In this article, I will attempt to outline the strategies used by the People’s Action Party (PAP) to ensure that they are kept in power, and the systematic strategies that they use to enact barriers to competition for the other political parties.
This article can be read in four parts.
- In the first part, I will look at the general election trends in Singapore to understand them.
- In the second part, I will look into how PAP had developed strategies to intervene in Singapore’s general electoral model to maintain their dominance of power.
- In the third part, I will discuss how the shape of Singapore’s politics will evolve into in the next few years.
- And finally, in the fourth part, I will look into the Punggol East by-elections for a bit, based on the insights that we will glean from this article.
You can choose to read the parts that interest you first, or you can read the parts part by part, and come back to other parts at a later time or date.
Part 1: General Election Trends in Singapore
In Chart 1, I chart the progress of the parties which had contested in the General Elections (GE) 2011.
You can see that in the last 3 elections:
- PAP’s vote share has been dropping consistently for the past 3 years.
- The Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA)’s vote share has also dropped at the last elections.
- 2011 was the Reform Party (RP)’s first election, so we will have to await the results of 2013’s Punggol East by-elections to have an idea of where RP stands.
- Among the 4 other dominant opposition parties, the Worker’s Party (WP), Singapore People’s Party (SPP), National Solidarity Party (NSP) and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), all their vote shares have increased. Interestingly, SDP’s vote share has increased the most sharply.
- Note that for SPP and NSP, they had ran for GE 2001 and 2006 under the banner of SDA and I have used SDA’s vote count and vote share to represent theirs as well.
For the rest of the article, I will focus mainly on PAP, WP, NSP and SDP.
In Chart 2, you can see that the PAP received the highest vote share in 1968, in Singapore’s first GE after Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965. This is because the Barisan Sosialis, and most of the other opposition parties had chosen not to stand for election. You can learn briefly about the reason why they didn’t want to do so here.
As a result, GE 1968 was “the first time PAP (was) returned to power on nomination day and the first time a party won all seats in the legislature. For over four decades, walkovers became a significant feature in every GE.” However, PAP has not been able to achieve the high vote share that it had garnered in GE 1968 in the other general elections. In fact, PAP underwent several waves of successive decrease, then increase ad decrease in their vote share. But with each wave, the high vote share that they would achieve would always be lower than the previous high. For example, in GE 1980, PAP garnered 77.7% of the votes, which was lower than the 86.7% in GE 1968. And in GE 2001, they garnered 75.3%, which is lower than in GE 1980.
Also, PAP’s results in GE 2011 was their worse performance – they had only 60.1% of the vote share, lower than the previous low of 61% in 1991. Interestingly, PAP took 12 years to achieve the second high in their vote share in 1980, since 1968, but took 21 years to achieve their next high in 2001.
However, what would be interesting would be to also see the results of the elections, under the various Prime Ministers (Chart 3). You can see that two of the first highs were achieved under the rein of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. The third high was achieved by Mr Goh Chok Tong. Mr Lee Hsien Loong has yet to achieve a “high” in vote share since he took over the leadership in 2004.
It is interesting to note that the older Mr Lee had relinquished his power and transferred premiership to Mr Goh, after the worst elections that he had suffered in GE 1988 – PAP only garnered 63.2% of the votes, the third lowest in Singapore’s modern history. In the elections preceding, in GE 1984, he led PAP to garner 64.8%, their fourth lowest. A general statement can be made that Singaporeans could have been unhappy at the state of Singapore under the older Mr Lee’s leadership. However, a deeper look into the economic and social situation would be required to further understand the reason why.
When Mr Goh took over the reins, he had suffered the second worst results, garnering 61% in GE 1991. However, in the second half of his premiership, he managed to achieve the fastest increase in vote share since Singapore’s independence, by increasing the vote share of PAP by 10.3 percentage points in 2001, to achieve PAP’s highest vote share in the past three decades.
However, since the younger Mr Lee took over, PAP has also seen one of its fastest fall in power, garnering as mentioned, only 60.1% of the votes in GE 2011, and the lowest ever. The question to ask is, what will PAP’s next step after GE 2011?
Looking at PAP’s past records, as we will see later, the fluctuations in PAP’s vote sure and their ability to maintain themselves in power didn’t come by luck or good fortune. It came by a series of strategic manoeuvres to ensure that they are able to keep themselves in power.
Another way to look at the trend in PAP’s vote share is by looking at their fluctuations according to a 10-year cycle (Chart 4).Interesting, if you look at the trend, there is an alternating pattern of PAP’s rise in vote share in one decade, followed by a drop in another. In GE 2011, we had just entered a new decade of low, where historically, if PAP had entered the decade with a low vote share, they would usually take steps to correct the ‘missteps’ to ensure that they would gain dominance among the Singaporean voters again.
