About 5 days ago, the Workers Party emerged as very clear winners in the Punggol East single member constituency The winning margin was massive with 54.5% of the voters picking WP’s Lee Li Lian over PAP’s Koh Poh Koon at 43.73%. The huge margin was not expected but the aftermath was rather predictable. Pro opposition (and/or anti PAP) supporters went on full force on social media platforms. Media sources usually deemed as pro government covered the shock result in a rather lukewarm manner.
Political conversations and discussions are rather divisive. After observing the reaction from both ends, what can one conclude about the longer term implications in Singapore’s rather mild political landscape?
1. Opposition parties, especially the WP, have gained prominence and trust
It was often difficult to find a credible opposition in the past. Parties on offer could not find the balance between winning public support and going overboard with dramatic publicity stunts. The result was an absence of a credible opposition. I grew up with the rather awkward stunts of some party leaders. I do not doubt their desire to serve Singaporeans but the manner they carried themselves were not appropriate for office. But all these changed in the past few years.
The Workers Party have avoided such missteps They understood what the PAP had that Singaporeans liked. A professional and matured party that had a calm and assuring front while maintaining a stable of adequately qualified leaders. The WP took those elements and mixed them with a call for a better balanced parliament that would create a more accountable leadership. That approach caught on well with voters and saw the very first GRC swing to opposition hands in the last General Election.
The romantic mix of a spirited underdog with professional qualities have allowed opposition parties to gain the trust of voters.
The romantic mix of a spirited underdog with professional qualities have allowed opposition parties to gain the trust of voters. The WP not only showed that there is now a credible alternative to the government, they also exposed the gap between their party and the rest of the opposition. Three or more cornered fights used to mean an easy win for the incumbents. It was very different this time for this reason.
2. By elections may be slanted to the opposition
I am not in favor of reading too much into by elections because by elections present a very different landscape as compared to nationwide General Elections. There are 3 reasons why it is difficult to read into the results of by elections.
First, there is no effect on parliament make up. Voters of the affected constituency know that whatever the choice they make have little direct impact on the trajectory of the nation. What a by election will show is some degree of momentum of the winning party. But the real impacts are low and are rather short term. This is assuming the common assumption that most voters (and human beings in general) are relatively short sighted (no more than 7 years). An argument that supports this is that voters in Punggol East know they can vote again in 4-5 years. Any risk is thus lowered and voters will be incentivized to be more adventurous with their choice.
Second, a by election is likely to be a knee jerk reaction to an earlier General Election. A by election allows the very unique opportunity for a constituency to react to a past election result that remains relatively fresh (1-2 years instead of the usual 5-6). For swing constituencies, this favours a change of hands in such situations. For well entrenched ones, the results usually remain constant (Hougang). We cannot reliably extrapolate that voters in Punggol East felt that their candidate was not doing good enough a job or they were unhappy with the margin of victory in the past election. But one thing for sure is that by elections allow voters a ‘second chance’ to modify a result. It is similar to giving a retest after an exam. It doesn’t mean candidates will do better but changes are highly likely. This in Punggol East’s situation did make it more difficult for the PAP.
By elections allow voters a ‘second chance’ to modify a result.
Thirdly, national issues are consolidated to a single constituency during by elections. It was clear after the General Elections of 2011 that many nationwide worries have been barely worked on. The foreigner issue did not see real abatement effects and housing prices together with cost of living remained constant. This is not very fair as we are barely 2 years post GE2011 but voters want to see as quick as an impact as they can from their vote. This allowed the opposition to match signals from the ground in calling for more action while pouncing on what is a rather long entrenched incumbent.
All these factors gave opposition parties a tremendous push. While the PAP had the advantage of a four cornered fight, one must not be blind to the advantages that the opposition had in the unique context of a by election. It is not very shocking then, that the government has lost both by elections post GE2011.
3. Candidate choice is crucial
This is the factor that I felt was most crucial to the elections. The WP has fielded teams that balanced qualifications while resonating well with the man on the street and this was the same in the latest by election. While PAP’s Koh was obviously more academically gifted of the two, he had difficulty in extending the same reach as WP’s Lee. Similarly in GE2011, WP’s Aljunied team executed the same strategy which rendered George Yeo’s team as more aloof and disconnected.
It was previously believed that Singaporeans voted for the ‘better’ party and not the ‘better’ candidate. What the general trend shows is that the importance of candidate choice has taken a step forward. With a generation of Singaporeans that are now better educated, academic qualifications are not as glowing a set of credentials as before. The ability to connect with the ground and resonate with the electorate is now key in current and future election battles.
The Big Picture
The massive win is nothing more than another small data point. We cannot over read into or quickly dismiss the result. The only thing we can infer is that there is continued momentum favouring the opposition. Whether this momentum carries on for the next 4-5 years depends on a whole myriad of controllable and uncontrollable factors.
Singaporeans do not just want to be led, they want to follow people they can identify with. More importantly, they want results.
While each party will do their best to swing voter momentum to their favour, but what is most important is for parties and candidates to show greater connection to the ground. Singaporeans do not just want to be led, they want to follow people they can identify with. More importantly, they want results. Parties in play will do well to be as efficient as they can, delivering real results that the electorate can feel and respond to.
The gradual change in voter preferences have been in effect for a long time. By elections are in no way clear or strong indicators but they have merely shown that this long running change is continuing in the same direction.
Which party or candidate that wins is not the most important outcome. What matters is that the country is well run and moves in a direction that the majority of voters desire.
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