Today we wake up to a PAP triumphant and an Opposition wounded.
For all the talk of more professionals and qualified candidates joining the Workers’ Party, we saw East Coast and Marine Parade GRCs swing decisively toward the government. Even in Aljunied GRC, Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim barely scraped past a relatively weak PAP team. While I did not expect the Opposition to get more than 10 seats in Parliament, it is certainly a surprise to see such a landslide shift toward the government.
Clearly, the PAP did not engage in negative campaigning because they were out of ideas. They engaged in negative campaigning because this entire year has been a comprehensive, nuanced, and emotionally resonant form of positive campaigning for the government. SG50 gave us a sense of how far we’ve come as a nation, and how much more we can still achieve. The spectacle of the 28th SEA Games showed that our government would always put its best foot forward on the world stage. The National Day Rally focused on how Singapore is becoming, and will become, a more equitable society for all to call home.
Most importantly, the mythologisation of Lee Kuan Yew proved to be more politically poignant than anyone could imagine. In life, Lee Kuan Yew was well-respected, but he was prone to revealing his foibles as a politician as well – his barbed remark that Aljunied GRC voters would “repent” for five years probably cost the PAP a sizeable number of votes in 2011. But in death, he has become an undisputed national icon. I’ve discussed in a previous article how the state machinery and the PAP grassroots were exceptionally effective in marginalizing counter-narratives in the wake of Mr. Lee’s death. Especially for lower-income or aging households that primarily rely on traditional media for information; there was little to pierce the politicized media messaging surrounding Lee Kuan Yew. When PM Lee Hsien Loong echoed his father’s words while standing against the backdrop of the CBD, he was forging explicit and implicit connections between his government and the PAP government of the past.
There’s a reason why people refer to gutter politics as ‘mudslinging’. Simply put, mud sticks. Nuanced discussions on the minimum wage and GST recalibration do not. Given that the PAP was already subtly campaigning ever since January 2015, what they needed was a final push to drive their vote share past the 65% mark. In an expertly choreographed merry-go-round, the PAP candidates took turns to launch assaults on the strongest Opposition candidates. Slowly but surely, impressions were ossified. Dr. Chee Soon Juan is a backstabbing renegade who peddles dangerous Marxist ideas. Low Thia Kang is a liar. The Workers’ Party can’t run a lemonade stand, let alone a country. This might not have convinced everyone. But for many voters, who had to choose between the PAP’s fairly sound track record and the uncertain competence of the Opposition, these perceptions would surely have tipped the balance.
I would argue that the Opposition failed because of ineffectual negative campaigning of their own. In 2011, issues of uncontrolled immigration and transportation failure became flashpoints for the WP to exploit. Back then, politicians could play to the gallery by calling on the PAP to tighten immigration policy and lower the cost of living for Singaporeans. Four years on, these arguments have become formulaic and tired. By reducing visa quotas for foreigners, cooling property prices, and rolling out the Pioneer Generation Package, the PAP pre-emptively placated the electorate by reacting to their demands. While the Opposition could have made headway by playing up the transport problems that have continually plagued us, this was no longer a viable option once Lui Tuck Yew resigned. Given the unique context of SG50 and a more responsive PAP government, it felt like the WP was fighting the contest it wanted, rather than the contest it faced.
One should also consider that we experienced the reverse of the 1991 “by-election effect”, a term coined by then-SDP leader Chiam See Tong. Chiam cooperated with the other opposition parties to return the PAP to power on Nomination Day itself – by contesting only 40 seats in Parliament when 41 seats were required to form a majority. The SDP made an electoral breakthrough because voters felt more secure when supporting the Opposition, in the knowledge that they would have a PAP government regardless.
The opposite is true this year, where every single seat has been contested for the first time since Singapore’s independence. Paradoxically, the Opposition’s relative strength has also been their key weakness. With Dr. Chee Soon Juan revitalized, the WP fielding an atypically strong line-up of candidates, and the throngs of people attending opposition rallies, moderate swing voters could have over-estimated the Opposition’s chance of electoral success. These are people who want a PAP government and a strong opposition presence at the same time, but if these two conditions were mutually exclusive, they would prioritize the former over the latter. Hence, many undecided voters might have supported the PAP, assuming that there would be a further national swing toward the Opposition.
International events have also played a significant, albeit secondary role. The 1MDB scandal in particular placed the PAP’s incorruptible stewardship in sharp relief against UMNO’s kleptocratic leadership. For many, the precipitous devaluation of the Malaysian ringgit against the SGD illustrated how poor leadership could lead to a damaging loss of investor confidence. It did not help that the AHPETC controversy was heating up at the same time, leading Singaporeans to make highly unfavourable comparisons. Concurrently, China’s stock market volatility and the continued threat of an ISIS insurgency underlined Singapore’s vulnerability as a nation-state. In a slightly irrational and jingoistic way, a vote for the PAP also meant a vote for Singaporean exceptionalism – and that was a message that resonated with the people.
What next, then, for the Opposition? The most pressing issue on the agenda will be to clean up Aljunied-Hougang GRC’s finances. The WP desperately needs to prove that it can manage its constituencies without sliding further into deficit, to fend off similar attacks in the next election. It will undoubtedly conclude that even though it fielded candidates who were quite comparable to their PAP opponents, this wasn’t enough to guard against the wave of pro-PAP sentiment. Maybe this would be the time to capitalize on the weakness of the smaller opposition parties, by inviting them to form a broader alliance similar to the Pakatan Rakyat. More so than ever before, parties like RP and NSP must realize that they have little to gain from striking it out alone. In the same way that the PAP caught the Opposition unawares by changing the tenor and nature of its governance, perhaps the Opposition should blindside the PAP by demonstrating unprecedented unity and discipline.
If the Opposition continues to advertise itself as a check on the PAP, then get ready for the Opposition to be voted in every time the PAP slips up, but then hastily dispensed with once the government reacts to its mistakes. We’ve been there before, when GE 1997 reversed the gains made in GE 1991. It appears that little has changed.