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Thread: Politics: S'pore ruling party stung by polls loss as disquiet rises

  1. #1
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    Oct 2008

    Politics: S'pore ruling party stung by polls loss as disquiet rises

    S'pore ruling party stung by polls loss as disquiet rises

    • 9:04AM Jan 27, 2013

    Singapore's ruling party suffered a stinging rebuke yesterday when it lost a parliamentary by-election despite promising more reforms and massive public spending to appease a restive electorate.

    The opposition Workers' Party defeated the People's Action Party (PAP), which has been in power for more than 50 years, following a campaign dominated by issues including the rising cost of living and immigration.

    Workers' Party candidate Lee Li Lian (left), 34, a middle-class corporate trainer, comfortably beat PAP candidate Koh Poh Koon, 40, a prominent surgeon who was strongly backed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in the PAP stronghold of Punggol East.

    "This is a devastating loss to the PAP," said Bridget Welsh, an associate professor in Political Science at the Singapore Management University.

    "There's a gap between what ordinary Singaporeans are experiencing and what the government is telling them," she told AFP.

    The PAP has now lost two by-elections in less than a year, adding to its woes after suffering its worst performance in a general election in May 2011.

    But it remains in firm control, holding 80 of the 87 seats in Parliament despite its falling popularity. All seven opposition seats are held by the Workers' Party and the next general elections are not due until 2016.

    By-election win an ‘important episode'

    Yesterday's hotly contested election turned a quiet residential suburb into the focus of a nation.

    Two smaller opposition parties had also fielded candidates, raising hopes among PAP supporters that the opposition vote would fragment in its favour, but it was not to be - the Workers' Party won 16,038 votes to the PAP's 12,856.

    It was a dramatic reversal - two years ago, PAP won Punggol East by bagging 16,994 votes against Workers’ Party’s 12,777. In that contest, the Workers’ Party also fielded yesterday’s victorious candidate, Lee.

    MP Sylvia Lim, who chairs the Workers' Party, said the election was an "important episode" that showed "the value of political competition in getting the government to sit up and take notice".

    The PAP, founded by the prime minister's father Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled for 31 years, has also come under attack for a rapid influx of immigrants accused of stealing jobs, driving up housing prices and straining public services.

    Foreigners now make up about 38 percent of the city state's 5.3 million population, up from about 25 percent in 2000.

    After the PAP garnered an all-time low of 60 percent of all votes cast in the 2011 election, the government slowed down the intake of foreigners.

    It promised to spend billions of dollars to improve mass transport, expand public housing and give cash and other incentives for couples to have more babies and help reduce the island's dependence on foreigners in the long term.

    'Giving us candies not good enough'

    The by-election was called to fill a seat left vacant when parliament speaker Michael Palmer stepped down and quit the PAP in December after he confessed to an extramarital affair.

    "I want a difference," said Nita, a woman in her 30s. "If the Workers' Party can do well in Punggol East, the other constituencies are also watching."

    The PAP has won every national election since independence in 1965, transforming the post-colonial port into a major financial centre by keeping the economy open and society regimented.

    "I respect the choice of Punggol East voters," PM Hsien Loong (right) said in a statement. He called on people to refocus on national issues including the 2013 budget and a new population and immigration plan the government is preparing to deliver.

    "The PAP will continue to improve the lives of Singaporeans, and present our report card for voters to judge in the next general elections," he said.

    But yesterday's by-election shows many people expect more from the government, or at least a bigger say for the opposition.

    "The PAP forgets us after the elections - only gives candies during elections and terms and conditions after," said Daniel Chua, a 58-year-old consultant. "The Workers' Party has the heart to serve."

    - Agencies


  2. #2
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    Oct 2008

    Workers' Party pulls off upset win in S'pore by-election

    • 11:16PM Jan 26, 2013

    Opposition Workers' Party has scored a stunning victory in Singapore's Punggol East by-election, a seat considered a stronghold of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

    Workers' Party candidate Lee Li Lian, 34, a middle-class corporate trainer, took almost 54 percent of the votes cast over PAP candidate Koh Poh Hoon's 43 percent in a four-cornered contest.