The question is – what are they doing, or have their done over the past few years to ensure that they will be able to get back on track?
Yet, an interesting question to ask is – what if there were external factors which affected PAP’s vote share? For example, could their low vote shares have coincided with the recessions? Looking at Chart 5, after the recession of 1985-86 (vertical olive green bars), PAP’s vote share continued to fall in GE 1988. Arguably, the drop in vote share was much lesser than for the preceding general election in 1984. Also, it was modern Singapore’s first recession since independence. Could it be that because it’s the first time that the government had to bring Singapore out of a recession and also that the people were not prepared to have to undergo a recession, which might have explained why they were still not too impressed with PAP’s efforts and thus voted away from PAP? Of course, one would need to study the period further to understand why.
Yet, in the recession of 1998-99: the Asian Economic Crisis, the Asian countries were hit badly by the recession, yet PAP was able to garner their highest vote share of the last three decades. Which begs the question – how does a recession affect voting behaviour? It had then been argued that as Singapore had just came out of a recession, the people had wanted a government that is in more stable. And the people might thus have voted more favourably for PAP. It could also be because GE 2001 was held closer to the recession than GE 1988 was, which thus meant the recession was still in the people’s minds.
Yet, in GE 2011, Singapore had also just emerged from a recession. However, the vote share continued to drop and in fact, was the lowest for PAP since 1965. Why was this so? Was it because PAP had handled the recession relatively well, and thus the people did not feel the effects of the recession as strongly as they had in the past two recessions? Was it because Singapore had yet, was still able to achieve one of the highest GDP growth in 2011 in recent times, and thus Singaporeans felt more at ease to vote away from PAP?
If you look at some of the ongoings in Singapore over the past 2 decades (Chart 6), you might be able to understand why PAP’s vote share continue to fall, despite having emerged from the recent recession almost unscathed. Since 2001, Singaporeans have been withdrawing lesser and lesser from their CPF, even as they continue to put in more money, and the number of CPF members who would need to withdraw their CPF monies would have grown. At the same time, we are expected to pay more into our Medisave Required Amount and Medishield Premium, even as the proportionate expenditure by the government on our healthcare bills have been decreasing steadily since independence. On top of that, since 2005, there is an increase in the number and proportion of low wage workers earning less than $1,000, our housing prices and COE premium has been rising at a faster rate, all this time, while the profits of the Singapore companies, owned by Temasek Holdings (which is owned by the government) is increasing as well. Read more here to find out more. So, Singaporean’s disgruntled feelings are not misplaced.
In the decade preceding the last, in the 1990s, it wasn’t by fluke that then-PM Goh was able to increase PAP’s vote share, and by the fastest pace. I haven’t had the opportunity to look through all the statistics. However, I did find that in the mid-1990s, CPF contributions by employees were reduced, so that we had more for out-of-pocket use. Also, the profits by the Singapore companies owned by Temasek were kept at a constant low, which means the Singapore companies weren’t profiteering from Singaporeans on such a high basis. Though another way to look at it could be that with the money freed up from the CPF, people could spend more and allow the companies to profit as well.
What is it that could be happening here? Is it an alternating cycle of the government knowing, in one decade, that they had to provide for the people, and in another, where they feel that when they had provided for the people, they could start making money (for them or off them). And when the people become disgruntled, as can be reflected in the drop in vote share in the alternating decade, the government will then start to adopt corrective remedial actions? Yet, would it not be wiser if the government continues to balance its needs of wealth generation with the people’s social needs, so that a constant trust and respect between the people and the government can be maintained, instead of having to ‘rig’ the electoral model to maintain sustenance?
Interestingly, whenever I tried researching for statistics, I would usually find statistics from starting 2001. It is usually more difficult to find full statistics beyond 2001, which I don’t quite understand. If statistics can be put online so readily, why would the government not put up all the statistics? Could it be because Singaporeans wouldn’t understand these statistics? Or because these statistics shouldn’t fall into the hands of Singaporeans?
So, in summary (Chart 7), for the first part, you can see that there are cyclical 10-year cycles in which voters would vote for PAP, or not. Lee Kuan Yew was at the helmed during the decade where the downward cycle of PAP’s vote was, and he handed the rein over to Goh towards the end, which meant that he left his premiership on not as good a note. Goh, however, had planned his departure better. He left on a high, where he left when he achieved the highest vote share for PAP in the last three decades. Also, he did not wait to leave at the end of the downward cycle, but transferred the premiership to Lee Hsien Loong in the midst of it. Whether Lee Hsien Loong was left to pick up the bits would need a further analysis.
