Why not just give Aljunied up?

Qi Siang | 9 Jan 2015

In his previous post, Kuan noted the different tactics that the People’s Action Party (PAP) could use to recapture Aljunied GRC from the Worker’s Party (WP). While the suggestions are all plausible, they assume that the PAP ought to make an attempt to regain Aljunied in the first place. It might be interesting to look at an unlikely, and highly radical possibility – that the PAP gives Aljunied up.

I know this may seem to be a very strange and even damaging move. Not only does it look defeatist (especially since it was the first GRC lost to the opposition in history), it also runs contrary to a political party’s aim of obtaining as many parliamentary seats it can get. However, in terms of the larger goal of weakening its rivals as well as the strong focus of the WP in retaining it, the PAP may stand more to gain from maintaining the status quo than fighting to regain Aljunied.

One of the strongest justifications used by the opposition to win votes is that there is no alternative representation in parliament. In fact, one could argue that they are now over-reliant on such a claim – the WP’s lightweight attacks in parliament reveal that the opposition has little else aside from rhetoric to bank on.

By abandoning Aljunied to the opposition, the PAP has the opportunity to weaken the opposition’s claim to electoral success. The ruling party long been accused of providing only superficial measures to ensure an opposition presence in parliament via the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme. By letting the opposition have Aljunied, the PAP may be able to abolish the NCMP scheme, undercutting accusations of tokenism and a lack of commitment to democratic principles.

The more significant benefit, however, is the effect the policy may have on the opposition. Between a GRC held by the PAP (and thus anchored by a formidable political opponent), and one held by the WP, other opposition parties are much more likely to contest the latter. Not only will ‘smaller’ opposition parties not want the WP to gain easy seats at their expense, Aljunied will present an opportunity to re-establish their political relevance in a time where the WP seems to be the leading opposition party. This breeds a sense of distrust between opposition parties, hindering their ability to collaborate.

With such division, the already factious opposition may be torn further apart, making pooling risk and resources difficult. The opposition parties of Singapore have different ideological standpoints; for instance, the WP lean more towards moderate Social Democracy while the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) supports more radical liberalism. The only thing that joins these disparate groups is a consensus that a one-party dominant state under the PAP is undesirable for Singapore. By encouraging the opposition parties to battle among themselves, this may drive a further wedge between them by highlighting their mutual differences, making a united front impossible to achieve.

Even better for the “Men in White”, increased opposition disunity might lead to three-cornered fights outside of Aljunied, which favour the PAP. Vote-splitting can often result in a situation where the votes are split, such as during the 2011 Presidential Elections where Tan Cheng Bock lost to Tony Tan by less than 1% of the valid votes due to vote-splitting in a four-cornered contest. If several strong opposition parties attempt to engage in a similar multi-cornered contest, this may well lead to both sides losing out to the PAP candidate, who can count on the strength of their party to win a marginal victory. Individual egos may well also play a part, as leaders don’t want to be seen retreating from an opportunity to further the party’s strength, observed in the Punggol-East by-election in 2013 where the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance willingly risked a PAP victory in order to field their leaders in the hustings, creating an illusion of strength in both leader and party. The PAP thus would be able to gain a significant electoral advantage in such a scenario.

This of course, is dependent on the reaction the opposition takes towards the move. It may well be that the PAP bluff may be called and the opposition decide to adopt a mutually beneficial strategy rather than pursue self-interest. “Sharing Aljunied”, for instance, may allow for a united opposition team to run the constituency, with other single-party teams challenging for seats elsewhere, bringing the opposition together rather than apart. Such an occurrence seems unlikely, however, due to the difficulty in getting parties with disparate views of governance to act in tandem. This is worsened by the fact that parties are also incentivised to act in a manner that allows them to distinguish themselves from their compatriots, potentially leading to internal politics and infighting making collaboration difficult.

This tactic could also force the opposition to take a more sophisticated line against the PAP. While the opposition movement is currently based generally on striking down the PAP’s credibility, the intra-party rivalry may well lead to them trying to form more distinctive ideological stances to separate themselves from their rivals. A shift could take place in the Singapore political climate as a result, since the opposition may decide to focus more on proving their own ideological positions than taking down that of the PAP. While this is good for their political development and Singapore politics as a whole, it may be disadvantageous to the PAP, since it may now be forced to face a more sophisticated level of opposition in parliament.

Another drawback is that the PAP may stand to lose its standing and its prestige. By refusing to challenge for Aljunied, the PAP runs the risk of being seen as weak or “soft”, emboldening challenges from its opponents. In addition, these risks allowing for the growth of an opposition heartland stemming from Aljunied. This could become an eventual test case of effective alternative parties, which may not only disprove their rhetoric of “incompetent opposition”, and “PAP knows best”, but also even create an opposition “heartland” in the surrounding areas, weakening its influence. Public relations will be key if the PAP elects to implement this strategy.

From Ancient times, “Divide and conquer” have been a hallmark of military wisdom. By sacrificing Aljunied, the PAP may well be able to cement its success by sowing discord among its opponents, accruing a benefit greater than its loss of a few seats. On the other hand, the opposition movement needs to develop a greater unity to be able to overcome this tactic. They may do well to heed the wisdom of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind – “The best result will come when everyone in a group does what is best for himself and the group.


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