    Returning officer Yam Ah Mee announced that Lee had taken a total of 16,038 votes, while Koh, 40, a prominent surgeon, bagged 12,856 votes.

    Meanwhile, two other opposition parties candidates - Singapore Democratic Alliance's Desmond Lim (168 votes) and and Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam (353 votes) both forfeited their election deposit.

    Lee (left in photo) makes history as the second elected female oppostion MP in post- independence Singapore, and first in single-seat ward.

    PAP, which has been in power for more than 50 years, was trounced by the opposition party following a campaign dominated by issues such as the rising cost of living and widening income gaps.

    The Punggol East by-election is the second PAP defeat since the May 2011 general elections when the ruling party's share of popular votes fell to an all-time low of 60 percent.

    PAP was earlier rebuffed by voters at a by-election last May in the opposition stronghold of Hougang.

    However, it still controls 80 of the 87 seats in Parliament, where most seats are elected in clusters. All the seven opposition seats are held by Workers' Party.

    Setback despite promises of more reforms

    Today's vote was called to fill a seat left empty when speaker Michael Palmer stepped down and quit the PAP in December after he confessed to an extramarital affair.

    In an immediate reaction, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) thanked the people for voting the PAP candidate, "but unfortunately not enough to win".

    "In by-election, government has more difficult fight because people see it as electing a MP, not a new government. We will field KPK (Koh Poh Hoon) in future GE," he said in a text message.

    "Now we will refocus on national issues: White Paper on population and Budget 2013. Let us come together and work for a better Singapore.

    "The PAP will continue to work to improve the lives of Singaporeans, and present our report card for voters to judge in the next general elections."

    Voters have delivered PAP a fresh rebuke despite promises of more reforms to appease a restive electorate.

    The next general election in Singapore is expected to be held in 2016.
    - Agencies

  3. #3
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    Oct 2008

    Lessons from PAP's defeat in Punggol East

    • 9:23AM Jan 28, 2013

    COMMENT When the votes were counted in this seat of 31,600 voters, the incumbent PAP had experienced an embarrassing loss - the opposition Workers' Party took the seat decisively with a 10.8% margin, winning 54.5% of the electorate. This was a whopping 13% increase in its share of support from the 2011 general election.

    This is now the second by-election in two years where the dominant PAP has experienced difficulties at the polls, and the overall trend is one of erosion of support that is gaining momentum.

    The Punggol East by-election - in a seat where the PAP had the advantages of incumbency and resources at its disposal - is perhaps the clearest sign that the party is in trouble. Not only is Singapore moving toward a more pluralistic political system, the ruling party is losing ground electorally, particularly among younger Singaporeans.

    To understand the results, it is important to appreciate both local dynamics of the contest as well as broader shifts that are taking place in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia.

    One-party-dominant regimes are struggling in maintaining their political position as their political bases contract and the strategies they are adopting, tied to old practices of politics, are just not making the grade.

    The battle of the sexes

    The most apparent factor in this by-election involved a clear call for a different type of representation. The PAP slated a talented surgeon, Dr Koh Poh Koon (right), in its old winnable mold of the "bright and the brightest". He was supported by the establishment as PAP leaders came to the ground to back one of their own.

    During the campaign it became clearer to the voters that Koh was part of the country's elite. For example, his comments on car ownership - that "everyone in Singapore had a car" and that as professionals he and his wife needed two cars to get to work - backfired. This response brought home the fact that some people are better off than others in Singapore, and created the impression that some were entitled to more.

    Given the price of the certificate of entitlement (COE), to own and keep a car on the road costs over S$100,000 (RM250,000) - and this is one of the cheapest models. Young families cannot afford cars and from Punggol, which is located on the east coast, the travel times to the city can extend beyond an hour. Koh's remarks (literally) drove home the fact that the PAP's chosen elite are not connected to the experience of ordinary Singaporeans.

    The issue of representation went further than elitism as voters in Punggol spoke loudly for putting another woman into Parliament. Singapore has now 21 women in Parliament, or 24.1% (higher than Malaysia's 9.9%). The choice of Workers' Party to field a woman yielded results.

    The PAP responded by urging the people not to vote for "gender per se" and repeatedly call for voters to look at the "qualifications of the candidates". They misunderstood that to diminish the value of women even indirectly is to ask for a response.

