In this article, I will write about my thoughts about the General Election 2015, as an observer, a person, and not as a politician.
Some of my observations are gathered from a read of other postings.
The election results are surprising. This is a conclusion that both sides, the PAP as well as the opposition, have acknowledged. Some people have pointed out that many PAP politicians have said that they were “humbled”. Indeed, the results of the election is a humbling experience, not just for the PAP but for the opposition as well.
What happened, is a common question that is being asked. Many of us among the opposition were saying how the results do not make sense.
It is clear that socioeconomically, many Singaporeans feel constrained by the high cost of living, and coupled with the depressed wages have caused many Singaporeans to feel stressed up and unhappy.
The general sentiment has been that the votes will swing away from the PAP to the opposition. In fact, I had believed that the votes would go down to a 50-50 split between the PAP and the opposition. This did not happen.
Several factors play a part, key among them how the PAP’s conservative rhetoric played out to great effect and also, how the opposition had framed the issues.
Of course, the typically-assumed factors which caused the swing would be on how the sympathy votes from Lee Kuan Yew’s death has aided the PAP, the SG50 feel-good celebrations as well as targeted policy tweaks such as the Pioneer Generation Package and slight enhancements to the CPF system for the elderly, and the unique upgrading elements such as building a swimming pool would have assisted the PAP. The promise of the construction of polyclinics also allowed certain segments of Singaporeans to perceive greater accessibility to healthcare and therefore gave the PAP more votes as well.
The question though for the opposition is, why in spite of policies that were well-intended to benefit Singaporeans, did not receive the support of Singaporeans?
Almost all the opposition parties have proposed minimum wage to increase the wages of low- and middle-income Singaporeans, and to increase health and education subsidies and also strong job protection as well as unemployment benefits to protect Singaporeans who have lost their jobs. But why did voters not bite?
This is where the PAP’s usual rhetoric played a crucial role. Where the opposition had tried to illustrate how these benefits could be conferred onto Singaporeans without the need to increase revenue or taxes from Singaporeans, this did not sink in with Singaporeans.
Instead, many were swayed by the PAP’s belief that there would be a need to increase taxes.
Many reasons explain why such a belief was pervasive. First, the PAP’s propaganda of higher spending equating to higher tax has taken root among many Singaporeans. Second, the complicated tax system makes it difficult for Singaporeans to understand, even as much as some economists perceive the CPF as a tax and Singaporeans pay as much as 8 times more indirect tax and CPF than personal income tax. The point here? Singaporeans already pay more than enough tax, and the money that we pay into the CPF and the taxes combined would be more than enough to finance any much-needed increase in expenditure to protect Singaporeans.
Third, and most crucial, the socioeconomic lives of Singaporeans, as much as this was what the opposition wanted to campaign to protect, is also key to the voters’ decision-making.
For a populace where the poverty rate has been estimated to have increased to as high as 30%, and where the lives of Singaporeans are squeezed, many are too frightful to choose an alternative scenario. Many are unwilling to accept increased expenditure, for fear of making their lives even harder.
Ironically, the very policies that the opposition wants to implement to protect Singaporeans are the very ones the voters rejected, due to a combination of a lack of understanding of what these policies entail and how these policies were not articulated in a manner which aligned with the vast majority of the voters.
Most importantly, voters did not understand how the policies would benefit them but were more clearly fearful of how costs would increase for them and affect them even more adversely.
The PAP’s monopoly on government and the opposition’s inability to be in government also caused Singaporeans to doubt that the opposition has thought through their policies clearly. This is in spite of how among the opposition are former civil servants and academics as well as economists who would have among them the expertise to do so.
What perhaps then is key is how the opposition has portrayed themselves and who they were trying to reach out to.
For many opposition parties, they might have appeared too intellectual. This could be where the PAP’s Manifesto wins with its motherhood statements. Voters do not need to know what policies you have in store for them. They only need to know how you can make them believe you care for them, regardless.
And this is a mistake that many among the opposition could have made. We tried our darnest to explain the policies, not realising that this only reached out to 20% of the population who firmly voted for the opposition yesterday.
But for the large majority, the policies were lost on them. Instead, they feared having to pay more.
Indeed, fear became a key theme on how Singaporeans voted. Just the day before the election, the PAP sprung the surprise of talking about terrorism and instability in Malaysia in their political broadcast, which would have a key effect in grounding many voters towards voting for the PAP.
The improved strength of the opposition, for the first time in Singapore after many decades also caused an irrational fear among voters of the possibility of losing this instability. As much as strength can be counted on as a measure of aptitude, such strength became a crippling factor for a population used to being fearmongered at.
