Go with a smile!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Questions raised by elections 2015

1. Whither the Silent Majority?
Well guys you know what happened. The PAP gained back 10 points this election, and that’s a tremendous swing. (Think about it this way – a 10 point swing in the opposite direction might possibly mean a hung parliament). I have not been in Singapore. But I knew that the ground was not as sweet for the opposition as it was the last time. This time 4 years ago, there would have been plenty of messages on social media about how they were going to vote in the first “meaningful election” in ages, and how exciting it was that they had choices. Now I saw people I vaguely recall to be opposition supporters saying things like “PAP ain’t so bad after all”, and they were pretty blatant about throwing their support behind the PAP this time around. I don’t know what they’re talking about, the “silent majority”. I don’t believe the silent majority is really that silent. And even then, a lot of people who were opposition supporters were conspicuous by their silence.

I had a relative who told me that he was watching the funeral of LKY and he was moved to tears when he was shown images of what Singapore was like at independence. He grew up in a crappy kampong, like so many other people of his generation. And he had been an opposition supporter of late. I just found out that he voted PAP. Maybe I should have known after he was “moved to tears”. Like it or not voting is something that can be very emotional.

If you only read the punditry of foreign newspapers, or what the opposition people are talking amongst themselves, you’re going to miss the real story. Especially when we're just a few years away from Punggol East BE, when LLL scored a very unlikely, but stunning victory. Perhaps so many people were saying after GE 2011, let's look forward to GE 2016 (it was assumed that the GE would take place in 2016), when we can realise even greater gains. And then they got so used to the idea that 2016 was supposed to be the big one that they didn't realise the ground had shifted under its own feet.

I have to admit that I was almost taken in when the “bookies report” went viral. Perhaps that bookie’s report was even a genuine one, but the bookie hadn’t realised that he was surrounded by his fellow hardcore opposition supporters, hadn’t realised that he was walking in an echo chamber.

So I had a small hunch there was a swing against the opposition. What I did not anticipate was the extent of it – 10% not 5%.

2. How badly did the PAP want back Aljunied?
One of the biggest paradoxes in Singapore politics is that in some ways, the loss of one GRC and one SMC during the last general elections may have been the best possible result for the PAP. You have to remember that there were 3 other results that narrowly went the PAP’s way – Potong Pasir, Joo Chiat and East Coast GRC. The latter two, of course, had their boundaries tampered with in 2015. If those had been lost as well in 2011, it would have been a catastrophe for the PAP. However, losing 6 seats was manageable.

Opposition seats are hard to win back. People develop an affection for their opposition MPs. PAP MPs don’t have to give up their jobs to serve as MPs, because they don’t really have to run a lot of the functions of a party. There are a lot of things they can get the civil service to do for them. Opposition party MPs get their MP allowance, but they’re basically running the show full time.

This time, though, they had a team of good people, or somebody on social media tells me, but they’re not heavyweights of people designated for bigger things. Or at least not yet. And yet they almost snatched Aljunied back for the PAP, such was the swing against the Worker’s Party of late.

PAP requested a recount, and that was probably pro forma when your margin of loss is less than 2%. Yet, one senses that there would be a little bit of ambivalence about the PAP getting everything other than Hougang. People would be calling that a freak election result. There would be all manner of charges laid against the PAP that they’re running a sham democracy. Ironically, the PAP losing Aljunied protects the PAP.

In effect, what’s going on in Aljunied is the reverse of the GRC effect. Typically the PAP would put one heavyweight there and say “I dare you to vote us out”. This time, Low Thia Khiang put his five most experienced people to run again, and it was also “I dare you to vote us out”.

3. No more bad guys
There were probably a whole slew of cabinet ministers who were pretty much disliked. Wong Kan Seng and Mah Bow Tan. Maybe Raymond Lim. Fairly or unfairly, Lui Tuck Yew. They were not on the slate anymore. Zainudin Nordin made a few ill-conceived remarks online and maybe that’s why he’s not standing anymore.