However, as shared, in the past decade, Singaporeans have indeed seen their lot become relatively worse-off. PM Lee had taken over the premiership in 2004. In 2005, there was a sharp increase in the number of foreigners coming into Singapore. Due to a policy which created unequal treatment, the wages of the lower-income earners were depressed and the proportion of the low-income earners increased. At the same time, the rate at which COE premium increased was also drove up sharply. Singaporeans also started to feel the pinch of housing prices from the mid-2000s onwards. Of course, the recession also came around during this period, and it can be argued that the government was trying to increase the monies collected from Singaporeans, to bulk up the reserves for our protection. However, Singaporeans were left feeling confused when their real wages dropped from 2008 onwards, on average, yet they are still made to pay for higher costs and premiums, all these while the profits of Singapore companies grew, and Singapore now has the highest GDP per capita in the world and the highest concentration of millionaires in the world.
Part 2: PAP’s Strategy to Maintain Dominance
In the second part of this article, we will explore the strategies that PAP use to sustain their power. From Chart 8, you can see that the psychological barrier for PAP – the proportion that the vote share should not drop below, seems to be at 60%. Perhaps they could planned for it to be even higher but their attempts to stem the decline might not have been successful, which would have pushed down the psychological barrier to 60% instead.
In Chart 9, you can see that there were several points at which PAP encountered lower vote share than in the preceding general election – 1972, 1984, 1988, 1991, 2006 and 2011.
There were 3 points where they either encountered a sharp fall in vote share, or nearly breached the psychological barrier of 60%. You would see later that in all these points, PAP had developed systematic interventions to stem the downward spiral of their vote shares.
Another important statistic to look at is the amount of seats in parliament that the opposition parties were able to garner. In Chart 10, you can see that in 1991 and then in 2011, the opposition was at both times, able to win more than 5% of the overall seats.
This is the second psychological barrier for PAP – once the proportion of seats that go to the opposition increased above 5%, their alarm bells would be set off. This was at least the case prior to 1991. After GE 1991, the number of seats won by the opposition went back to below 5% again.
A third trend that you would need to take note of is the proportion of seats contested vs the proportion of votes won (Chart 11). Whenever there were a higher proportion of seats that were contested, PAP’s vote share would also fall. The highest proportion of seats contested were in 1972, 1988 and 2011. You would see that for both 1972 and 1988, in the following two subsequent general elections, the proportion of seats contested would fall. What did PAP do?
Taken all together, PAP’s strategy to intervene in the general electoral model is as follows:
- Prevent PAP’s vote share from dropping below 60%.
- Prevent proportion of opposition seats from rising above 5%.
- Reduce proportion of seats contested significantly to ensure that PAP’s vote share can be maintained at above 60%.
What strategies did PAP adopt to ensure that the above would be met? As shared, the years which PAP were concerned with are as follows: 1972, 1984, 1988, 1991, 2006 and 2011. Based on Charts 9, 10 and 11, you can see that 1972 and 1991 were the years where more than one barrier was transgressed, and where there would then be a higher frequency of intervention by PAP.
In Chart 12 (above), you would be able to see that prior to 1972, the days between parliament dissolution and nomination day, and the days between nomination day, were longer. This would have allowed the different political parties to put out their candidates, and to let Singaporeans learn more about their candidates, so that Singaporeans would have a sufficient understanding as to who to vote for, and be able to make a clear and informed decision as to who they would then vote for. However, as the duration between were much reduced from 1972, Singaporeans were given on average, less than 10 to 20 days, as compared to up to two months, to get to know the candidates. Is the hope that we would not have enough time to get to know the candidates so that we might then vote for who we are more familiar with – the PAP politicians who were already in power, and known?
This is one reason why Mr Low Thia Kiang from WP has operated on a tight strategy, to overcome this. As much as he would be able to, he would want to put a candidate who has worked the ground and who knows the residents in a constituency, so that even as the candidate has not been elected into parliament before, the residents of the area would know the candidate, and increase the chances of them voting for the person. In 1972, this was the first strategy that PAP came out with.
In 1976, PAP increased the election deposit by more than 100%. Could this be due to inflation, or was this used as a strategy to raise the barrier of entry for the opposition parties to stand for elections? If you see in Chart 14, the rate of inflation wasn’t consistent and had times, decreased. Yet, the election deposit continued to rise, in spite of any fall in the inflation rate, which suggests that the rise in the election deposit isn’t due to inflation. The election deposit was steeply raised, by nearly three-fold in 1988. This was done when PAP’s vote share had still continued to fall after GE 1984. For the general elections following that, the election deposit continued to increase unabated.
Interestingly, another steep increase came in 2001, when Mr Goh were then to actually win the highest vote share for the past three decades. Could the barrier of entry had been raised to decrease the participation of the opposition parties? If you see in Chart 11, 2001 was also the year that the proportion of seats contested was the lowest in the last three decades. Is there a correlation? What else was happening on the ground?
