By now, most of Singapore would know that WP’s Lee Li Lian had won the Punggol East by-election and soundly thumped PAP’s Koh Poh Koon.
WP won 54.52% of the votes, whereas PAP could only capture 43.71% of the votes. WP won by a very convincing margin of 10.81%.
This is compared to when WP had won 43.71% of the votes in General Election 2011 and PAP had won 54.54%. How the tide has turned. There was a swing of 13.51 percentage points to WP and a swing of 10.83% away from PAP.
A) Main Takeaway
The most obvious conclusion you need to draw from this by-election is this: It was never about the candidate. It was never about local issues. It has always been about national issues. And it has always been about the parties. Which is why right from the start, DPM Teo Chee Hean had tried to frame the issue as one of local issues, and Koh was pushed forward as his own man, and his infamous tagline, “This Is Me”, which disappeared overnight because PAP knew the next instance that they cannot escape confronting the national issues and party allegiance that Singaporeans are more concerned about. Not also when WP strongly framed national issues at their rallies and reminded Singaporeans to elect another opposition member into parliament to keep PAP in check. And that was why PAP had no choice but to have PM Lee Hsien Loong speak for more than half an hour at PAP’s last rally on national issues. And that was also why PAP announced three announcements pertaining to national issues during the by-election – cooling measures for housing, new MRT train lines and the $2 billion annual parenthood package. Singaporeans didn’t bite. And PAP had to use two of their most popular politicians to also defuse the tensions against PAP. When Madam Halimah Yacob became ‘elected’ as the Speaker of Parliament, a whole section in the Straits Times was dedicated to her, showering her with commendations. PAP also had to activate Dr Amy Khor to speak at their last rally. Still, to no avail, PAP lost.
By all accounts, any missteps by PAP will cost them heavily. During the by-election, they had spoken about ensuring that the Rivervale Plaza will be completed by the middle of 2013 and about how they will add on two more carriages onto the Sengkang LRT to ferry more passengers as election promises. Now, if these proposals don’t come to pass, the residents at Punggol East won’t be putting the blame on the Worker’s Party. They live near enough to their neighbours in Hougang to understand how their neighbours have been systematically marginalised for more than 20 years simply because they value their freedom and dignity. If these proposals do not see the light of day, the residents will vote more resoundingly for the Worker’s Party at General Election 2016. So, PAP can’t play any tricks here. And what about the promises about more feeder buses, childcare centres or hawker centres? Frankly, these were non-issues to begin with. Whether these will ever be done is never planned on a local level. There is only as much land in the Punggol East constituency and unless the residents want to remove the only bit of greenery they have, they can perhaps advocate to their MP to put in another market. Issues like this are always planned on a national level. LTA would hardly say that because the MP of an area, be it a PAP MP or a WP MP requests for additional bus services, they would then deploy more bus services just for the few streets that encircle Punggol East. They wouldn’t do that because the routes of bus services have to be planned on a broader geographical scale. It just doesn’t make logical sense to plan for transport routes, or the locations of shopping malls, hawker centres, markets or childcare centres on a local level. There isn’t enough population mass to justify planning on a local level.
And this is also one reason why SDA would never have won. Mr Desmond Lim had focused his campaign right from the start as a campaign on local issue. It was never about local issues. He missed the plot and thus he won far lesser votes than he did at General Election 2011.
B) If anything, this has shown that the Singapore electorate has matured on many fronts:
1) The residents of Punggol East had voted tactically. They knew what was at stake. They knew it was about national issues. As much as mainstream media went around interviewing residents on their concerns and speaking to ‘political observers’ on their insights and therefore highlighting that residents there were concerned about local issues, it was all a charade that the mainstream media had put up. The residents didn’t bite. They knew what was at stake. They knew the responsibility they had in their hands and they knew that because this was a by-election, they can go all out and do what they needed to do. And they did.
2) This has also shown that Singaporeans have become a lot more politically savvy. Not only were they tactical and understood that the by-election should be fought on a national level, they knew that it was about the party (and lesser about the candidate) and they knew that their only true options were between PAP and WP. It didn’t help that RP had went off on an embarrassing start, slighting the other opposition parties and Mr Desmond Lim from SDA made several blunders on his YouTube rally. And the residents were a lot more mindful that they shouldn’t waste their votes – only 521 votes were cast for RP and SDA together, or only 1.77% of the votes.
