By Howard LeeThe results for the Punggol East By-Election might or might not have been a surprise for the nation. But if you ask me, the results are significant enough to suggest that we need to ask two very important questions.
The first question is, I think, more important: As a microcosmic representation of the Singapore electorate, what can BE2013 tell us about the current sentiment that the Singapore electorate has towards politics? And the second, mainly a consequent of voter sentiment: What does this signal for Singapore’s political parties as we head towards GE2016?
Personal, local, national – what matters to voters?
Let’s get the most obvious criticism out of the way first – BE2013 will most likely be remembered as the single most humiliating political battle for the ruling People’s Action Party since its formation.
It had everything going for it. Despite the fact that the BE was triggered by a sex scandal of one within its ranks, the PAP hardly got any flak from the media to make it a significant problem, and neither did any of the opposition parties use it against the PAP. The government called for a snap poll, knowing that it would be a multi-cornered fight, with a nasty economy in the headwinds – these are three factors that traditionally gave PAP the advantage. Its candidate had a head start working the ground, and the positive image of Dr Koh Poh Koon would surely have won many a heart.
And when it comes to resolving municipal issues, no one in their right minds would have doubted that the PAP is the only party with the efficiency and resources-at-beck-and-call to make a non-issue out of something as big as patching up a shopping mall in a few months.
The only deduction: National issues meant a lot more to voters than the PAP has hoped it would, or dared to admit. Did the PAP apply itself to this challenge? A slew of goodies were announced during the hustings, ranging from parenthood schemes to public transport upgrades. Even the Prime Minister threw his weight behind Koh, not only by suggesting that Koh has ministerial capability, but also making a personal appeal that the PAP has citizens’ interest at heart. Nevertheless, votes still slipped from its grasp, by a crushing 10.8 percentage-points.
The hard slap to the driver, it seems, was delivered not by the WP, but by the residents of Punggol East. The PAP has no personality or municipal reasons to lose the ward. The signal is clear – BE2013 was indeed a national referendum on the PAP’s performance since GE2011, and how dismal a performance it has been. The conclusion can only be that even fewer today believed that the PAP has made meaningful changes in policy directions that really benefitted citizens. The people wanted more checks and balances in Parliament, rather than for their MPs to just focus on municipal issues.
More ready for the blue wave?
However, loss of confidence in the PAP only accounts for what why voters did not vote the PAP. With two other opposition parties to vote for, why did they put so much faith in WP?
The easy way would be to see WP’s win as an increase in voter confidence for the underdog. In GE2011, nobody would have placed a sure bet on WP taking a Group Representative Constituency, but with that safely under the belt, perhaps those in Punggol East who were previously hesitant to vote WP in 2011 are now having a second thought.
But to the extent that the combined votes of the Singapore Democratic Alliance and the Reform Party did not even total up to half of SDA’s count in GE2011?
Perhaps the answer lies closer with party ideology and performance. To some extent, it can be argued that the WP’s ideology presented a safe middle ground that promises not to undo the stability that is synonymous with decades of PAP rule. Perhaps voters have bought into the idea of a First World Parliament where the opposition is less strident than it is politely critical.
Indeed, since GE2011, the WP have opted not to engage the PAP directly in policy change, and despite what the WP tells us, it has nothing to do with the lack of opposition MPs in Parliament.
At the heart of it, voters know that the WP need not, maybe even should not, propose policy changes to PAP. This is due to politicking, where parties attempt to ‘score points’ by tearing down each other’s ideas rather than co-operate to build something that would benefit the people. And much as the PAP would like us to think otherwise, this “destructive politics” resides with the PAP, not the WP.
So far, the PAP has not been shy in attacking suggestions made by opposition MPs. Having the experiences of years in Parliament, WP would have made this delicate decision: Push too hard for change, and no matter how good an idea, the PAP will never implement it for fear of being seen as acknowledging the need for the opposition; but probe with questions, and the PAP has the leeway to reply robustly, and then make changes without seeming to give in too much.
In the end, more, not less, gets done for citizens. And I’m willing to bet that, no matter what the detractors of WP say about their seemingly soft-touch approach in Parliament, voters understand that this is the best way forward for now. They would also be able to see that the WP is currently the only opposition party with hands cautious enough to pull it off. The question is really how long this approach would remain palatable to voters, as we face every increasing pressure from policies that are in urgent need of attention.
Homework for GE2016
For the PAP, the shameful loss in Punggol East is only an amplified reflection of the bruising shake-up it received in GE2011, where the opposition parties combined received more than a third of total votes. If the PAP ever hopes to claw its way back into any semblance of its former glory days, where its mandate with the people is secured by a substantive total vote count as much as the number of seats in Parliament, then it needs to go back to the governance drawing board, and soon. The first step, however, is to stop denying that all is now fine and dandy, and to stop dreaming that any election can ever be separate from national issues.
For the WP, slow and steady might win the race, but only if no one suddenly shortens the racing track. Singapore’s governance situation is dire, which can only be changed with appropriate policy overhauls, not minor tweaks, which is currently all that WP can claim to be goading the PAP towards. When push comes to shove, the electorate might decide that more affirmative action is needed. If the WP does not prove soon that it can take a more affirmative stance against the PAP, we might just be desperate enough to vote in other parties that can.
For all the opposition parties, some internal review might be in order to elevate their election strategy to a higher plane. The last thing I am concerned about here is multi-cornered fights. Clearly, the fear of opposition vote dilution has been proven unfounded with BE2013. There is also every reason to believe that horse-trading will still be the norm in the next general elections. In the worst case, an election deposit is a party’s, not the people’s, to lose.
Rather, effort needs to be made to ascertain if residents in a particular ward really want them to contest, way before the actual contest is called. The benefit is to voters, who will get a better understanding of where each party stand, rather than get rushed into nine days of posturing, where our choice is made by what one party is accused of doing badly, rather than what the accusing party can do well. In the end, it will also be a mark of respect to voters, clearly indicating that they are not in it for the contest, but for the interest of voters.