It didn’t use to be the case that likeability was a factor in deciding who was going to get far, but it is now. Tin Pei Ling was brought in because they wanted a young woman to charm the voters. It worked, but only after she kenna buak in a very public fashion. Tan Chuan Jin, Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat and Tharman Shanmugaratnam are likeable people. Grace Fu has learnt to keep her mouth shut when she doesn’t have anything better to say. Every large enough group of people needs a clown and for that we have Vivian Balakrishnan.

Some of the new entrants into parliament have star quality. Sun Xueling looks like she could be a TV star. Koh Poh Koon screwed up Punggol East GRC, but he comes across as being likeable enough, although that “everybody I know has a car” remark is kinda stupid.

Interestingly, though, a few of the people who left parliament were also some of the people who had been a little more outspoken over the PAP. Inderjit Singh could have resigned because he’s been around long enough, but Hri Kumar and Lui Tuck Yew hadn’t been around for that long.

The thing is that the PAP who were punch drunk and were putting their foot into their mouth over and over again have learnt from their mistakes. They didn't always know how to campaign, and quite a few of them aren't very good at it. But they can always get people in to help them figure it out. They can always get coached. And this means that GE 2011 might be one of the very rare occasions that the PAP was careless enough to mess up. Which could mean that it's not going to be repeated for quite a while.

4. Voters wanted checks and balances in Aljunied more than they wanted the PAP or the WP
I’ll never know whether George Yeo was placed in Aljunied to stand for elections because he was a likeable-before-it-was-cool or he was placed there because his views were too liberal. But he had to stand his ground in GE 2011. To run for office anywhere else in 2011 would have sent a very negative message. So he was basically waylaid and ambushed in 2011.

In 2011 they lost Ong Ye Kung, a newcomer slated for better things, George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hwa. They also lost a designated speaker of parliament. It was a tale of two heavyweights, and the PAP team was arguably even more heavyweight than the WP team which won.

But there was probably a consensus that Worker’s Party had to take that step up, and that was cemented by Low Thia Khiang’s shock announcement that he was leaving Hougang to run in Aljunied.

This time, in spite of the sea of red that was the result of the opposition, it was funny that the election result was exactly the same as the previous general elections: PAP gets everything other than Aljunied and Hougang. Everywhere else – even Fengshan, Marine Parade and East Coast, nobody really wanted the Worker’s Party to win. Only in Punggol East and Aljunied did Worker’s Party get more than 45%. It seemed that people had already decided everywhere that they were going to allow the Worker’s Party have a small presence in parliament, but not anything more than that.

5. PM Lee is a smart guy
More than a few people have questioned the judgement behind grooming Lee Hsien Loong as a future prime minister of Singapore, especially after the 2011 elections, when the consensus was that he wasn’t doing a good job. There were perhaps a few hints that all was not well in the cabinet. I don’t know how Goh Chok Tong feels about his low profile as a senior minister. But he was definitely making much fewer statements in public than Lee Kuan Yew did when he was prime minister. We almost forget sometimes that the Goh Chok Tong era is one of the most significant eras in Singapore’s history, not least because the Asian Financial Crisis and a great part of China’s rise took place under his watch. Then there was that picture of Lee Hsien Loong and Goh Chok Tong side by side during a rally. Perhaps it was the sun or whatever, but they were grimacing. Didn’t seem to be very happy with each other’s company, which was pretty curious. Those guys have gone through so much together that you would have thought…

After seeing the cabinet changes post 2011, it was a bloodbath. But it occurred to me that a lot of the people who were around during Goh Chok Tong’s reign were shown the door. This was his time. Alongside people who had worked with him when he was a relatively junior cabinet minister, there might be the feeling that he was a novice. Now, it was clear that he was the man in charge. If he was not to be as feared as his father, everybody knows that the one thing you don’t take away from him is his level of intellect. He may not be as pushy, he may not be as shrewd at sizing up people, but he’s not any less intelligent as his father.