    The size of the margin can be tied to this factor alone as the PAP forgot the important role that women play as voters and the reality that it is inappropriate to judge the role of women purely on their paper qualifications. Women often work extra "shifts" to take care of the family, and many work part-time to bring in additional income.

    Young women in particular step out of the workforce to have a family or take different (more flexible jobs) to balance family obligations, including caring of older parents. Voters in Punggol appreciated that having another women's voice in Parliament would provide more inputs on policy, and more importantly that the judgment of a person's worth by the degrees they have is inadequate.

    Ironically, the entire framing of the PAP campaign was gendered. The main issue that received attention was families, as the government announced a package of policies geared toward promoting the demographic expansion of the "Singaporean core". The package included some excellent initiatives for healthcare of the child after birth (neonatal support) to paternal family leave.

    Koh was placed at a disadvantage in articulating these initiatives as the campaign theme spoke directly to the experience of men and women balancing family life. The decisions of women in the family unit were placed centre stage, rather than healthcare or economic policy. Studies show that when woman's issues are prominent in a campaign, this advantages women candidates. The Workers' Party candidate Lee Li Lian had the advantage speaking on the issues as her experience was seen as more "real."

    From the onset, the PAP's candidate was placed at a disadvantage as he was not able to differentiate himself from his party. The attempt to portray him as a "heartlander" originally from Punggol and as a representative of the struggles of ordinary families just could not compete with the reality of Lee's stronger "heartlander" label.

    In a constituency of young families, she was the younger candidate at 34 instead of 40. Voters in Punggol backed for the candidate they could relate to and the candidate who best exemplified the issues prominent in the campaign. Singaporeans - like voters across the region - are more attuned to having representatives that capture diversity and their experience.

    The voters showed they want leaders in Parliament that identify and genuinely understand their concerns, rather than mirror the power holders. This is a fundamental challenge of dominant parties that engage in cloning when choosing their candidates. They forget that in order to keep their party relevant, the operative principle should be about embracing diversity and difference.

    Reform: Beyond populist tinkering

    The election was also a referendum on the efforts of the PAP to engage in reform. Over the last two years, the PAP has introduced a series of initiatives on housing, healthcare and immigration, to name just a few.

    These initiatives share some traits - they build on existing policies (so the fundamental of the policy is kept in place) and primarily assume that voters are motivated by money. At the same time, the PAP has launched a ‘Singaporean Conversation', speaking to groups around the country in a well-meaning but orchestrated listening exercise for feedback.

    These programmes underscored the confidence that the PAP had going to polls in Punggol as they have genuinely attempted reforms. Voters responding by sending a signal that these reforms are inadequate, highlighting that the PAP has much further to go in order to win back support.

    The reasons that PAP's efforts are not gaining ground have to do in part with their assumptions and approach. Are voters motivated by money? Do materialist goals fundamentally motivate Singaporeans? The answer is that increasingly financial incentives are having less of an impact. Showering ‘incentives' only increases the amounts and demands, and for some voters their concerns are not material, for example trust, rights, morality and representation.

    As Southeast Asian countries develop, fewer voters are driven solely by bread-and-butter concerns. Surveys of the Singaporean electorate showcase that a third of voters are more concerned with freedom and civil liberties than economic issues. Even more are concerned with inequalities and social justice, reinforcing a repudiation of elitism and elite candidates.

    Populism initiatives tied to money are inherently limited in today's changing electorates and the more they are practiced, the less their effect. We see in Malaysia that cash handouts only lead to further demands and have a limited boost on popular support. Voters are not dumb - they fully understand that they are being bought and many know that their worth is much more than a paltry sum.

    Implementation is as important as the measures themselves. While the PAP still has its machinery solidly on the ground, fewer of those involved in grassroots work are chosen to represent the party. Decisions in policies and candidate selection are made centrally, without meaningful inputs from the ground. It is no wonder that the populist campaigning is not working.

    For those in power, it is a difficult transition from a pattern of control to one with uncertainty, from superiority to greater equality, from distance to empathy and from knowledge to understanding.

    It is further compounded by a resistance to real policy reform. For all of the measures that the PAP have introduced - and there are considerable - the policies themselves are still tied to the same fundamentals.

