During the campaigning period, both sides sought to portray an extreme scenario of what would happen if voters did not vote for them. The Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) warned that Singaporeans that their political opponents “might eventually replace the government after July 10”. Meanwhile, the Worker’s Party (WP) stated that “there was a real risk of a wipeout of elected opposition MPs at the July 10 polls”.
Today is July 11th. As we all know, neither of these scenarios came to pass. The PAP comfortably retained its super-majority in Parliament, winning 83 out of 93 elected MP seats. But just as in GE2011, another Group Representation Constituency (GRC) has fallen to the WP. In addition, the PAP saw its vote share drop drastically, down almost 9% to 61.2% from 69.9% in GE2015.
Singapore’s electorate is unique in that a significant proportion is comprised of swing voters: Voters who don’t hold any blind allegiance to any political party, but vote based on a variety of factors both micro and macro. The above extreme scenarios were clearly targeted at these swing voters. Well, the swing voters have made their choice, their roar sending 4 more elected opposition MPs into Parliament. This article aims to unpack that roar and what it means for the state of Singaporean politics going forward.
1. The PAP is still the preferred party to form Singapore’s Government
Yes, this may come across as blindingly obvious, but it still needs to be said. The swing voter is by its very definition, liable to changes of opinion. And a large factor that determines how a swing voter votes is their perception of how their fellow swing voters are voting. If swing voters perceive that most swing voters are leaning towards voting for the opposition, they might feel compelled to vote for the incumbent. And if the reverse is true, swing voters might feel the need to shore up opposition support.
Why is this so? This is because the swing voter is trying to push the vote result into a sweet spot – one that lies between the two extreme scenarios espoused by either side. They don’t want the PAP to sweep all 93 seats in a ‘white tsunami’. Neither do they want the opposition to claim so much territory that the PAP is too weak to form the Government on its own. But because each swing voter only has a binary choice: either they vote for one side or the other (I’m ignoring the third option where they simply spoil their vote), they can’t very well say “I want to vote 0.6 for the PAP and 0.4 for the Opposition with my vote”. And so we can expect the swing voter bloc to continue being a source of uncertainty for both sides in future elections, as long as swing voters are still convinced that the PAP should be the Government.
2. Voters no longer believe that the PAP needs a ‘strong mandate’ to govern. They also don’t buy into the NCMP scheme.
Throughout the campaign period, the PAP repeatedly exhorted voters to vote for them alone. Granted, they couldn’t very well give any ground to the opposition without a fight. And therefore there was an attempt to equate voting for the PAP as voting for Singapore’s best interests. However, the main message that voters got was this: PAP will only be able to steer Singapore out of the Covid-19 pandemic if it has a strong mandate from the people.
What is a strong mandate, you may ask? While no PAP candidate publicly confirmed it, their incessant harping on the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme as the PAP’s win-win solution for having the PAP in power and a largely de-fanged opposition presence in parliament shows that the PAP truly wanted a parliament where it held every single seat.
Clearly, the electorate has different ideas, handing Sengkang GRC to the WP and slashing the PAP’s margins in previous strongholds such as West Coast, Choa Chu Kang and Tanjong Pagar by double digit percentages. There is no doubt from the results that swing voters are convinced that a PAP supermajority is not good for Singapore. They are no longer convinced that to vote for the opposition is a vote against Singapore. They have realized, as members of a maturing democracy surely must, that one can vote for the opposition, yet still be pro-Singapore.
3. Social Media and the Internet are rewriting the electorate’s perception.
In the past, there was no way to have an easily accessible record of historical events. With the only information source available being biased mainstream media, Singaporeans could only rely on that to fill in the gaps in their memories. Therefore, Operation Coldstore became a myth of the past, and Chee Soon Juan became a crackpot in the eyes of the people, someone who should never be allowed into Parliament.
