Back to the Future: Shades of the 1997 General Election

“The most likely parliamentary political system evolving in Singapore in the next decade (approximately after two more elections) could well be one approaching a one-and-quarter party system … such a system may see the presence of about 10 to 12 opposition MPs.”

Contrary to what you might think, this paragraph was not penned in the aftermath of 2011. Rather, it was written by Hussin Mutalib for the journal Southeast Asian Affairs in 1992.

One year earlier, the 1991 General Election saw the PAP lose four seats to the Opposition, with their vote share decreasing from 63.2% to 61% despite then-PM Goh Chok Tong’s decision to call a snap election. His call to give the PAP a strong mandate for the future instead led to the third consecutive election in which the PAP lost political ground, a decline that started in 1984. It was a bitter blow to PM Goh, who had just taken over from Lee Kuan Yew and hence needed a resounding victory to cement his legitimacy as the new party leader. Until 2011, that election was the PAP’s worst performance since 1963, and it triggered a period of reflection and comprehensive re-strategisation within the government.

Fast forward five years later to New Year’s Day, 1997.

PM Goh had just wrapped up a bruising General Election campaign, rallying his supporters to give the PAP a strong mandate for the future of Singapore. With Polling Day on the 2nd of January, the PAP was pulling out all the stops to secure a convincing electoral result which would erase the losses suffered in 1991. When the votes were finally tallied, it was clear that the Opposition’s heady optimism in the previous election would give way to despondency and disappointment.

The SDP incumbents Ling How Doong and Neo Chai Chen (now of “motherhood is a weakness” fame), were crushed by their PAP opponents in their respective constituencies, leaving only the SPP’s Chiam See Tong and the WP’s Low Thia Kiang to carry the flag for the Opposition in Parliament. Once again, the opposition parties had to start from ground zero, building up their legitimacy for another electoral breakthrough.

Today, it feels like the Opposition has finally picked up from where they left off in 1991. The WP has a tenuous foothold in Aljunied GRC, and can boast of 7 incumbent MPs. Chee Soon Juan is revitalised and raring to go, and the PAP is pulling no punches in trying to assert its political dominance. This begs the question: will GE15 be a continuation of GE11 by letting more Opposition MPs into Parliament, or will it be reminiscent of 1997, where the Opposition were forced back to the starting line?

The More things Change, the More they stay the Same

The PAP’s political playbook for this election does bear striking similarity to PM Goh’s broad strategy in 1997. Much like his predecessor who called elections 18 months early because government advisers believed that the ground was favourable to the PAP, PM Lee has taken us to the polls much earlier than most expected. In 1997, it was because the economy was growing at the steady pace and PM Goh himself was fairly popular due to his genial, warm persona. In 2015, the SG50 celebrations, the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, and the SEA Games have led PM Lee to believe that the ground is sweet.

We also see an attempt to use the threat of estate development to sow doubt about the Opposition. 1997 saw a concerted use of “Votes For HDB Upgrading” to entice voters in Opposition-held wards to support the PAP. The implicit threat was of course that non-PAP wards could expect slower development, and less government funds. Today, the AHPETC controversy has been used by the PAP to create the same fear of underdevelopment and mismanagement, but without the threat of seeming high-handed. The narrative in both elections is that only the PAP can deliver on promises, both at the municipal and national level. It correctly gambles that voters would rather a diminished “check” on the government in parliament than a diminished standard of living.

More so than GE11, GE15 has given rise to the personalization of politics. Posters with PM Lee’s smiling face now adorn every other lamppost in Singapore, not just in Ang Mo Kio. This creates the impression that a vote for the PAP is not just a localized vote for one’s MPs, but also an affirmation of the top political leadership in Singapore. The message is clear: even if PM Lee is not competing in your ward, every contest in every constituency is his contest. This is remarkably similar to how, in 1997, PM Goh declared that the contest in Cheng San GRC was “his election”, even though he was a Marine Parade MP. He campaigned extensively in Cheng San, and appeared in almost every electoral rally. He did this because Cheng San GRC was perceived as a vulnerable ward, one which was contested by the fiery J. B. Jeyaretnam and his WP team.