    Immigration policy reforms have involved numbers, not whether the practice of relying on foreign labour is correct. The practice of late is that if foreign workers misbehave, then kick them out, as happened with the bus drivers who went on strike.

    On housing, the regime still relies on close ties with property development and all the tinkering has yet to cool the market and bring affordable options to the electorate. Many in Punggol live far out because this is the only area they could afford, and even here prices are exorbitant.

    The reality is that younger Singaporeans do not feel that they can have the same opportunities as their parents and the inequalities in their everyday reality are blatantly obvious. Indeed, the overwhelming majority in Singapore do not feel that they are fairly benefitting from the country's success.

    The PAP has yet to accept that some of the policy frameworks in place may need to be re-hauled. A reform is not replacing one bill with another that does the same thing, or changing a threshold level on a policy that is still basically in place. The PAP technocrats are focused on tweaking the system that they think is working and not following the forefathers of early generations that recognised that new systems have to be created and introduced for today's new reality.

    The resistance to change is deeply embedded in the system that efforts of reform are watered down, on in some cases even just for show.

    A new reality with a new Lee

    Lee Li Lian's victory does not change the balance of power in Singapore. The opposition has seven elected seats in Parliament out of 87, a mere 8%. It does however bring in a new voice into Parliament, one who got there not by her political pedigree.

    The campaign dynamics, macro trends and underlying factors are illustrative. Three days before the election, I believed that the Workers' Party could win this by-election, although I thought it would be close. The tide turned in the campaign, at rallies and in coffeeshop conversations.

    The PAP came off as too distant from the electorate, and voters opted for a new Lee. Voters spoke up in their assessment of representation, reforms and the gap between the reform and their realities. The shifts on the ground however have been real for some time as voters demand for change.

    These forces are gaining regionally, including in Malaysia. The questions of representation, reform and reality are as salient as they are across the Causeway, perhaps even more so given the intensive politicking of the last few years and the level of competitiveness.

    The parallels between the PAP and Umno are there, but unlike the PAP, the initiatives in reform are must less substantive in Malaysia and the fundamental problems of corruption and perceived abuses of power have sadly become even more accentuated with time.

    Pakatan Rakyat has gained ground politically because it is seen to be more inclusive, more willing to offer change and more attuned to conditions on the ground, even though questions remain about how it will govern as a unit and its priorities in office.

    The main lesson from Punggol East is that incumbents in dominant party systems not willing to substantively transform themselves is no longer an advantage. It is in fact a liability.

    DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University and she can be reached at

  4. #4
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    Oct 2008
    Singapore's rulers suffer by-election loss

    By Simon Roughneen

    SINGAPORE - In a surprise result, Singapore's long-ruling People's Action Party (PAP) at the weekend suffered a second consecutive by-election loss since winning the 2011 general election, ceding the island state's Punggol East seat to the main opposition Workers' Party.

    The result saw opposition politician Lee Lu Lian take the Workers' Party's seventh seat in parliament, a small but significant win for proponents of a more pluralist political system in the wealthy city-state.

    The PAP, which has governed Singapore mostly unopposed since 1959, holds 80 of parliament's 87 seats, a majority secured at the 2011 elections where only 60% of eligible voters turned out.

    Lee, a 34-year-old sales trainer, took the contested seat in a northeast constituency, close to one of the island state's main border crossings with Malaysia. By winning 54.5% of the vote on Saturday, Lee outpaced PAP candidate Koh Poh Koon by more than 10 percentage points. She also received 13 percentage point more votes than at the 2011 general election, when she finished second to a PAP candidate.

    Though the result came as an electoral surprise, the PAP may have erred in choosing a candidate without a solid constituency base - in keeping with the party's long-standing method of choosing highly educated and qualified candidates from across the city-state rather than local politicians known in particular constituencies.

    The down-to-earth Lee "was able to identify with the Punggol East voter," said Reuben Wong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore. "She is the closest among the four candidates to the demographic profile of this ward," he told Asia Times Online.

    The by-election was called when PAP incumbent Michael Palmer, who was parliamentary speaker, ceded the seat he won in 2011 after admitting he had cheated on his wife.