It is not by chance that The Worker’s Party has therefore played so safe over the last few elections, because it had read the psyche of voters very carefully. With a well-defined strategy of positioning a liberal-leftist Manifesto to a smaller widely-read population and playing a more stable politics on the larger landscape, this was how The Worker’s Party has managed to sustain its influence in a carefully well-balanced strategy.
It could perhaps be seen by the voters that the eagerness that the other opposition parties had presented were too strong for their comfort, and therefore the voters back off. If you ask me, it’s a pity. Our fear caused us to let go of what would have been potentially beneficial for us.
This is where you have to congratulate the PAP on a well-oiled fear-based strategy and one that has caused Singaporeans to be so fearful of making ends meet that they would rather choose more of the same, than be willing to take risks.
Finally, certain figures among the opposition such as myself could have taken some Singaporeans by surprise and might have even caused discomfort. Figures like myself might come across controversial and place voters in a condurum. Eventually, I managed to convince some voters of my sincerity after my political broadcast was shown on cooling-off day, which resulted in me being the 5th most searched personality. But this came too little, too late, many voters whom by then had made up their minds who to vote for.
The presence of several controversial personalities could thus have added to the uncertainty among voters who were taken aback by the sudden strength of the opposition, and therefore caused some to repel away.
What could have been done better?
If anything, The Worker’s Party was the only party which read the ground right and managed to retain most of their existing seats. Emulating themselves as a stable party won them the middle ground supporters.
As much as a select pool of Singaporeans, the majority online, are ready for a more intellectual discourse on sociopolitics, the vast majority are not, or do not have the time to be engaged on these issues. As such, the opposition was lost on them.
The presence of many supporters at the rally nonetheless show the entrenchment of such supporters towards the opposition, but they did not unfortunately reflect the broader segment of Singaporeans.
If this is any indication, it means that the opposition parties would need to fundamentally relook their campaigning objectives and who they should try to reach out to.
How do they continue to rile up the shrinking liberal intellectual class, while broadening their scope to take into account the majority which wants to be assured of stability? How do they try to skillfully master this balance to be able to convince voters?
This requires much party discipline and focus, which The Worker’s Party has displayed, and which the Singapore Democratic Party had tried to emulate and have effectively done so to some extent, which got them to become the second-best performing opposition party, after The Worker’s Party but this was still not enough.
This is not to say that the PAP did an excellent job at marketing itself. If anything, the swing in votes towards the PAP did not result so much because of how the PAP has framed its campaigning, but more in terms of how fear has turned Singaporeans away from the opposition instead.
The key success in how PAP’s campaign worked therefore is how it was able to imbue fear into Singaporeans. But is this a sustainable long-term approach? I do not think so.
But what are the larger sociopolitical effects that could happen. With the PAP gaining a firmer foothold, would this result in them continuing with the further clamp down of their critics and alternative online news site? Will Singaporeans see a further marginalisation of their rights?
For a PAP which would be put paid to believe that Singaporeans would tolerate their current antics might mean that the PAP would believe that they could continue with their current mode of working.
I would personally hope that the PAP would use this renewed mandate to fundamentally shift its governing approach to one which becomes kinder and less punitive. But I do not know if a PAP used to a track record of doing otherwise for the past 50 years would be ready for this, especially with how it had conducted itself this election.
The only hope could lie in a change of prime minister, to put in place one who is more moderate and who would take a more centrist approach.
In the end, this election would have shown that Singaporeans are not ready for a more progressive sociopolitical landscape, and some politicians might need to evaluate if their current method of working is still relevant to Singaporeans and if they would change gears or withdraw from the scene.
My worry is that if there are no fundamental changes in policies over the next few years, we will see a much more divisive landscape develop as well as a more disempowered and weakened citizenry.
I ran for election because I hope that we could go into parliament to better the lives of Singaporeans.
At the end of the day, it does not matter who goes into parliament. But what matters is that the people in parliament would put their ear to the ground and would make policies that put Singaporeans at the heart of the matter.
This election is, in a way, a wake-up call to the opposition to better strategise themselves and ironically, where we have said that the PAP has lost touch with the ground, some among the opposition have also fallen folly to this mistake, and have not aligned ourselves to the wider majority.
Whether or not the opposition has another chance at the next election would depend on whether they have learnt from the ground-shaking election this time round.
But for Singaporeans as well, it would depend on whether we would have the courage to confront ourselves and not be swayed yet again by fear. I believe many Singaporeans would be kicking ourselves over the results but it is too late to cry over spilled milk.
What would be more important would be to look at how we can involve ourselves, so that at the next election, we would be able to bring about a government that would be more in line with our vision for our country.