Perhaps most interestingly, both the 1997 and 2015 General Elections have seen the PAP come down harshly on dissent after a period of relative liberalism. After he took over from then-SM Lee Kuan Yew in the early 1990s, PM Goh embarked on fostering a more “consultative … responsive government”. He framed the 1991 elections as a means to get a resounding public mandate for this agenda. But when the PAP suffered two unexpected SMC defeats in 1991, PM Goh partly attributed the losses to his more relaxed style and became more willing to use the hatchet in political discourse.

Comparatively, the 2011 election saw the rise of alternative media sources to counteract the narratives forwarded by the mainstream media. PM Lee promised a “soft touch” when it came to dialogue, and took little action to curtail online discussion. But after the PAP lost Aljunied GRC and Punggol East SMC, they became more socially liberal but politically illiberal. The Real Singapore was ordered to shut down, while bloggers Roy Ngerng and Amos Yee were harshly punished via the civil and criminal courts. What we see in both cases is a PAP more responsible to the needs of its people, but far less tolerant of criticism it perceives to be unfair or untrue.

No Longer Business as Usual

However identical both elections may seem, it would also be useful to examine how they diverge. The most obvious place to start from would be the relative Opposition weakness and fractiousness in 1997, as opposed to the more united and credible Opposition which we see today. Chee Soon Juan exemplifies this transformation: the Chee Soon Juan of 1992 was a maverick rebel, someone who forced his own mentor Chiam See Tong out of the SDP after months of infighting. The Chee we see today is someone who has literally mellowed with age: more circumspect, more considered, and dare I say, more charismatic as a leader (just listen to this speech).

Not only has the Opposition bloc kept three-cornered fights to a minimum (Han Hui Hui I’m looking at you), it has also managed to recruit more professionals and intellectuals to its ranks. Who can forget the SDP’s Ling How Doong loudly whispering “don’t talk cock!” in Parliament? Contrast that to WP MPs Chen Show Mao and Sylvia Lim in Parliament. Yes, they could certainly do more to articulate their party vision and challenge the PAP. But they also deserve credit for being decorous and often constructive MPs.

The Singapore of 1997 was also one in which the PAP could largely monopolize the media and airwaves, and hence shape public perception favourably. The Singapore of 2015 is one transformed by the emergence of social media, and a more cynical electorate that may not buy into the mainstream media. Opposition parties like the SDP and WP have enjoyed considerable success online, with rally speeches and party manifestos expertly publicized via the Internet. Negative campaigning and gutter politics might be splashed across newspaper headlines; but it is the aspirational speech and visionary manifesto that will go viral online.

One thing that could work against the Opposition, however is what then-SDP leader Chiam See Tong dubbed the “by-election effect”. In both the 1991 and 1997 elections, the Opposition deliberately returned the PAP to power on Nomination Day, by only contesting a minority of seats. With voters secure in the knowledge that their vote would determine the political landscape, rather than leadership, of the country, more middle-ground voters were comfortable in voting for the Opposition. Paradoxically, the relative strength of the Opposition this time around could work against them. By contesting every seat in GE15, and fielding strong candidates who appear to have a chance at victory, the same middle-ground might swing back toward the PAP out of fear that a freak result occurs.

So, Change or Continuity?

To me, it seems like the decisive difference between GE15 and GE97 is that the Opposition has yet to sabotage themselves. Yes, they face the same withering attacks coming from highly qualified PAP politicians. Yes, the integrity of opposition politicians is being called into question again and again. But by and large, they haven’t taken the bait, or succumbed to harmful infighting. We see an increasingly confident WP being able to assert dominance over its turf, effectively persuading less established political parties to concede some ground. We see an SDP led by a non-crazy Chee, wisely pooling its limited resources in a concentrated attack on Holland-Bukit Timah GRC. And we see an electorate gradually tiring of the PAP’s perceived arrogance whenever it claims that only a PAP MP can be competent.

This election won’t be a turning point. The PAP is still too capable and dominant a party to be significantly threatened by the Opposition. But it certainly feels like a legacy election: one where PM Lee knows he must perform better than the last, or face leaving the PAP after three consecutive elections where the party’s vote share has dropped. And I’m not confident that we will see history repeating itself.


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