    A 2012 by-election in the nearby Hougang constituency was called when Workers' Party incumbent Yaw Shin Leong was forced from office and from the party in another of Singapore's increasingly common sex scandals. The Workers' Party retained that seat, however, which the opposition party has held since 1988.

    Though ballot-casting was restricted to just over 31,000 eligible voters, the by-election had the trappings of an early-term local plebiscite on the performances of PAP in office and the Workers' Party as opposition. Singapore's next national election is more than three years away.

    Since the PAP returned to office in 2011, it has had to deal with public gripes over a fast rising cost of living, housing shortages and anti-immigrant sentiment in a country where foreigners now make up 40% of the 5.3 million population. Foreigners buoy several crucial business sectors, including electronics, chemicals and financial services in the US$250 billion economy.

    They are all issues the opposition Workers' Party is using to challenge the PAP's legitimacy. To the cheers from party supporters and Punggol East onlookers, the Workers' Party's Secretary General stumped for Lee at a pre-election rally in Punggol East by reminding them of the first-world woes of living in Singapore.

    "We all have to deal with rising food prices, rising transport costs, rising healthcare costs," he intoned, raising cheers from the estimated 3,000 or so light blue-clad Workers' Party supporters who attended a rally in a sodden field behind a Chinese temple in the constituency.

    On the other side, the PAP was not able to capitalize on the power of incumbency. In the run-up to the vote, the government announced new incentives to goad Singaporeans to have more children, pledging to spend $2 billion on incentives such as childcare, longer parental leave periods, cash gifts to parents to try increase Singapore's 1.3 fertility rate, a figure that lags well below the natural 2.1 replacement level.

    Several voters interviewed by Asia Times Online said that, though welcome, the scheme is unlikely to offset the baby deficit unless living costs drop and housing shortages are managed.

    In the run-up to the vote, the final two Workers' Party rallies last week were notable for attracting much larger crowds than PAP events.

    "Everyone knows what the PAP says," said Steven Lim, a pro-PAP voter who runs a watch shop in Punggol East. "They have always been in government and are always in the news, so more people are more likely to attend a Workers' Party rally as they don't know as much about them."

    Workers' Party events for the by-election were also notable for pulling in party supporters from across the island, boosting numbers and generating an enthusiasm that the PAP could not match. To a much smaller crowd of around 600 onlookers on the Thursday night before the vote, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sought to remind voters of the PAP's record in office, which has presided over a jump in gross domestic product per capita from $516 in 1956 to today's $60,000 - a level among the world's highest.

    "Why does Punggol East look like this?" asked Prime Minister Lee, pointing to the intricate infrastructure around the neighborhood. "Because the government did it," he said. He also warned against what he termed "divisive politics", which he characterized as when "we slap one another and call it checks and balances."

    Whether or not the Workers' Party win signals that the country is finally transitioning into a genuine two-party political system remains unclear. The Workers' Party appeared to acknowledge as much even with the electoral win.

    "Despite this victory, the Workers' Party is still a small party with much to do and improve upon," party chairwoman Sylvia Lim told reporters. Putting a brave face on Saturday's result, Prime Minister Lee reminded that by-election dynamics can sometimes work against the incumbent. "The governing party always has a tougher fight," he said.

  5. #5
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    Oct 2008
    Living with voters’ existential angst — Eugene KB Tan

    January 29, 2013
    JAN 29 — Was the Punggol East by-election result a rough but reliable reflection of Singaporeans’ assessment of how the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Workers’ Party (WP) have performed since the 2011 general election (GE)?

    Perhaps. But we should be careful not to extrapolate the results as being a barometer of national sentiment.

    Nonetheless, the results are a useful snapshot of the dynamic political situation. More importantly, what does it signal next for the PAP, the WP, the opposition in general and Singaporeans?

    The PAP’s performance at the polls has been attributed to the “by-election effect” in which voters, knowing that the PAP remains in charge regardless of the outcome of the by-election, were more inclined to vote for the WP to put pressure on the government.

    But this assertion about tactical voting behaviour is simplistic. It does not give sufficient credence to the unsettled ground realities and residents’ actual sentiments, and how they impacted political and voting behaviour.

    It assumes that voters will vote differently in the next GE — which must be held by January 9, 2017— because much more will be at stake.

