parties took part in the polls, which also saw the return of independent candidates for the first time since the 2001 GE.
Former Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo, whose team in Aljunied lost to the WP in 2011, took to Facebook to express his surprise at the result. “Amazing landslide for the PAP. Singapore crosses a watershed,” said the chairman and executive director of Kerry Logistics Network.
Political scientist Lam Peng Er, from the National University of Singapore’s East Asia Institute, went as far as describing the results as a “PAP electoral tsunami” that surprised even the ruling party’s supporters.
Dr Lam cited a “perfect convergence of factors” including the death of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the celebrations of the country’s 50th anniversary of Independence. He said the PAP had been on “campaign mode” for the past four years, rolling out policies to address voter dissatisfaction on issues such as housing, foreign workers and transport, which led to a large swing against it in the 2011 GE. “The PAP has been responding in a concerted and aggressive manner to address issues which Singaporeans have,” he said.
Dr Felix Tan of SIM Global Education said the PAP campaign could be deemed a success. The results “clearly demonstrate that Singaporeans believe that the PAP has made significant efforts to ensure that they place resident needs above populist demands”, he said.
["resident needs above populist demands" - what the hell does that mean? What if resident needs ARE populist?]
“The PAP campaign strategy this time, besides highlighting the problems of AHPETC, has been to remind Singaporeans of the good things that the party has done and can do, despite some setbacks,” he added. “Singaporeans have given a huge boost to the PAP to lead the country forward, at least for the next five years. This will mean that there will be some level of stability and continuation of the PAP policies thus far.”
Why the PAP won big
By Eugene Tan
GE2015 demonstrated the adaptability of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the resilience of the one-party system in Singapore. With their ballots, Singaporeans have handed the PAP a strong mandate. The outcome was unexpected, as the party romped home comfortably in most contests. The swing back to the PAP was across the board, representing widespread endorsement of the party, which has governed Singapore since 1959. How do we explain this significant, unexpected result?
First, given regional insecurities and economic uncertainty, a “flight to safety” mindset galvanised voters — especially a significant middle ground of undecided ones — who opted for the tried-and-tested PAP as the best way to deal with the real threats and those over the horizon. Prior to Polling Day, there was a pervasive sense of foreboding that the PAP may see further and deep decline in electoral support. While a freak election result was not deemed to be at play, voters probably felt that a further loss of political support would be highly challenging for the PAP with regard to how it would govern in its next five-year term.
Second, the PAP has been working hard since the previous election in May 2011. There were enough hot-button issues, such as cost of living, public transport inadequacies, healthcare affordability, retirement adequacy and immigration. In pulling out all the stops to address these issues, which had caused voters to turn away from it in the 2011 election, the PAP demonstrated that it could rise to the occasion even with its back against the wall. Once again, the PAP’s track record of delivering on its promises provided a safe harbour for voters seeking a trusted and tested brand.
Third, the Workers’ Party (WP)-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), which became the meme of the PAP’s campaigns, caused voters in the PAP-WP match-ups to consider closely whether the WP measured up in the task of running a town council. This titanic struggle was about driving home the grand narratives of what AHPETC ultimately represented.
For the PAP, AHPETC was about the WP’s competence, character and integrity, as well as the imperative of honest and responsible politics in Singapore. The WP portrayed the AHPETC issue as representing all that is wrong with one-party dominance as well as the supposed bullying that comes with the concentration of power and the lack of checks and balances in the system of governance.
It is clear that the AHPETC issue seriously undermined the WP’s electoral fortunes. In the final analysis, the PAP’s narrative on the AHPETC issue prevailed and resonated better with voters. This was demonstrated in the WP’s loss of support across the board — even in its Hougang stronghold and the Aljunied crown jewel — and in the PAP wresting back Punggol East.
HOW SINGAPORE IS GOVERNED WILL MATTER
The election outcome can also be explained through how voters regarded the relationship between two variables: One, the largest number of elected Opposition Members of Parliament between 2011 and this year; and two, the PAP government’s significant policy changes and how it had engaged the electorate since the previous General Election.
Given the significant electoral swing-back to the PAP, voters clearly did not see the relationship as a causal one, despite the WP’s claim otherwise. Voters saw the relationship as a mere correlation, and assessed that the PAP’s policy changes and innovations, such as the Pioneer Generation Package and MediShield Life, the several rounds of property cooling measures, as well as the efforts to deal with the public transport crunch, were largely driven by the PAP’s efforts to get things right. Singaporeans have used their votes to duly reward the PAP’s conscientious attempts to assuage their unhappiness on these hot-button issues.
Fourth, this poll appears to have conferred a strategic advantage on the PAP. In essence, Singaporeans were in a positive mood after the climax of the Golden Jubilee celebrations, fully savouring the celebration, pride, unity and reflection. The massive outpouring of emotion at the death of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew appears to have given the PAP an “LKY dividend”, made more poignant given that Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s birthday anniversary is on Sept 16. While one should not overstate the effect of the combination of the SG50 celebrations and Mr Lee’s passing, it should not surprise us that the PAP’s campaign sought to reinforce in the minds of voters the PAP’s and the late Mr Lee’s critical role in the growth and development of Singapore.
Fifth, regional and economic insecurities also contributed to the national swing to the PAP. The haze from Indonesia, which peaked on Cooling-off Day, was a stark reminder of Singapore’s vulnerabilities. These potential threats also helped the PAP garner support, given its strong record in national and internal security, as well as foreign relations.
Sixth, although the PAP did not carry out a campaign of particular note, the Opposition parties did themselves no favours by seeking to be even more to the left than the PAP. They assailed voters with grand schemes of more expenditures on various things such as free healthcare and unemployment benefits. Ultimately, voters carefully considered how sustainable and purposeful such plans were and were not taken in by the political false prophets.
GE2015 did not provide a firm indication as to whether Singapore is moving away from the one-party-dominant to a two-party or multi-party political system. This time, voters did not seem to place weight on the WP’s intrinsic value as the leading Opposition party and its role in Singapore’s evolving political landscape, where the idea of one-party dominance is increasingly being challenged. Despite high expectations, the WP was not able to consolidate and build on its gains of seven elected seats. The PAP stymied and even rolled back the WP’s gains and ascendancy.
As for the non-WP opposition, GE2015 demonstrates that it risks becoming irrelevant in a more competitive and demanding political landscape. Singaporeans are firm that there should not be opposition for opposition’s sake.
While an aberration globally, Singapore’s one-party-dominant system, which has been in place since 1959, remains dynamic and robust. With their ballots, Singaporean voters are signalling that the PAP Government must govern with empathy and less haughtiness, and not lose the common-man touch. It is not merely about whether Singapore is well governed, but how it is governed that will matter increasingly in the years ahead.
The PAP still has lots of soul-searching to do. It has to grapple with its own instinctive quest for dominance, and balance that with the electorate’s growing belief that political competition, diversity and contestation are critical ingredients in a society at the crossroads.
The battle for the hearts and minds of Singaporeans is now concluded. Now, it is time for Singaporeans to put aside their political affiliations and work together for a better future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Eugene K B Tan is associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University.