Fast forward to today. Chee won 45.2% of the votes in Bukit Batok’s Single Member Constituency (SMC). His party-mate, Dr. Paul Tambyah did even better, winning 46.26% of the votes in Bukit Panjang SMC. For someone previously seen as unfit for public office, this is an extremely good result.
Chee has been running for elections in Singapore for a long time, and only now is there a significant change in the way he is perceived (and supported) by the electorate. Why? Because of social media and the internet, two things which the PAP does not have absolute control over. With the ability to conduct interviews with social media personalities as well as upload party videos on Youtube, he has been able to display a side of himself to people that the PAP did not want them to see: someone who is merely human just like them, but who is standing up for what he believes in.
4. Reserved Election Shenanigans and Tan Cheng Block: The electorate has not forgotten.
Tan Cheng Bock almost became our President in 2011. There are many who say that if Tan Kin Lian and Tan Jee Say had not run, Tony Tan would not have been elected. In March 2016, Tan Cheng Bock publicly declared his interest to run for the next Presidential Election that would be held in 2017. The close result of 2011 and Tan Cheng Bock’s imminent candidacy made the upcoming Presidential Election one that was eagerly anticipated.
That is, until the PAP shut down his bid for the presidency just a few months later in September 2016, using its supermajority in Parliament to pass a “reserved election” in which only members of a particular race could take part. Under the new rules that they had drawn up for themselves, it was decreed that only Malays could take part. And not just any Malay. The candidate had to either be a senior executive managing a firm that had S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, or be the Speaker of Parliament or a similarly high post in the public sector (the exact criteria are a bit more in-depth than this, but this is the gist of it. You can find the full criteria here). And who was the Speaker of Parliament at the time? Mdm Halimah, who was conveniently of the right race (Although there was some hooha about her actually being Indian). With the extremely strict private sector criteria and the PAP being able to effectively control who the public sector candidate was, it came as no surprise that Mdm Halimah was declared the only eligible candidate on Nomination Day. A day later, she was Singapore’s President. And all without a single vote cast by any Singaporean.
Of course, the PAP denied that this was a move specifically aimed at blocking Tan Cheng Bock’s bid for the presidency. Chan Chun Sing, Singapore’s current Minister of Trade and Industry, stated in 2017 that the Government was prepared to pay the political price over making these changes to the Constitution.
We can clearly see from the GE2020 results that a price was indeed paid. A loss of almost 9% of vote share is very significant, although a combination of the first-past-the-post rule and the GRC system ensured that the PAP still won 89.2% of the seats in Parliament despite only garnering 61.2% of the votes. On the whole, it’s naught but a scratch to the PAP’s overwhelming dominance in Parliament. The PAP still retains its supermajority and can make changes to the Constitution anytime that it likes. But the swing voters have sent a clear signal that they have not been persuaded by the PAP’s rationale.
5. Swing Voters do not want Racial Politics.
In 2019, Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and the man who is next in line to be Prime Minister (PM) commented that Singapore was not ready to have a non-Chinese PM. He further added that race is an issue that always arises at election-time in Singapore.
Let us now consider the GE2015 results. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s Senior Minister and someone whom many have expressed keenness to be Singapore’s next PM, obtained 79.28% of the vote share in Jurong GRC. This was above even the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who scored 78.63% in Ang Mo Kio GRC. Tharman’s score was the highest in the entire election.
And now let us consider the GE2020 results. Tharman scored 74.62% in Jurong, again the highest scorer of the entire election, while Hsien Loong scored 71.91%. So Tharman beat the current PM again, and by an even bigger margin than the last time. Furthermore, Swee Keat, who made the infamous comments above, scored just 53.41% in East Coast.
Yes, I know I’m ignoring a lot of other factors that influenced these results. But don’t these results show conclusively that Heng’s comments were wrong? We have an Indian leading both the current and future PM in both elections, but yet PAP still feels the need to say that Singapore “hasn’t arrived” at a stage where we can vote without race in mind. In fact, this was the same rationale that supposedly led to the reserved presidency as mentioned in my earlier point.
