Singapore is presently in the midst of the chaos (some might say party) that is the General Elections. Last held 4 years ago, it is viewed by all and sundry as a check on the pulse of Singaporeans: Do they still support the ruling party to be their Government?
A Brief History of Singapore:
This year is Singapore’s 50th year of Independence. Since 9 August 1965, the People’s Action Party, or the PAP for short, has grown our little island from a fledgling nation with no natural resources and an uncertain future, to a sprawling metropolis, a light in the ASEAN region, and one with what seems to be a bright future.
Or is it?
There can be no doubt that the One Party in Parliament system has worked for the past half century. In the early years filled with turmoil and uncertainties, it was critical for Parliament to be mostly united in passing through laws that would get important aspects of our young nation up and running as fast as possible. Our early policies in defence raised a citizen armed force capable of forming a sufficient deterrent to would-be aggressors, while our educational policies transformed our economy from one based on agriculture and industry to a knowledge-based economy, able to handle Singapore’s emerging role as a financial hub.
Throughout all this, the PAP has enjoyed a large majority in Parliament, allowing it greater leeway to execute these policies: policies which would take years and even decades to bear fruit. But bear fruit it has: Singapore’s population is now wealthier, more highly educated, and enjoys a higher standard of living than before. However, with an educated populace and the effects of globalisation, the expectations of Singapore’s political leaders have shifted.
An Analysis of the original Electorate:
One question must be asked: Why was the PAP able to enjoy the large majority in Parliament for the past 50 years?
There are a few reasons, which I will attempt to outline below.
The first reason has already been mentioned: The need for an undivided Parliament. The Singaporeans of 1965 had been through a lot. They had survived the Japanese Occupation during World War II, fought and achieved self-governance in 1959, become part of Malaysia in 1963, and endured the racial riots and the MacDonald House bombing by Indonesian Konfrontasi saboteurs in 1964. These tumultuous events would have served to drive home the point that if Singapore was going to get anywhere at all, we would have to go it alone, and we would need a government with a strong mandate from the people to do what needed to be done.
The second reason is a result of the first: As the situation stabilized after independence, the pioneer generation of Singaporeans began to enjoy the fruits of their labour. More relevant to the issue at hand, they began to see how the PAP wrought these changes through careful planning and execution. These were not simple Five Year Plans often seen in other countries, where the ruling party is only able to plan that far because that’s how much time they have until the next election – these were plans that would take Singapore through several decades, continually fine-tuned and adjusted to account for all material threats and risks.
All in all, the generation which saw the entirety of Singapore’s first 50 years of independence would say that the PAP has done a very good job indeed. Why fix what isn’t broken, right?
GE2011: A groundbreaking election.
Enter the General Elections of 2011 (GE2011). Previously, the only constituencies held by Opposition candidates were Punggol and Potong Pasir, held by Low Thia Khiang of the Worker’s Party (WP) and Chiam See Tong of the Singapore People’s Party (SPP). Both were veteran opposition Members of Parliament (MPs), with many years of experience under their belts.
On Nomination Day, 27 April 2011, it emerged that the Opposition parties had planned a major surprise attack: All Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) and Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) were to be contested. Every PAP MP would have a fight on their hands. Except, as it turns out, the members of Tanjong Pagar GRC, as the Opposition candidates failed to submit the proper documentation for nomination in time.
However, this was not the only memorable thing about GE2011: In the early hours of 8 May 2011, after the feverish counting of votes by the elections officials, it emerged that although the PAP had once again formed the Government, it had suffered a great setback: Aljunied GRC had fallen to the WP, taking two ministers with it: George Yeo, the Foreign Minister, and Lim Hwee Hwa, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. In one blow, the WP swept 6 seats in Parliament, as well as 2 Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) seats due to narrow losses in other constituencies. For the second General Election in a row, the PAP’s margin of the votes had fallen, from a healthy 75.3% in 2001, to a decent 66.6% in 2006, and a paltry 60.14% in 2011.
The question is, what caused this dramatic shift in voter sentiment?
An Analysis of the New Electorate:
There are a few reasons why the WP was able to take Aljunied GRC in GE2011. Firstly, the WP unveiled several candidates whose background and academic qualifications rivalled those of the PAP. Out of the 5 candidates who contested in Aljunied GRC, 3 were lawyers. This was a marked departure from previous elections where Opposition candidates came from all walks of life, and served as an indicator of their competence and credibility.
More important than the background and academic qualifications was the rebranding of the WP. In fiery rally speeches, the WP declared themselves as fighting for a “First World Parliament”, by which they meant a government formed with a significant Opposition presence in order to keep the ruling party in check. By doing so, they allayed the fears of swing voters who were afraid of the PAP not being able to form a strong Government with a sizable majority. This was in stark contrast to the rally speeches made by Opposition candidates from other parties, who concentrated on how the PAP had failed to do a good job as the Government, and tried to get voters to support them in what they termed as ‘overthrowing the oppressors’. By taking the moderate path, the WP was able to snag a large portion of the votes – enough to swing the momentum in their favour in Aljunied GRC.
It is at this point where I finally come to the crux of the matter, and the title of this article: What are the expectations of the Opposition? For clearly, the expectations have changed. The game has changed, so to speak.
