Kenneth Lim /
After 9 days of intense campaigning, 1,910,176 valid votes were cast on May 7th 2011 for Singapore’s 11th General Election (GE). Having been billed beforehand as a ‘watershed election’ by both the online and mainstream media, the results come as no surprise: the Worker’s Party (WP) managed to capture Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) as well as retain their Hougang Single Member Constituency (SMC) seat to create the biggest opposition presence in parliament since independence, while the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) saw their national vote share drop to 60.14%, the lowest in all post-independence elections.
As the stadiums empty out, emotions settle down and people resume their daily lives, it may be wise to sit back and reflect on the significance of this election and what it means now for the future of Singapore as well as the various parties that contested this GE. I would be focusing this analysis more on the viewpoint of the opposition parties and how they can use the result as a stepping stone towards the next election.
First off, the WP’s win in Aljunied GRC represents both a vindication of the 破釜沉舟 (break the cooking pots and sink the boats) strategy that Low Thia Khiang utilized to great effect as well as a general reflection of the mood on the ground. In putting their strongest candidates into one team, the WP gave voters in Aljunied a very tough dilemma between voting in five strong opposition candidates versus a well-liked and effective foreign minister in George Yeo.
It is interesting to note that while the Malay vote is widely considered to have been the deciding factor for WP’s loss back in 2006, out of the two Malay candidates in Aljunied, PAP’s Zainul Abidin Rasheed could be said to be the stronger of the two this election. In looking at the vote swing in other constituencies, WP’s 10% vote swing in its favor could be a result of a general unhappiness with PAP’s policies as opposed to a triumph of local ideology. Realizing this, the WP must work doubly hard between now and the next GE in order to exploit this win as a stepping stone towards further greatness in the political arena.
The PAP’s most common tactic against opposition parties has been to use local estate upgrading and beautification programs to gently nudge people to its side; while Potong Pasir and Hougang can be said to have been managed reasonably well, the management of a GRC would be a whole different ball game with a much larger populace to look after. WP, depending on how the PAP responds, only has this small window of opportunity between now and the next GE to convince potential voters in other GRCs and SMCs that the WP can represent them effectively at both the parliamentary level as well as at the local level. Minster Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said during this GE that Aljunied GRC voters have 5 years ‘to repent’, and the WP now has to prove itself and counter the PAP at the grassroots level if it wants to capitalize on this historic election victory.
Another point of note is the relative strength of the WP as opposed to other opposition parties that contested this elections. In all 23 seats that were contested by the WP, at least 41% of valid votes were garnered. This compares favorably with other opposition parties where only two teams from the NSP managed to break the 41% mark.
The most significant losing result was in Punggol East SMC, where Lee Li Lian of the WP effectively shut out the presence of the SDA’s Desmond Lim and rendered him a share of the votes more akin to that of an independent candidate, turning the battle into a straight fight rather than a three-cornered fight. This probably comes as no surprise to followers of this GE: the WP rallies were much better attended (garnering crowds of over 30,000 in some cases) than the rallies of any other political party. This probably represents the sentiment that voters are voting more for the party’s manifesto and promises rather than the personality of the contestant. One line of thought from there would be that Singaporeans as an electorate are maturing and voting less along racial lines (eg. Michael Palmer’s win in Punggol East SMC) but I would not be exploring this trend of thought further in this analysis.
Instead, I would like to focus more on the possibility that the electorate is getting less concerned about voting to achieve certain municipal goals but rather casting their votes with respect to how they believe the various parties will represent them at the national level. If so, this is indeed a comforting thought that Singaporeans are able to look beyond their own well-being and care more about how Singapore grows and develops as a nation. While personality still plays a key part in any election as evidenced by the large vote swing in Marine Parade GRC (17% from the last contest in 1992) ostensibly due to the presence of Tin Pei Ling as well as Nicole Seah, this election sees Singaporeans move further away as a whole from personality-based politics, a positive development for opposition parties, in particular the WP.
What do these developments mean for opposition parties as a whole? For a start, it means that the opposition parties should perhaps consider that a consolidation of their best candidates into one party may represent the best chance for more opposition candidates to be voted in when the next GE happens.
In this election, most opposition parties could lay claim that they had stellar new candidates in their midst: WP had Chen Show Mao, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) had Tan Jee Say and Ang Yong Guan, while the National Solidarity Party (NSP) had Hazel Poa and Tony Tan.
Despite this spreading of the opposition talent pool, the WP was the only one which managed to make inroads in this election; the Singapore People’s Party even lost Potong Pasir by a razor-thin margin of 114 votes. While this may not be practically possible, the opposition would have the best chance of breaking the PAP’s dominance if it concentrated all its best candidates into one party that has a solid manifesto and campaign experience behind it. In addition, the successful handing over of Hougang SMC by Low Thia Khiang to his long-time lieutenant Yaw Shin Leong shows that long-time grassroots work on the ground does pay off.
In light of this, the WP should seriously consider involving their losing candidates heavily in grassroots work in Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC besides frequently canvassing the ground of their target constituencies. This would allow their candidates to build considerable experience in running a town council while at the same time ensuring that they have the best talent pool to tap into to make Aljunied GRC a shining example for all of Singapore to see.
The opposition parties in Singapore, in particular the WP, have made great inroads in this 2011 GE. While the swing in popular votes did not translate into many more seats for the opposition, the opposition parties should feel encouraged by the showing of support that they received and continue to work hard to convince Singaporeans that they can be adequately represented both at the national as well as at the local level. What we saw happen on Saturday night may only be a flash in the pan if the opposition parties rest on their laurels and not continue to build on what they have achieved.