Impressively, the younger Mr Lee did not increase the election deposit substantially for GE 2006. The proportion of seats contested also increased at the same time. Yet, in GE 2011, Mr Lee increased the election deposit steeply again. However, this time, the proportion of seats contested continued to increase. Increasing the election deposit as a barrier of entry did not work at this point. Did the opposition funds have that much funds to contest the election, or were there Singaporeans who were unhappy with PAP had come forward to also donate money to support the opposition parties?
In GE 1991, after PAP lost more than 5% of the seats to the opposition parties, the next election was held more than 5 years after GE 1991 (Chart 15). Thereafter, you can see that on average, the number of years that the general elections were held apart from each other grew.
Don’t forget, Goh is an economist by training. Did he know how to strategically timed the elections, having done his calculations? In GE 1997, after the general elections was held more than 5 years later, PAP’s vote share increased, for the first time in four general elections.
What did Goh to right, both strategically and also on the ground?
In GE 2011, Lee Hsien Loong had also adopted the same approach as Goh had done in GE 1997. However, whether the timing was not right or whether Singaporeans were no longer taking it sitting down, Lee’s strategy did not work for him.
There were other strategies that PAP had adopted to encourage Singaporeans to continue voting for them. You can look at Chart 16.
In 1984, PAP started the Non-constituency (NCMP) scheme. In 1990, PAP started appointing Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP). Both these schemes were created to pacify Singaporeans, by letting them think that since there would be PAP-alternative representatives introduced into parliament, there wouldn’t a need for voted-in opposition representation in parliament. However, did this work? In 1984, the creation of the NCMP scheme had little effect. PAP’s vote share continued to drop.
In 1991, PAP’s vote share increased after the appointments of NMPs. This can be argued to be an effect of well-timed election strategies by Goh, and possibly the on-ground benefits that Singaporeans had felt under his leadership. Also, in 1989, PAP created the town councils. The idea was to empower residents to take ownership in the management of their constituency. In 1991, PAP set up Aim. At the end of 2012, Singaporeans were infuriated to find out that Aim was owned by PAP and the town councils had sold off their IT software to Aim. Questions on the legality of the sales and whether profits were made from Singaporeans’ money were raised. PM Lee had announced, before announcing the Punggol East by-elections, that a review of the town councils will be conducted, with a focus on reviewing the town councils’ relevance and role.
There was no mention that the review, or an investigation, will be made on Aim, the purchase and whether the sale had profitted Aim, or PAP, indirectly. Furthermore, Singaporeans questioned why the Ministry of National Development, which is the overseer of the town councils, was to conduct the ‘review’, instead of an independent body, fearing that there will be necessarily a conflict of interest? As mentioned, GE 2011 was when PAP had the lowest vote share since Singapore’s independence in 1965.
What will the outcome of the review of the town councils be? Will a strategy to ensure PAP’s survival be re-created by way of the town councils?
In 1991, the Group Representation Constituencies (GRC) was created. Opponents have long argued that the GRCs would impede on fair competition by the other parties. Finally, in GE 2011, WP broke the psychological barrier by winning the Aljunied GRC. In 1991, the Elected Presidency was created. The president has veto power over the government in three specific areas:
- protection of the state’s reserves;
- appointment of key personnel, such as the attorney general, chiefs of the armed forces and police, and the chief justice and judges;
- use of Internal Security Act detentions, Corrupt Practices Investigative Bureau investigations, and orders relating to the maintenance of religious harmony.
For now, while the PAP government is in power, the role of the president is largely ceremonial. What if the opposition becomes the government? Who will the president has veto power over then? The current president is Tony Tan, a previous PAP politician. He had wanted to champion on his own platform during the presidential elections and didn’t want Singaporeans to think that he is aligned to PAP.
You had to give a thorough think through to understand if it’s the interest for the different estates of governance to be so tightly-linked to one party. Is it in Singapore’s interest to have the estate of the president, judiciary and military be so tightly-linked, and with the president so tightly-linked to the government, which is also tightly-linked to the economy? Who will ensure the checks and balances?
One more intervention which isn’t highlighted in the chart is this – cooling off day. PAP had introduced the cooling off day in 2009. Why did they do so? The reason a cooling off day would have been introduced is to ensure that on this day, the people are ‘calmed down’, so that they are able to recollect what they have read, and to them ‘calmly’ make an informed decision. PAP had done two calculations here – they had hope that when people are calmer, they would tend to choose the ‘safer’ option – which means that the cooling off day is intended to psychologically retain people’s sense of comfort with PAP. The idea is to hope that once people are not exposed to the invigoration that they would identify with the opposition parties, this vigour would hopefully subside on cooling off day. Second, on cooling off day, what happens on mainstream media will be key as how the mainstream media reports would have a huge potential to sway votes, back to PAP.