3) This is not to say that Ms Lee Li Lian won only on the coattails of WP. She won because first, the party had a clear strategy of fielding consistently candidates who they know are committed and who will stay the course. This is in spite of how the mainstream media had tried to play up the idea that WP should have sent in their NMPs, which the media described as more popular. The mainstream media had tried to diffuse WP’s strategy but Mr Low Thia Kiang is wiser than that than to allow the media to shape WP’s long-term strategy. What worked for WP was that they had a clear party strategy, a clear rally strategy, had a clear on-ground strategy and stayed on course. And Singaporeans can see that – WP is determined, consistent and stable. And if you want to become a credible party, you need to show that you have all your guns ready. It’s not about believing – like RP and SDA had. It’s about believing and translating them into real, tangible and visible actions. And that’s where WP got their act altogether and solidly proved to Singaporeans that they have what it takes.
4) Finally, by now, we would all know that clearly, Singaporeans want an alternative voice to represent them. Singaporeans are unhappy. They are unhappy at being made used of, being lied to, not given enough information to, and most importantly, Singaporeans feel trapped in a country where they are not able to do anything, even as they know what’s wrong and what needs to be done. This is something WP has acknowledged. And as much as PAP claimed, after the by-election, that they respect the voters’ choice and that voters might simply want opposition voices, PAP needs to, and they will take seriously, that this means that they need to truly reflect on themselves, their principles and their values and recalibrate their middle ground, or rather, shift in tandem with the people and start prioritising the people’s needs as one of their key agendas. In a democracy, leaders are elected to represent the people, and leaders need to serve the people. It has taken Singaporeans nearly 50 years to get their act together – and start to own some of the power that they had given up on. Of course, PAP can turn around and clamp down on Singaporeans by becoming China or North Korea. Well, they cannot do that – not when they pander to capitalistic influences and not when the very idea that Singapore is grounded on is on an open market system and open lines of global networks.
C) So, what then will the PAP do?
1) Under PM Lee’s watch, he introduced the ‘Cooling Off Day’ as one strategy to hopefully stem the tide of change towards the opposition. The aim is that by having a cooling off day, the mainstream press will be able to define the discourse as one that is aligned to PAP, so that voters might still be swayed by the mainstream press to vote for PAP. Obviously, this did not work for the Punggol East by-election, partly because the mainstream media’s pandering of PAP’s agenda has become so obvious over the past one year that more and more Singaporeans are now relying on online news and sharing to have a broad perspective of what’s really going on. Clearly, PAP’s strategy to limit the growth of the opposition or the protection of their dominance in this new era is also focused strongly on shaping the psychological perspectives of people – what with the cooling off day and shaping of the news on mainstream media. However, they did not catch up with the times. Singaporeans have moved ahead of them.
2) Next, PAP had in the past, employed two other strategies, by rigging the electoral model (i.e. reducing the time period between nomination day and polling day, introducing GRCs etc) and by crippling the opposition management of the estate (i.e. through the introduction of the town councils which the Aim episode has unravelled and the appointment of the PAP representative as the grassroot leaders, even if PAP did not win in the constituency and the residents on the constituency rightfully pay their taxes and they should be the one deciding on who they want representing them – and they’ve voted for the opposition – and how their money should be used.) Now, question is, will PAP further develop systems to remodel the electoral model and cripple the opposition local government without Singaporeans, and the opposition themselves, knowing? We need more anal-retentive probers to do the job and from what the Aim-AHTC episode had exposed, Singaporeans might actually do a better job than Koh when it comes to that.
3) Finally, watch what PAP will do after the review of the town councils. PAP had said that they will review the relevance of the roles of the town councils. And so, how will they review it such that we will ‘dumbly’ accede to their recommendation to remodel it, as we had done so when they introduced the town councils in 1989. Will we allow them to whitewash over us again? Will we let them? Will you let them? If anything, this by-election and the ongoings months prior, beginning from the incident of the SMRT bus drivers, the Aim-AHTC episode and then the by-election, should have awaken many more Singaporeans politically, who should realise now that if they want change to happen, they need to make their voice known, by making their vote useful – as they had just did, by speaking up (and we can only do so freely online for now because our rights to demonstrate peacefully are curtailed) and by rummaging through all information and evidence and putting together a coherent picture of how we might be systematically lied to or marginalised. We have shown ourselves to be capable of doing that, and we will and must continue to do that.
Remember, this is a Singaporeans’ Singapore – not a PAP’s Singapore, not a WP’s Singapore but a Singapore that belongs to the people who belong on this island and who are the rightful owners of Singapore, and have elected politicians to represent our rights, and not to allow power to get into their heads so much so that they think that they know everything that is right for us including the curtailing of the very rights that we use to put them in their place in the first place.