The Three Categories of Voters:
Where the original electorate was happy to give the PAP an overwhelming majority in Parliament, today’s electorate falls into three distinct camps.
The first camp contains the die-hard PAP supporters. The pioneer generation of Singapore mostly falls into this camp, as they have strong memories of how the PAP was able to bring Singapore to where it is today. To the people in this camp, only the PAP can bring about continued growth and prosperity for Singapore. Their view of Opposition politicians is that they ‘oppose for the sake of opposing’, abusing the platform of politics to air their personal grievances against the ruling party. As a result, they would never vote for the Opposition, for to give such people political power would surely bring about the country’s ruin.
The second camp contains the exact opposite: the die-hard Opposition supporters. To these voters, the PAP has sacrificed the well-being of its people in its bid to emerge as an economic power. They criticize the elitism they allege is prevalent among PAP candidates, and are quick to cite stories of people who have suffered and been oppressed by the heavy-handedness of the ruling party. The more extreme aspects of the Opposition, through their use of powerful and highly-charged emotional rhetoric during energetic rally speeches, have served to win them over as they believe these Opposition candidates share their outrage at the PAP’s supposed abuse of power as the Government.
The last camp, and the largest of the three, are the moderates. It is this group which forms the ‘silent majority’, the term coined by journalists to portray the unwillingness of this group to speak out. The ‘silent majority’ is commonly assumed to support the PAP, in contrast to the vocal Opposition supporters who flood social media with their angry diatribe.
But it is the opinion of this writer that it is not so. The moderates do not support any particular party wholeheartedly – they support whoever they think can carry Singapore forward, regardless of whether they be the ruling party or the Opposition.
The key to that last statement lies in the fact that this group understands the reasoning of the two other groups. Yes, the PAP can come across as elitist and disconnected from the ground. But does that mean that they should not be the ones in power? The moderates understand that their decision is based not on one single factor alone, not just because the PAP has brought Singapore to where it is today, and not just because they read an article saying that the PAP had unfairly and unjustly detained people in 1987 under the Internal Security Act.
So what are the expectations of this particular group of voters? Since this group forms the majority, their expectations are of great import, both to the PAP and to the Opposition. And by delving into their reasoning, we may find an explanation for the shift in voter sentiment over the past few general elections.
This is my take on the moderates’ reasoning:
First, it is an accepted fact that Singapore has come far under the guiding hand of the PAP.
Second, although past performance cannot be a surefire indicator of future performance, it is also a fact that PAP candidates have experience running the Singaporean Government, and this experience makes them the better choice to continue running the government for the foreseeable future.
Third, this does not automatically mean that the moderate will vote for the PAP in the General Elections.
Why do I say this? You may recall what I have mentioned previously about who earns the moderates’ support:
The moderates support whoever they think can carry Singapore forward.
Logically, it should follow from the first two points I made from the moderates’ reasoning that they should vote for the PAP. That is, it should be, if not for the rebranding of the WP. Recall what I said earlier about them:
The Worker’s Party’s aim is to provide an alternative voice in Parliament, as a check and balance for the PAP.
This is the reason why Aljunied GRC fell to the WP in GE2011 – because the moderates in Aljunied GRC were assured that the WP would not be able to overthrow the PAP as the ruling party. That meant that they would receive the best of both worlds: Firstly, they would get the PAP as the Government, the best people for the job. Secondly, they would get a significantly boosted alternative voice in Parliament, to raise issues which the PAP may have overlooked or underestimated the importance of, and to provide a greater diversity of views in Parliament.
It is the view of some that Opposition candidates will probably do a worse job than the PAP candidates in running the Singaporean government because of their lack of experience. It is the view of others that the policies brought forward by the Opposition candidates thus far are sorely lacking in comprehensiveness and merit compared to those being implemented by the PAP.
They would be right. But does that mean that there should be no Opposition MPs in Parliament then?
Let me use arbitrary figures to illustrate my point. The PAP has done a good job running the Singapore Government. Let’s give them a 90% efficiency and effectiveness score.
However, we also must admit that the PAP is not omnipotent and omnipresent – they cannot think of perfect policies, and they cannot be everywhere at once to fix everything. Furthermore, having a party whip to ensure that all party members vote according to the official party policy means that a One Party Parliament is subject to the problems arising from groupthink. In such instances, would it not be beneficial to have an alternative voice unfettered by this need to abide by the views of the ruling party?
The presence of a significant Opposition in Parliament will not, of course make our government perfect. There is no way to achieve a score of 100%. But if the views shared and the policies put forward by the Opposition MPs are able to provide the PAP with a more holistic understanding of the issues debated in Parliament, I daresay that the final product that emerges – the bills passed by Parliament will be more encompassing and better for Singapore as a whole. That should improve the score to about 95%, do you think?
So with respect to the current election, which party will the moderates be voting for? Will the WP succeed in arguing for an even larger presence in Parliament, or will moderates turn back to the PAP as they fear the Opposition is gaining too strong a foothold?
Only time will tell. All will be revealed on Polling Day – we do not have long to wait.
Disclaimer: The Thought Experiment is not affiliated with any political party. The articles put forth here are not intended to support any political party, and have no agenda beyond wanting to get people thinking deeper about the issues at hand.