The swing voters have spoken, and it is exceedingly clear to me that the electorate does not care what our highest office-holders are in terms of race, whether it be the PM or the President. Our Singapore pledge firmly states “regardless of race”, and I think the results have shown that we as a people have taken it to heart. But has the PAP?
6. Voters will not be so easily manipulated.
On one hand, Singaporeans were exhorted to stay home during the Covid-19 pandemic. Contact tracing became mandatory, and groups of more than 5 are prohibited.
But on the other hand, we are also told that it’s absolutely necessary to hold an election during this same period, for Singaporeans to wait in long lines and in close proximity to each other as we congregate to cast our vote, all because the PAP needs a strong mandate.
On one hand, Heng Swee Keat lambasted the Worker’s Party, claiming that it was “playing games with voters” over their refusal to confirm if they would accept NCMP seats.
But on the other hand, Heng Swee Keat was moved to the East Coast GRC at the eleventh hour in a surprise move to secure the constituency. (As mentioned above, he was aptly rewarded for this with a razor-thin margin of just 53.41% of the votes.)
On one hand, Masagos Zulkifli, PAP Vice-Chairman stated that “candidates should not be defined by a single moment in time or in their career, but judged instead by their growth throughout their life”. He said this in defense of Ivan Lim, who appears to be the very first candidate in Singaporean politics to have been pushed into retracting his candidacy by the power of non-mainstream media.
But on the other hand, the PAP called on the WP to make clear its stand on Raeesah Khan, a WP candidate who ran (and won) in Sengkang GRC for this election, stating that the Police investigation into Raeesah’s comments made on social media was “a serious matter which goes to the fundamental principles on which our country has been built”.
On one hand, Chan Chun Sing stated in 2015, referring to SingFirst’s policies about giving allowances to the young and the elderly, “Some of them promised you $300 per month. I say, please don’t insult my residents. You think…. they are here to be bribed?”
On the other hand, the PAP Government has just given out several handouts under its many budgets to help Singaporeans cope with the Covid-19 situation. [To be clear, I totally approve of these handouts. What I don’t approve is that the PAP felt the need to lambast similar policies as bribery in the past. Comparing a policy with a crime is a political low blow in my book.]
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. And so did the electorate in this election, putting their vote where it counted to show their disdain for the heavy-handedness and double standards that the PAP has displayed for this election.
I don’t say the above to put down the PAP. The PAP would have you believe that to not support them is equivalent to not wanting what’s best for Singapore. This is a false dichotomy that must be stamped out, and I am glad to see our swing voters taking a real stand with this election.
No, I say the above as a harsh but ultimately supportive letter to the PAP. As everyone can see from the results, we all still firmly believe that the PAP should be the Government. We still have faith that PAP has the leadership to take us forward and out of the Covid-19 crisis.
But we also want to send the PAP a strong signal with this vote, to bring them down from their ivory towers and down to the ground. Enough with the double standards. Enough with the heavy-handedness. Singaporeans have clearly stated their desire for a more mature democracy, and that means more alternative voices in Parliament. The PAP needs to stop acting as the father who knows it all, and to start acting as the bigger brother who can work hand in hand with his alternative younger brother towards what’s best for the entire family: Singapore.
There is a real chance that the PAP will not listen, though. As Lee Hsien Loong admitted in a rally in 2006, “if there are 10, 20… opposition members in Parliament… I have to spent my time thinking what is the right way to fix them”.
Now, the PAP has POFMA at its disposal. It still has the supermajority in Parliament, making them able to change any law in Singapore, even the Constitution at will. We have already seen them put these tools to use for its own benefit. Let us see if the PAP will continue as it has always done, or will it take this opportunity to change itself for the better. Whatever the case, we will be watching, and we will be waiting to make our roar heard once again five years down the road.