D) Now, the final question is – is the win for the Punggol East by-election on a local level representative of what the larger group of Singaporeans want on a national level? The answer? It is.
The 43.71% that PAP collected at the Punggol East by-election is 10.83% lower than the 54.54% showing at the General Election 2011. The 54.52% that WP had won is 13.5% higher than their precious win of 41.01%. This a switch in fortune.
If you’ve looked at a previous article that I’ve written, you will see (in Chart 1) that if PAP had continued on their downward trajectory from General Election 2011 to 2016, they could possibly lose by another 10 percentage points and WP would have increase their winning margin by another 10 percentage points, which means that at General Election 2016, PAP might win around 50% of the votes and WP might win 55%, on average, of the seats they would contest in. This means that in General Election 2016, PAP can potentially lose all the seats that WP would contest in. Still, WP had only contested in 24 seats in 2011 and even if they would win all their seats, they would only form barely a quarter of parliament, hardly the one-third they need to represent Singaporeans to be able to use their voting power as a credible check on the government. So, this is a question that Singaporeans would need to ask ourselves – what can we do to help ourselves and to ensure fair representation?
Anyway, back to the Punggol East by-election, the 10% swing away from PAP and the 10% swing towards WP which should happen in General Election 2016 was actually brought forward to the Punggol East By-Election 2013 – there was a 10.83% swing away from PAP and 13.5% swing towards WP. Does this mean the tide has changed faster than anticipated? Well, it could be. But two factors will let us have more clarity. First, the residents of Punggol East are considered younger and middle class. What this means is that they are more likely than the rest of the population to be more Internet savvy and be less conservative in their voting behaviour. Their voting behaviour would thus be more aggressively liberal, if you could put it that way. Second, this is a by-election. And as explained before, when voting for the by-election, there is lesser, or actually, not a need for consideration on how one’s vote would impact on the national level, because it is only one constituency that is voting, thus voters can vote as true to what they believe in as they can.
So, assuming that on these two counts, voters are willing to vote more liberally and genuinely you can assume that if this was a General Election, their voting behaviour might be slightly more conservative, which would mean that they might vote at 50% (or so?) their exact intention? Thus instead of a swing of 10.83% away from PAP, there might be only a 5.42% swing away, and instead of a 13.5% swing towards WP, there might be only a 6.75% swing towards WP. If you extrapolate that we’ve already passed 2 years since the last general election and would have another 3 years towards the next general election, the swing away from PAP, taking into account the overall population and that the population will also vote more ‘safely’, you would get about a 10% swing away from the PAP and 10% swing towards the WP at the next general election in 2016, so it’s about there – it’s representative.
E) So, What’s Next?
Will that happen? We have three more years to find out. Within these three years, what will PAP do to contain the fallout and to preserve their dominance? You can bet on it that they will definitely do something. Question is, will we know when they do it? And will we speak up and challenge them on it? If you are expecting WP to have a stronger showing for the next three years, don’t count on it. I say this not because you shouldn’t have expectations on WP. If you truly want to know how WP will perform, you cannot rely on mainstream media because coverage of them will be minimal and if you so believe what the mainstream media chooses to tell you, then you will buy into the belief that WP had and will do do nothing. But if you look into the parliamentary proceedings, you will realise that the 8 WP MPs and NMPs (and now 9) would have raised more questions than the 81 (and now 80) PAP MPs have raised, as some commenters have pointed out. Also, you would need to be a resident in the WP constituencies to have an accurate understanding of how well they are managing their constituencies. The voters have consistently voted for Mr Low Thia Kiang ever since he was first elected, more than 20 years ago. That should say something. And if one thinks that just because the voters of Punggol East are younger and that the older voters will not vote for WP, the uncles and aunties who attend WP’s rallies and await the results of WP at the coffee shops would have you know that’s not true – the older generation is rooting for WP as well.
So, what will PAP do next? If PAP does rig the system and they are caught out and you can be sure that the probers would dig out at least half of what they plan to do, this would be very embarrassing for PAP and would cause more Singaporeans to become disillusioned by PAP, which will affect their vote share. Question is, what other tricks does PAP have up their sleeves.
As stated in a previous article, there is always about 35% of voters who are clear supporters of PAP. In this by-election, 43.71% voted for PAP, which means that about 8% to 9% of the voters still have some hope that PAP can do the right thing, and have stuck by PAP. However, about 10% have swung the other away. So, the swing voters are currently split 50-50. Question is, what will PAP do which if they get caught out, would cause more swing voters to cross over?