    True, the by-election factor and other issues would have weighed on voters’ minds — including estate amenities, the stalled Rivervale Plaza upgrading and transport connectivity — but the results may very well also reflect the deep existential angst felt by a wider swathe of Singaporeans — especially among the younger, “sandwich” middle-class demographic that was represented in Punggol East.


    We are at the crossroads economically, socially and politically. The Singapore development model, which worked very well in our fledgling days, has to evolve with the changes in society.

    Economic success alone is grossly insufficient to define what Singapore is and what it means to be Singaporean. The price of our success is increasingly being questioned.

    The PAP urgently needs to connect more with this existential angst, anxiety and aspirations of voters who feel a growing sense of alienation. It needs to return to its roots as a grassroots party.

    The PAP must go back to being a political party in form and substance. The long years of a depoliticised polity in Singapore suggest the PAP has lost much of the art and the craft of winning the hearts and minds of voters.

    In this by-election, for example, the party’s rallies featured policy-style speeches — rational in signature but failing to excite or connect effectively with voters in the way the WP did. The WP also tapped deep into disaffection over lingering hot-button issues from GE 2011.

    The PAP cannot just function as the alter ego of the government. A government, primarily, has to govern and lead. It can afford to be faceless and bureaucratic.

    But a political party has to be the nuts-and-bolts of walking and working the ground; it has to emote genuinely and respond to the fears, concerns and aspirations of the average Singaporean.

    It has to talk with, not to, the people. It must inspire the electorate to its ideas, policies and vision.

    The question for the PAP is, how.


    If negative sentiments are allowed to fester, the PAP will continue to lose ground as Singaporeans are now less the homo economicus. Post-material concerns and aspirations are becoming more important to us.

    We are shifting from being value-driven to being values-centred, even as material well-being remains important as a fact of life. In other words, even as the average Singaporean is deeply concerned with his “interests”, a persistent obsession with the “bottom line” to motivate people is too instrumental. The ideals of fairness and justice matter in building trust, confidence and a sense of belonging to this nation.

    The slew of policy measures to deal with the hot-button issues does not seem to have adequately assuaged Singaporeans. Sure, it takes time for those measures to show their effect and true worth.

    But policy tweaks will not be sufficient, given the existential angst. The limitations of our development model require a more fundamental rethink of long-standing policies.

    For example, with the White Paper on Population due to be debated in Parliament next month, it will not be enough for the PAP government to tout that it has managed and restricted the inflow of immigrants to deal with the concerns of Singaporeans about immigration.

    More importantly, what is the impact of immigration on the Singaporean identity? Do we value and nurture Singaporeans at the workplace when immigration provides an off-the-shelf solution to our demographic woes, and the desire for quick success? Is the immigration policy unwittingly encouraging discrimination against Singaporeans at all levels, weakening what it means to be Singaporean?


    With the big swing against it in Punggol East in a mere 20 months, will the PAP now adopt the politics of appeasement, given that the next GE has all the settings of being the watershed polls?

    At the same time, one view is that no matter what policy solutions the PAP offers, voters will want a greater opposition voice in Parliament. Can the PAP reconcile itself to the fact that Singaporeans are less enamoured today with a one-party dominant system, having internalised that good governance cannot be about all our eggs in one political basket?

    The question is not whether Singapore will see more political plurality, but when that will come about. The PAP can opt to be the responsible steward of that development or it can have change forced upon it.

    The other reality the PAP must live with is that while it holds 80 out of 87 (or 92 per cent) of the elected parliamentary seats, voters will continue to practise double standards in which the ruling party is held to a higher standard than the opposition. This comes with being the only political party that has governed Singapore since 1959.

    The PAP’s dominance was its strength in the halcyon days of nation-building; in the next stage of our development, dominance will have to be more nuanced. The PAP has its work cut out for it. — Today

    * Eugene KB Tan is assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law. He is also a Nominated Member of Parliament.

    * This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

  6. #6
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    Oct 2008
    Why the PAP lost so badly in the Punggol East by-election — Wong Wee Nam

    January 28, 2013
    JAN 28 — The results of the Punggol East by-election in Singapore surprised everyone. People expected a very close fight. No one expected the People’s Action Party (PAP), by its own standards, to be thrashed by such a wide margin. Even the professional forecasters who make a living offering odds thought that the PAP was going to win by 1,000 votes.