From the 1980s onwards, the strategies that PAP were to use, some would say, is less than glorious. You can look at Chart 17.
In order to be qualified to be a Member of Parliament, a candidate has to satisfy the following criteria:
- they are and have been found or declared to be of unsound mind;
- they are undischarged bankrupts;
- they have been convicted of an offence by a court of law in Singapore or Malaysia and sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than one year or to a fine of not less than S$2,000 and have not received a free pardon
This has been used to great effect since the 1980s to systematically streamline candidates deemed unqualified for parliament. Unfortunately, as our press is not free, we do not have a complete idea as to the soundness of those who have been sued, or whether they are actually sound, but portrayed otherwise.
In chronological order, this is a quick summary of just some of the interventions that PAP had made into the electoral model to preserve their dominance in Singapore:
- 1972: Decrease duration between parliament dissolution & nomination day, and between nomination day & polling day
- 1976: Increase election deposit
- 1984: Set up NCMP scheme
- 1988: Increase election deposit
- 1989: Set up town council
- 1990: Set up NMP scheme
- 1991: Introduce elected presidency
- 1991: Set up Aim
- 1991: Introduce GRC
- 1991: Increase election deposit
- 1997: Increase election deposit
- 1997: Increase duration from previous general election
- 2001: Increase election deposit
- 2009: Introduce cooling off day
- 2011: Increase election deposit
- 2011: Increase duration from previous general election
- 1986 – 2013: Law sits for defamation and libel, and bankruptcy
So, you can see that PAP’s strategy to minimise the participation of the opposition is four-fold:
- First, put up barriers to access by a) reducing the time that Singaporeans are able to get to know the opposition candidates, b) by increasing the cost of participation and c) by agglomerating the constituencies to limit the opposition’s capability of forming a team to run a GRC.
- Provide alternative programmes outside the electoral system, such as the NCMP and NMP schemes to influence Singaporeans to believe that there are alternative systems that can be available within a PAP-dominated parliament, without having the need for opposition representation.
- Prevent the representation of opposition members, if they can be proven to not satisfy the qualification as laid out in the constitution.
- A fourth, but not one intended to minimise the opposition’s participation, but to sustain power, is to lengthen the duration between elections to prolong PAP’s political longevity.
Part 3: Evolution of Singapore’s Politics
For the last part of this article, I would like to discuss the prospects of GE 2016.
First and foremost, the elections in Singapore occur in a cyclical manner. As shared, you can identify at least4 or 5 waves of cyclical fluctuations in Singapore. The reason why the fluctuations are cyclical is because of PAP’s direct intervention into the electoral model has prevented Singapore’s political evolution to be charted along socially-induced desires.
What I mean is that if there was no political intervention on PAP’s part to calculate massively so as to intervene at strategic points to maintain their power, the opposition would have had a very high possibility of forming the government in the late-1980s or early-1990s. However, this was delayed because of PAP’s strategic manoeuvres, which were so tightly implemented, that they managed to almost eradicate opposition voices and postponed PAP’s then-diminishing power, until today. Today, we are once again facing an almost similar situation where we were in the late-1980s and early-1990s.
If you look at the three points at which PAP had the lowest votes in 1972, 1991 and then now, in 2011, each of the point of low vote share was lower than the previous. In GE 2011, PAP garnered only 60.1%, as compared to 61.0% in GE 1991 and 70.4% in GE 1972. At the same time, it took PAP nearly twice as long to achieve the highest vote share – it took them 21 years to achieve a high of 75.3% in GE 2001, as compared to the 12 years it took for them to achieve the high of 77.7% in GE 1980, from the 86,7% they garnered in GE 1968. Of course, you can argue that the duration between the general elections in the later years were longer, and would thus account for the longer duration it took to achieve the second high, but even accounting for this, it should only take away 3 to 4 years.
In both the two later highest and lowest vote shares, the change of vote share were also significantly smaller, by 1 to 2 percentage points, instead of the change of 10 percentage points. One way to look at it is that PAP has reached saturation point. You could interpret that they have moved into a safety zone, where the vote shares should remain stable. However, two things prevent this from happening. First, the consistent drop in their vote share is a definite phenomena, albeit at a lower rate. They can continue to create strategies to artificially intervene, to shape the natural course of political and social order, but their interventions would not be able to as effective as before to stem the tide. Second, the other opposition parties are finally organizing themselves much better and are gaining significant traction, so they will play a significant role in balancing PAP’s power.
