SINGAPORE’S ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has never been one to take chances. Believing in its ability to identify society’s best talents and recruit them into its ranks, the party developed scant respect for the electoral democracy inherent in the country’s political structure.
Its ever powerful control of the mass media, its unconstrained changing of constituency boundaries, civil suits against opposition leaders, and the introduction of the group representation constituency (GRC) system in 1988 are among measures that together made walkovers by the PAP extremely common.
PAPmonopoly over power led it to extend its non-constituency members of parliament (NCMP) system to allow as many as nine “best losers” to join parliament (with certain restrictions on decision making).
Since 1997, the number of opposition MPs stagnated at two. Hougang and Potong Pasir were held by Low Thia Khiang of the Workers’ Party (WP) and Chiam See Tong of the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) respectively. Needless to day, these areas
became opposition strongholds in the popular imagination.
It was mainly for this reason that opposition parties decided before the 2011 elections that they had to take chances. If they did not take a leap of faith, voters wouldn’t either. This strategy was encouraged by the fact that more and more Singaporeans seemed willing to support the opposition publicly.
And so, Low decided to leave the safety of Hougang to lead a team to challenge the neighbouring GRC of Aljunied against the popular Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo, while Chiam put his wife Lina Chiam to defend Potong Pasir while he fronted an attack on Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.
If things went badly, these risky measures could have lead to the next parliament being totally devoid of elected opposition members.
The six opposition parties managed further to agree with one exception to divide the constituencies among themselves to avoid three-cornered fights. In the event, all seats were contested except for Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s Tanjung Pagar GRC.
The gamble paid off very handsomely for WP.
The daring dream of breaking the PAP’s total control over the GRCs was actually realised onMay 7, 2011.
Altogether, 54.7% of the votes were cast for the WP in Aljunied GRC. Furthermore, it kept the Single Member Constituency (SMC) of Hougang with an increased majority. This means six WP MPs in the new parliament. And being the best loser in Joo Chiat SMC and East Coast GRC, it looks likely that two of the three NCMPs to be appointed will also come from the party.
This impressive show by WP suggests that it did manage to convince the Malay community in Aljunied to throw itself behind its Team A.
Things went badly for the veteran 76-year-old Chiam See Tong, though, whose SPP not only failed to unseat PAP hardliners such as Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng and Education Minister Ng Eng Hen, it also lost the Potong Pasir SMC that it had held for 27 years.
The small consolation for the party is that Lina Chiam lost by a painfully small margin of 114 votes and will most probably be appointed an NCMP.
Despite its heavyweight ministers, the PAP won in Bishan-Toa Payoh by only 56.94%. The GRC had not been contested since it was created in 1997.
Another hard battle was fought in Marine Parade GRC. Despite being led by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, the PAP won only 56.65% of the votes. But this does mean that the new star in Singapore politics, Nicole Seah of the National Solidarity Party (NSP), will not become a parliamentarian yet, as many young Singaporeans had hoped.
Despite the loss of Aljunied GRC and his foreign affairs minister, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has a personal reason for good cheer. His GRC of Ang Mo Kio was won with 69.3% support from voters, up from 66.1% in 2006. Five years ago, support for him in the constituency fell below the national average of 66.6% for the PAP.
This personal embarrassment for him as party leader is now wiped out with his popularity standing at 9.2% above the 60.1% support for his party nationwide.
However, the sharp drop in popular support for the PAP in 2011 is what should worry the party in the immediate future though.
It may have won 81 of the 87 seats up for grabs, i.e. 93%, but an astounding 40% of Singaporean voters actually supported the opposition.
Without gerrymandered boundaries and other systemic imbalances, Singapore would already be having a proper two-party system if we look only at the 60-40 split in political support. Of course, the present disunity among the opposition parties weakens the story suggested by this quotient.
Public support for each of the parties varies greatly as well. Where each party contested, their share of the votes varied from 30.1% for the Singapore Democratic Alliance to 46.6% for the WP.
The WP and the NSP are the two opposition parties that are more established nationally, running for 23 and 24 seats respectively, compared to the remaining four who contested for 7-11 seats.
It is to be expected that these two will gain further ground after these elections, and will draw resources and potential members away from the rest, initiating a consolidation of opposition forces in spite of the personality-based structure of some of these parties.
One of the opposition MPs’ most important aims now will be to raise public consciousness about the dangers and the inappropriateness of a system where party and state continue to be melded together.
For Hsien Loong and the PAP, it will not be business as usual, not in parliament and not outside it.
Yeo will no longer be a minister, but the realisation that the party has to transform itself, which came to him during the campaigning, and which should have come to all his colleagues, remains
Given Singapore’s straight-laced paranoia and concern with economic issues, one cannot expect a paradigmatic shift towards a softer and kinder society to come easily.
But should the PAP continue as before to dictate policy without serious dialogue with interests that lie outside its power network, it knows that the sharp fall in popular support, from 75.3% in 2001 to 66.6% in 2006 and 60.1% in 2011, will continue, and will seriously threaten its hold on power.
Should it seek repentance from the voters of Aljunied, as threatened by Kuan Yew, it runs the very real risk of losing the support of the 59,000 who actually did vote for the PAP in the GRC, and of many living in neighbouring constituencies.
A mindset change has indeed taken place. And those who have been complaining about the disheartening political apathy of Singaporeans will find much less reason to do so in future.
[Analysis by OOI KEE BENG, for The Star May 9, 2011]