The best thing that PAP can do now is to be honest with themselves, and with Singaporeans, and to be responsive to not only just what their supporters believe in, but what ALL Singaporeans believe in, and then recalibrate to a middle ground which will be more fair and equal. At the same time, the PAP will need to recognise that Singaporeans no longer believe in just having their material needs fulfilled. All the carrots that PAP had dangled prior to the by-election would show PAP that Singaporeans no longer buy into material justifications for PAP’s rule. Singaporeans want to be treated fairly and justly, and as individuals, as human beings, not as workers. We want our rights returned, we want an egalitarian society and we want a healthy dose of respectable time for ourselves. Now, PAP knows this. And of course, PAP would know everything else that is said in this article. Question is, will they do anything about it? Singaporeans feel that the two years that they’ve given PAP since the last general election has yielded nothing and they’ve sent a very strong message to PAP. So, will they finally budge?
If you look at the previous article, PAP is at the beginning of another decade of upward growth in their vote share (Chart 2), which means this is about time they start putting in the right policies and programmes to benefit the people, to bring their votes onto the upswing. But question is, will this happen? And also, considering that they’ve suffered their greatest fall ever, over the past decade, how many Singaporeans are willing to forgive them and how much more would they need to do to ensure that their votes go on the upswing, if it does so?
The story has always been that Singaporeans are a docile bunch who want stability. So surely, they would be patient with the PAP. And PAP has three years to make it right. Let’s see how fast they react. And as far as the opposition goes, WP is also cognizant that Singaporeans want stability. For now, they want to act as the gatekeeper for Singaporeans. They understand equally what else could be at stake for Singapore. But for PAP, they need to also be cognizant that throughout history, when there’s a growing ruling class which prides itself too heavily and continuously slights the people’s wishes and creates an ever growing working class population who become disfranchised, then revolution will come, whether PAP likes it or not. It’s written all over history. So, this is a game that PAP had played themselves into and now they have to find a way to get out of the hole that they’ve dug themselves into. But Singaporeans are a forgiving bunch. So, let’s wait and see how this will pan out.
F) Before I end, I would like to point out two things that this by-election has shown us:
1) Some of the success for WP’s by-election can also be attributed to a tightly-knitted online strategy ran by disparate groups of online voices, which somehow managed to get their voice heard and across. There wasn’t a strategy but somehow we managed to get ourselves heard. How can we take that into the next level? How can we have a stronger and more strategic understanding of the political ongoings to be consistent in our messages? Is it just because voters were tactical, which prevented the loss of votes to be diluted by RP and SDA (not that it would have mattered anyway, thankfully!) or was there a more strategic understanding that both voters and online commenters have towards the strategic importance of their votes? This is something we need to think about, to strengthen ourselves, and also something the PAP needs to and will surely think about before the next general election.
2) By now, it would be very clear that PAP and WP are the two bigwigs to be reckoned with, in the political scene in Singapore. From RP and SDA’s showing, they would need to go back to do some homework. The key lies in strategy and convincing Singaporeans that you have one. The other parties to look out for would be SDP and NSP – both were in the top four best performing opposition parties in General Election 2011. SDA has a growing following. Whether their strategic maneuver to join in and then withdraw from the by-election just before Nomination Day, and how it would be felt and responded to by Singaporeans depends, and is to be seen. But I do not think their core supporters would think otherwise – they will continue to throw their support behind SDP, especially when SDP has some credible politicians in their midst and have put up some credible policy recommendations. Now, NSP had remained seemingly quiet. But do not underestimate the media statements that they have been putting out over the course of the by-election. They have shown themselves to be respectable and gentlemanly in their approach, and for Singaporeans who desire stability and clean politics, there’s much to desire with NSP’s subtle but quietly powerful approach.
So, there you go. How will things pan out. It’s all going to be very exciting for Singapore in the next 3 years and beyond. But if PAP learns to truly listen to Singaporeans and Singaporeans learn to take responsibility over their own rights, we shouldn’t veer too far off the track that we are already on and we should continue to prosper as a nation. And importantly, we will need to ensure that we have multiple checks and balances in the political system. For now, we should aim to put in enough opposition members in parliament to be a credible check (and demand that they cooperate with one another). Next, with credible checks within parliament, we would then need to aim for the independence of the estates of governance – the president, economy, judiciary and military – to be independent of one another so that they are also able to act as credible checks to protect Singaporeans from a monopoly of power. Singaporeans, as the core citizenry, should also one day aim to identify and define ourselves as one of the estates of governance.