    What then went wrong?

    When Michael Palmer resigned his seat, the prime minister saw no urgency to call for a by-election. He said that there were some national issues to be settled first. On hindsight, perhaps he should have stuck to this initial intention. Unfortunately he did not.

    When the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) announced its intention to contest the by-election and made known the seriousness of this intention by going on walkabouts and house-to-house visits in impressive style, the PAP changed its mind.

    With the SDP’s participation, the PAP probably thought that a three-cornered fight would kill the opposition’s challenge and hand the PAP an easy victory. Thus, almost immediately after the SDP’s announcement, the by-election was called.

    On paper, this is a great strategy — surprise the enemy, fight a battle quickly and attack when the enemy is not ready and in a state of disunity. Do not allow them time to co-operate. Sun Zi, author of “The Art of War”, would have been very proud of the PAP if not for some miscalculations.

    The first miscalculation was to think that the opposition parties were not ready. Within 24 hours of the announcement of the by-election, the SDP, with the efficiency of an SAF recall, had already mobilised its members and supporters and started knocking on the doors. By the time it announced its pullout, in the interest of opposition unity, it had covered almost the whole of Punggol East and saturated the voters with opposition messages.

    Though the SDP did not contest in the end, it had contributed a lot to the opposition vote by giving the residents one round of opposition views. By pulling out, it had also allowed the Workers’ Party (WP) to go on an essentially one-to-one fight with the PAP. This was the PAP’s second miscalculation.

    When the WP started its campaign, the ground was already softened by the SDP’s early start and by the time it finished its round of house-to-house visits, each household would have received three rounds of opposition calls to vote for the opposition (including the campaigns by SDA and Reform Party). With such a massive opposition call to an unhappy electorate, there is only one way the result would go. Though each party did their own thing, they collectively managed to unite the opposition supporters into one voice to send a clear message to let the government know of their unhappiness.

    Fighting a war is not just a matter of surprise, speed and disarray in your opponents. It is also about having an experienced general who can lead his men into battle. It is also about the morale and preparedness of your generals and foot soldiers. In spite of the PAP’s reputation for efficiency and a well-oiled machinery, it failed on these counts.

    In the past, when the PAP eyes a potential candidate, the least it would do is to let the person understudy a more seasoned MP. This did not seem to be so in the case of Dr Koh Poh Koon. He seemed unprepared and was not keen to contest when he was first asked. Having joined the PAP for only a month, there was definitely inadequate time to prepare him for any election, let alone a snap by-election.

    As it turned out, his inexperience showed up glaringly. Some of the bloopers he made would not have been made by a more seasoned campaigner and that probably caused him votes. Imagine telling voters about his alleged abject poverty and then telling them not to give sympathy votes.

    It is hard to think that a child of his era, when Singapore was prospering and the PAP was promising the Swiss standard of living, would have such deprivation as lack of chopsticks and food. It could happen only with great income disparity and without the policy of a minimum wage. Isn’t it then more logical for a person who has experienced such childhood poverty to join a party like the SDP instead of the PAP?

    After all the talk about his humble background, Dr Koh then made a slip of his tongue and said that everybody in Singapore drives a car. Voters must be wondering if the potential office holder is out of touch with reality with such elitist thinking.

    The PAP has the practice of parachuting well-qualified people as candidates for elections. In the past things worked out well because these people were sent in way before an election. This gave the person ample time to get to know the grassroots members and to bond with them. In this way, any misgiving of any member towards the candidate initially could be ironed out with time.

    In Dr Koh’s case, he had only two weeks. This is too short a time to adjust to supporters who are still mourning the departure of their previous MP. Any newly-appointed football manager knows he needs time before he can get his team to fight for him and achieve peak performance. Thus, without the fire, it is not possible for soldiers to fight a good battle.

    The PAP had called for a snap by-election because it wanted to catch the opposition parties off-guard. The parties would not have time to prepare and would fight among themselves. Instead, as it turned out, it was the PAP itself that needed more time. — TR Emeritus

    * This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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