How did I ever think that he wouldn’t be able to master social media? He was born to be a social media star. He was a geek in the company of geeks, just like Barack Obama. I think he took notice of what the people in the opposition party were doing, and started doing the same. You used to see pictures of the opposition party politicians when they were young and idealistic. Now, you couldn’t take the top civil servants and do likewise. Everybody knows that they were the studious nerds that nobody liked at school, except maybe Chan Chun Sing who always had a bit of the ah beng in him.

Everybody wanted to show how Singaporean they were. He embraced Singlish. He allowed freer expression. Suddenly a lot of his detractors had lost their bite: there were quite fewer things to get upset about.

More than ever, the character of Singapore started to change. During the Goh Chok Tong years, you might label Singapore as a staid but conservative and boring place. Singapore suddenly became more cosmopolitan. It started trying to attract the best people, and it started trying to integrate with many other cultures. Perhaps there wasn’t that much change of course in this respect, and it was a simply a matter that all the hiccups had been resolved and the adjustment was done.

And there was the SG50 effect. Coincidently or not, Lee Kuan Yew croaked, and so it came to be that his funeral was the biggest item on the SG50 agenda even though quite likely (but not certainly) it was not planned in advanced. Lee Kuan Yew was the guy who said that he would rise up from the grave if he saw that something was not right, and come back and fix it, so why would you rule out the possibility that he willed himself to hang on to his life until Singapore’s 50th anniversary, so as to give his son a boost in the elections?

But what would happen if there was no SG50?

6. Singapore and the tech scene
When I left Singapore for Snowy Hill, there was one downside of Singapore that I hated. Our public libraries were a shambles. But when I went back, they did a drastic makeover, and at the time I left Singapore in 2011, it was one of the best public library systems I had ever seen. At least, as anybody who has seen the AGO’s report knows, it was one of the most well-funded.

I always thought it was rather unseemly that Singapore never had a good tech scene, but Singapore seems to be working hard at that. It’s very good politics to court the tech sector in Singapore. First, when you do that, you will make a good impression on social media, who is always looking to see whether you “get” tech. No doubt the govt already knows very well that social media is either your best friend or your worst enemy. But another main reason is that Singapore is supposed to have a good tech scene. It has a well educated populace, and it is business friendly. It is the natural capital of Southeast Asia, and can tap into a market where handphone and computer penetration is beginning to increase exponentially. But Singapore’s natural talent for business (after all overseas Chinese are supposed to be legendary at setting up small and medium enterprises) has been blunted by decades of emphasis on either MNCs or GLCs. Business owners are natural supporters of the PAP, just as the natural hinterland of the Republican party in the USA are the small business owners.

I have seen a few technopreneurs switch from bitching about how difficult it was to work with the government to, in a few years to being effusive about the new reformed government. It’s hard for me to know exactly what changed, whether they’ve decided that they have to keep the gahment onside, or whether they genuinely approve of what’s being done to support them. But the PAP winning over the tech scene sounds like terrible news for the opposition.

7. Everybody is concerned about the foreigner policy / Spending political capital
Well, Singaporean citizens are concerned about the foreigner policy. Native born Singaporeans are concerned about competing with the naturalized gang for housing and jobs. The naturalized gang is concerned about foreigner policy, because they want the door to be kept open, because they want to know whether they can get their homies into Singapore. And many of them have become citizens. That would mean that if an opposition party campaigns on the promise to restrict immigration, they could be in for some trouble.

8. Potong Pasir is no longer my kind of town.
Lina Chiam has been wiped out by the Potong Pasir voters who ensured that for 27 years her husband Chiam See Tong got to run the town. Probably it was a little bit of a stretch to assume that Chiam See Tong could be elected again in 2011, even though he managed to lead a Bishan Toa Payoh slate to a respectable 40+ %. This time we don’t believe he can be MP any more than Lee Kuan Yew can be an MP. Lina Chiam has had her chance to prove herself as an NCMP, and for whatever reason she’s not going back. Chiam See Tong received a hero’s departure the last time around, but when the PAP came in, there were probably upgradings all around. Maybe there were people who moved in from elsewhere, and people who moved out. Who knows?