If you look at the pattern of vote change in the general elections, if PAP actively and effectively intervened in GE 2016 to stem the tide, they might be able to turn around and reach another high peak after two elections, before they reach their fourth low after four elections. But, this is if things are as usual. But things are not as usual. First, over the past decade, PAP has, as the statistics have shown, made more than they have given back to Singaporeans. Initially, Singaporeans might have ‘felt’ this happen. But second, with the advent of the Internet and the increasing accessibility of information, Singaporeans have been able to piece together what is really happening, by looking at the statistics. I would argue that the negatives clearly outweigh the positives, and this means that Singaporeans are unlikely to back down at this point. Around the world and in history, whenever there is a growing group of elite who absorbs a higher share of the wealth, where there is a growing group of the working class and lower middle income class, and where there is a burgeoning increase in income and social inequality, the tide has always change.
Does the PAP know this? They do. They know that they won’t be able to turn the tide, and even if they do manage to do so for the next two decades, the suppression of Singaporeans will be tumultuous. And this, I believe, is why when some Singaporeans have a ‘sense’ that PAP is trying to bide its time, and trying to earn as much as they can off Singaporeans, before they have to leave, they might not be too far off. The statistics are beginning to reveal an answer.
Of course, if PAP can effectively stump the tide for now, they might be able to hold on to power for four more elections, but very perilously. Also, by the fourth election after this, their vote share would be about 55% or even lower. Also, from this point onwards, because of PAP’s divergent strategy from 2001 onwards, there are now effectively two groups of Singaporeans who think that their their ideologies oppose one another. In PAP continue to stay in power, the rift between this two groups of Singaporeans will only further deepen and divide Singaporeans. By 2030, we will be a much uglier Singaporean and any change that eventually comes will be more violent and uncontrolled.
In the interests of Singaporeans and Singapore, it is not a choice for PAP but a must that they learn to reconcile with the other parties, and learn to form a government that will act in the interests of the two (or more) group of Singaporeans, and find a way to unite and draw together these groups of Singaporeans. Our ideologies at this point, needs to start drifting back together. We need to find new ground to come together.
I would discuss the following charts for a bit more, before we round off. In Chart 18, you can make out some trends.
Because PAP has always taken the majority of parliamentary seats, we don’t remember that there were times in Singapore’s history that there was also a large group of Singaporeans who were dissatisfied with PAP’s direction and policies. This had occurred in the late-1980s and mid-1990s, where more than 40% of voters had voted for the opposition. In fact, in 1984 and 1991, 46.1% and 48.6% of Singaporeans had voted for SDP respectively. Why do you think PAP had acted so vehemently against JBJ, and then CSJ. CSJ, by virtue of being SDP’s leader proved a threat because if they knew how to steer their strategy in the right direction, meant an upset for PAP was on the cards. Which was why PAP had to act swiftly.
In 2011, we see a repeat of what had happened in the late-1980s and early-1990s. This time, it was WP who won 46.6% of the votes. Now, the upswing of WP’s voted shouldn’t be seen as a surprise. WP, or Mr Low specifically, had played a very tight game of laying low and waiting. This was the same game that Mr Chiam See Tong had played, but Mr Chiam, if I may suggest, had been more focused on improving community relations and serving his constituency and had not focused as much on expanding the party, until GE 2011. Mr Low, however, did. Another unique advantage that Mr Low had created was that he managed to create a stabilizing influence for WP, which managed to consistently attract a pool of Singaporeans who were drawing away from PAP, but continue to want a stablising party to guide Singapore. The consistent and stable vote share that WP had managed to garner since the mid-1980s, and the rise in GE 2011, would illustrate this point.
However, credit needs to be also given to JBJ. I am not as well-read yet on the political scene in Singapore in the 1980s. But I would venture to say this – as said, during the 1980s, there was already a group of Singaporeans who had been ignited to vote away from PAP. And they represented more than 40% of the voter population. JBJ then had, with his influence, managed to capture the hearts and minds of this group of Singaporeans. You see, there have always been a group of Singaporeans who had, and will always want what are considered ‘renegade’ concepts by PAP, such as human rights and freedom of speech. This is the group of Singaporeans who are 20 years older than the generation now – your parents were the ones who were fuelled for change, and to fight for equal rights in the 1980s.
And now, the tide is rising again, as a group of Singaporeans are beginning to remember this and realise their inner desires for common respect and humanity for one another. And this is why there is an upswing in voted for WP, and not only that, but for SDP and NSP as well. The reason why the vote share had increased for NSP was because they had campaigned on the same ideals as WP, at least in terms of stability. And because the opposition had agreed not to go into a multi-party contest in GE 2011, the Singaporeans who would have otherwise voted for WP would have voted for NSP. And WP knows this, which is why it has become more emboldened and confident in holding their own. They know that if they can attract enough candidates to contest for even more seats in GE 2016, they would have an incredible opportunity to swing the tide around.