Also notable was the atrocious performance of the SPP team against PAP team in Bishan-Toa Payoh. I suppose the opposition was already damaged by the fact that Benjamin Pwee decided to walk out on SPP and form his own party, before quiting his own party and joining back the SPP, when the idea of the joint candidacy didn’t prove to be viable. I don’t know that much about Ben Pwee, but he seems to lack even Lina Chiam’s level of personal charisma. It was heartening that Jeanette Chong-Aruldoss, about whom I’ve heard good things, decided to join them after jumping off the NSP ship, but she didn’t even manage 30% of the votes this time around. (Although perhaps the fact that her constituency probably has a high number of new Singaporeans might have something to do with it.)

Put this in perspective: the PAP polled more than 65% for Potong Pasir this time around. The last time it polled more than 50% in Potong Pasir was in 1980, 35 years ago.

9. Who runs this place?
This is related to my earlier point about the PAP wooing the tech industry. The PAP has changed to become a more consultative and responsive organization. But who are they going to be more consultative to? Not the opposition party members, obviously. When they decide to listen more closely, they will listen to the people first, or the businesses who need to work closely with the government.

Power has devolved and it has become less and less centralized as time goes by. Our government isn’t the government of old who could more or less guarantee employment to entire shipyards, docks, build the HDB, build the Jurong island. Consequently, I’ve had to think about whether the rival voices to the PAP are the opposition. Maybe not. Maybe the PAP can just say, I will liberalise the system so that the middle class doesn’t feel like it has so much restrictions on their lives. Maybe it will go out of my way to help the less fortunate. It can bypass whatever the opposition can come up with, and it can completely ignore their ideas and schemes.

At the moment, the opposition only has six seats in parliament. That means that it can only threaten to increase its share in the future if the PAP were to regress. And I think it can regress. Between 2001 to 2006, its share of the vote dropped 9 points. It can lose 15 points within 10 years. If we assume that the SG50 / Lee Kuan Yew effect has contributed about 5%, then if you take that away, the real figure is that the PAP has won 65% of the votes. Which roughly means that the state of the opposition is back to what it used to be in 2006.

10. Outlawing opinion polls.
For me it’s been quite clear that there are two very distinct type of constituencies. The opposition constituencies and the PAP constituencies. The PAP polled 60% or better in all the constituencies except: Aljunied, Hougang, Fengshan, Punggol East. These were the constituencies that were widely predicted to be weak for the PAP. East Coast didn’t make it past 40%, so maybe shall we say that in general people did not want WP to run another town council just yet?

That’s the thing about opinion polls. People are still very scared of the so-called “freak election result”. They saw what happened with the polls the last time around: PAP were 5 points off losing a supermajority, and 10 points off losing the ability to form a government outright. Perhaps the spectre of a government not led by the PAP spooked everybody into voting PAP. Into making sure that if you weren’t one of the “designated” opposition spots, you would just vote PAP in order to confirm, double confirm that they weren’t going to win.

However, if you were in a non-PAP designated ward, things could change. Suppose there were opinion polls, and they showed that PAP was in the lead by 60%, then you could feel free to flip the bird at the PAP, and give them something to be less yaya about. Whereas with the lack of this information, you would be more kiasu and just vote PAP. This is my theory of why opinion polls are banned.

Then again, this time around, the elections committee introduced an interesting new toy called "sample results". It picked 100 votes at random and counted them, and released these results first. These early indications were astonishingly accurate, and I'm just wondering if something like that would be the thin wedge that opens the door towards opinion polls.

11. This is not 1997
It’s very tempting to compare what has happened in this elections to 1997, when the opposition came in with 4 seats and left with 2. Except, this time, they came with 7 seats and left with 6. You can talk all you want about a big swing towards the PAP, but in parliament you will look all around you and see that it’s not changed that much. The PAP would not have minded either way. But if they lost Aljunied, they would once again face the backlash that “Singapore is just a dictatorship”.


Post a Comment