What then of SDP? As mentioned, WP and NSP both attract Singaporeans who regard stability as important. However, as also mentioned, there is a group of Singapore who want change at a faster pace and who want bolder moves than what WP and NSP has to offer. And SDP knows this. Not only that, there is a natural affinity between SDP’s values and this group of Singaporeans, and that’s why there’s a common energy here which SDP knows it won’t lose. There is definitely a core group of believers towards SDP’s values, which had grown at the fastest speech among all the parties which grew in GE 2011, and which will continue to grow in GE 2016. The reason why I did not think it was favourable for SDP to have run in Punggol East was because if they did, SDP would have easily attracted 10% to 15% of the votes, which would dilute both PAP and WP’s vote shares but then return Punggol East to PAP. Thus SDP would never have run – having contested for Punggol East would mean they wouldn’t have won, and that they would also be blamed for an opposition loss, ironically because of how strong they are.
Then the question at this point, really, is what would PAP do? Will they develop any election strategy to intervene at the next elections, which will further stabilize their power and erode the influence of the other parties (Chart 19)? PM Lee had seemingly used the same strategies that had been created for the past 20 years in GE 2011. He hadn’t seemed to have created any new interventions into the electoral model. But thing is, even if they did, would we have known? The creation of the town councils were seemingly meant to develop community bonding. Aim had been set up by PAP. Both were set up in the late-1980s and early-1990s, more than 20 years before their came to light, or before we knew what their original intentions were. And which is why PAP had to ‘review’ the relevance and role of the town councils, to make it relevant again, but for who? This is one space we would need to watch very carefully.
But as mentioned, it’s in PAP’s interest to ensure that they evolve their rule with the natural social order of Singapore, because any enforced interventionist resistance by PAP will only further upset the social order and divide the rifts that have deepened over the past decade in Singapore.
If PAP does not intervene in the elections, a very likely scenario will be as Chart 20 shows, where in the seats that WP contests in, they would win their seats, because of further upswings in their vote share. Also, because of the rate of the support that SDP garners among the group of Singaporeans who want bolder responses to the human condition, SDP has a very high possibility of winning the seats they contest as well – but this depends on how they mediate the effects of their ‘strategy’ at the Punggol East by-elections, which might have waylaid some of their voters, but this group of voters who have doubts are not the ones who form the core of SDP’s voter base. Also, NSP could possibly increase their vote share to above 45%, which means they could win some of the constituencies they contest.
Does this mean the opposition can form the government? Yes and no. If WP, SDP and NSP do not contest enough seats, such that PAP is still able to win a majority of the seats, PAP will still be brought back into power. The potential light at the end of the tunnel for this is that because PAP’s power is reduced, they would start to shift their ‘middle ground’ towards one which will be more representative of all Singaporeans.
If WP, SDP and NSP contests enough seats and win them, they might win enough to prevent PAP from forming a majority. The question in this case is – who will win the majority of the seats, and will they win more seats than PAP? If PAP still wins more seats, they have the first of right to discuss on forming a coalition government with another party, or parties, to form a majority. If they other parties don’t respond, the next party which wins the second majority should get a chance to form a coalition government. Both WP and NSP had contested the most number of seats, among the opposition parties, in GE 2011. But as said, based on WP’s trajectory, they are more likely to win all their seats as compared to NSP, so they have a higher chance of winning the second majority. However, if SDP contests more seats, SDP have a good chance as well. But if all the parties contest more seats, the chances of more multi-corner fights would be higher, and the pattern would then be quite interesting. By then, it’s still won’t be a sure win for PAP, but we will gain better insight at this by-elections.
In the event that WP gets to form the majority of the government, this is a very, very interesting question. Would they want to work with PAP to tap on PAP’s experience and ‘stabilizing’ influence? Or would they want to work with NSP to create another stabilizing influence, so as not to be aligned to the negative energy that is increasingly plaguing PAP? Or would they work with SDP to create a dynamism and boldness with the approach that SDP brings to the table? My preference would still be for WP, NSP and SDP to work together, because SDP would bring the right energy to the mix, and NSP would help strengthen this coalition, yet would be willing to work with the other two parties well.
I won’t be surprised if an opposition coalition wins in GE 2016, after which PAP gets brought back into power with a slim majority in the next GE. This is because of some other strategic manoeuvres that PAP had made, and because of the interactions among Singaporean’ desires to balance economic and social development. The new political landscape will be one that the shifts in political power changes between PAP to first, a collation government, then later on, to the party, or parties, which can gain significant traction. In all eventuality, the parties will then need to learn to work together, and the people will need to learn to keep their government, whichever party, or parties, it is, in check.
Part 4: Development of Punggol East By-Elections & Predictions
The Punggol East by-elections will be a very important gauge for all the parties as to how the tide might turn. PAP will read it to study if they would need to shift their focus and priorities. WP would be able to tell how it’s trajectory will continue, NSP will have a sense of their influence from WP’s vote share. SDP is a party which, if they attract an increased vote share, they will do it in a big way. And if they don’t, they simply don’t. So, for these few years, SDP will remain on Singaporeans’ radar, so all they need to do is to remain there. Also, SDP has already gotten the gauge, and traction, that they want – from their ‘enter and pull-out strategy’ before the nomination day for this by-elections. SDP will also watch how RP performs, because the people who would have voted for SDP would also have voted for RP, if not for WP.
If I were to make a prediction, I would say that there will definitely be swing votes that will swing away from PAP. The majority of them will swing towards WP but some will swing towards RP. For SDA, their vote share would continue to decrease from the last elections, and the swing from their votes would most probably go to WP. Again, a small proportion would swing to RP and a even smaller proportion to PAP. Most people who had voted for WP in GE 2011 will continue to vote for WP. Though a very, very small minority will swing their votes towards PAP and RP, but this will be a very small minority. In all, this means that PAP will reduce its vote share, WP will increase their vote share, SDA will reduce their vote share and RP will receive about the same votes as SDA will.
In GE 2011, PAP garnered 54.54% of the votes, WP garnered 41.01% and SDA, 4.45%. In a scenario where vote swing from PAP continues at the same pace that it did from GE 2011, WP should be able to win the Punggol-East by-elections:
- WP: 49%
- PAP: 47%
- SDA: 2%
- RP: 2%
However, one thing I am uncertain about is how RP’s vote share will swing. RP is a new party and its not possible to understand their trending yet. There’s a possibility that more Singaporeans will vote for RP than I anticipate. If its only an additional 1% to 2% so that RP wins 3% to 4% of the votes, then WP should still have a good chance of winning, if it wins slightly more than 47% and PAP wins slightly less than 47%. However, if the vote share that RP garner is more than 4%, then the chances of PAP will be much improved because PAP will continue to win around 47% of the votes while WP will take lesser than 47%, but even lower than PAP. It really depends on how much RP eats away. This is because RP’s vote share will be mainly taken from WP and not PAP.
Which means the other scenario, if RP wins more votes than anticipated, is that PAP will win:
- PAP: 47%
- WP: 46%
- RP: 5%
- SDA: 2%
If you are a resident of Punggol East, and you are intending to vote away from PAP, you should vote decisively for WP. There’s really no point voting for RP and SDA anyway because they will not win at all. You can create a dent, but at what expense? The additional votes that you hope to take away from, will be from WP. RP might still be a relevant party to be reckoned with, but their battle is not at Punggol East.
There is still one more way which the vote share might swing – if the residents of Punggol East vote even more strongly away from PAP than if the trend suggests. If that’s the case, it depends on how strongly they vote away from PAP. The votes will mainly enrich WP, and to a much smaller extend, RP. The reason for this is because there is now a growing pool of ‘swing’ voters who have become disenchanted by PAP’s recent actions for the incident of the SMRT bus drivers and the Aim-AHTC episode. It really depends at this point how the swing voters would decide, what they would read and the impulse that they feel which could sway them to the other side – so at this point, it depends on what PAP can put out to shape the news in mainstream media and how the residents themselves start digging out news from online sources to make their own balanced decisions.
If indeed more residents swing away from PAP, the vote share might look as below. But it’s really hard to tell because of the uncertain climate, which is why PAP will be watching the results carefully to see the extend to how the votes will swing.
- PAP: 42%
- WP: 50%
- RP: 6%
- SDA: 2%
Whichever the votes swing, we will still be able to have a much better idea of the change of things to come, and PAP will recalibrate their policies, rightfully, to adjust to the temperament of Singaporeans accordingly, or to temper with the electoral model to prevent the votes from breaching the 60% psychological barrier, which will indefinitely be readjusted downwards.
The interesting thing is that the government knows that they no longer understand a group of Singaporeans who think differently from them, a by-product of the PAP politicians’ upbringing and education, ironically the product of the meritocracy which we so beholden. They actually do need online voices to flourish so that they are able to learn more intricately about the needs of Singaporeans. As we learn to let our voices be heard on a clearer and strategic level, this will also help them inform their decision making and give them stronger insights about the needs of Singaporeans. At the same time, a government which is made of people who are used to believing that they are the greater minds will prevent the mainstream media from discussing online news and discussion, where possible, and for the politicians to then take the ideas discussed, and incorporate them into their own agendas, so as to further their own means. This is questionable, but for the betterment of the country, if we are able to improve the lot of the people of Singapore and encourage critical and collaborative thinking which reaches beyond the self, this is what is of paramount importance for now.