By Invitation

The strategic voter in the 'new normal'

In the 'new normal' of Singapore politics, expect voters to be strategic, using their vote to push for the outcome they want. Voters' support is conditional and can change from election to election

On the Monday after General Election 2015, I brought a humble pie to my office.

Like so many analysts on the elections, I did not see it coming - that the PAP would have a landslide victory winning 69.9 per cent of the votes, regaining the seat it lost in the by-election of 2013, Punggol East, and not yielding another group representation constituency (GRC).

The leading opposition party, the Workers' Party (WP), saw its share of the votes cut back from 46.6 per cent in 2011 to 39.75 per cent in 2015 and lost one seat, leaving it with six in a House of 89.

Interestingly, a cab driver who took me to my destination in Orchard Road on Cooling-off Day was nearer the mark in his prediction. He told me the PAP would get 65 per cent of the vote. He hoped there would be a few opposition members in Parliament.

The PAP's vote would improve as "they have done some things after 2011, not everything, it could be improved, but they have done things and people will give them their vote".

So in the "new normal" of Singapore politics, expect the "old normal" but with an electorate that is now more demanding, seeking participation (a voice), and more accountability than ever before.

He pointed out housing as an area of great improvement. More housing had come on the market and young couples did not have to wait for too long to be able to buy a flat. He speculated that GST would be raised by the end of the year.

Mr Cabby said he used to run a small laundry business but, a couple of years ago, it became very hard for him because he could not hire foreign labour to help. He decided to close the business and became a taxi driver.

A slew of analyses on the general election has been published on why the PAP rolled back the trend of declining electoral support in the last two general elections and by-election. I believe three factors more than others contributed to the huge swing.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MANNY FRANCISCO

First, as everyone acknowledges, the PAP Government took the loss of the vote in 2011 to heart and began a national conversation to learn more about what the people wanted. Most importantly, the PAP changed and adjusted existing policies. This led to a heightened focus on redistributive policies, leading commentators to talk of the leftward socialist drift of the PAP.

Second, there is no doubt the death of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had a major impact, bringing the country together and subduing divisive, negative narratives that had dominated our daily conversation and the social media.

His death activated the innate good sense in Singaporeans and gave us perspective to look at what the tiny Republic had achieved over the past 50 years, and what he and his extraordinary team had done against all odds. The Lee Kuan Yew factor was present, even if subconscious, in the minds of many who went to the polls , which helped the PAP.

Third, and most importantly, in the course of the election campaign the WP changed tack, departing from its position that voters should vote for the WP for a check on the ruling party in Parliament. The message then turned into "entrench the opposition" and the WP spoke of taking over a couple of other GRCs and seats.

Other opposition parties, the Singapore Democratic Party and Singaporeans First, alluded to a coalition of opposition parties to lead the next government. The prospect of a sudden large increase of opposition members in Parliament, and a weakening of the PAP, may have alarmed the swing voter or silent majority.

People want some opposition in Parliament but, at this point in time, are not yet comfortable with the idea of a substantial opposition that would slow down the governing party and prevent it from taking initiatives that may be good for the country.

WHAT IS THE 'NEW NORMAL' NOW ?

Since 2011, commentators have used the term "new normal" to describe the break from the overwhelming dominance of the PAP in Parliament.

That dominance began after independence. In the first post-independence general election in 1968, with the anxieties of separation , the entire population united behind the Government. The PAP garnered 84.4 per cent of the vote.

The Barisan Sosialis, the leading opposition at that time, had resigned from Parliament in 1966 and boycotted the elections, decrying Singapore's independence as "phoney".

This left Singapore with a single party in Parliament for the first time in its history. Elections through the decades saw only two to four seats falling to the opposition. Meanwhile, politics and the electorate in Singapore have changed. In 2011, the WP won in the Aljunied GRC and kept Hougang SMC, giving it six seats to the PAP's 81.

With Punggol East going to WP in the by-election of 2013, the tide in Singapore politics appeared to be shifting , finally moving towards more contestation, and politics was said to be "normalising". So the "new normal" was to expect the ruling party to lose more votes and possibly more seats.

But it did not play out that way in this general election.

In fact, Mr Low Thia Khiang, the WP's leader, may have been prescient when he said during his Sunday morning thank-you parade in Punggol East in 2013 that the by-election was not indicative of trends at future polls. He may have shrewdly understood that the Singapore electorate does not want to be faced with new uncertainties. They still wanted the PAP as Government.

How is one to read the 2015 General Election results?

Singaporeans are today better educated, well-informed and much travelled. The electorate is sophisticated and discerning. We are rational, pragmatic and fair.

All this produces a strategic voter. There are party loyalists in any country, of course, and they will vote for their party, no matter rain or shine. But the bulk of the Singapore voters will use their vote strategically to push for the outcome they wish for.

If the PAP is responsive and going in the direction they want, they will support the governing party. If the PAP does not listen or heed their voices, support will be withdrawn.

In 2011, the PAP was seen to be going in the wrong direction and the electorate punished the party. In 2015, the PAP was seen to be going in the right direction, and the party saw a huge swing back in its favour. The voters' support is always conditional - as they say, "it depends".

So at each general election the votes must be fought for and won.

What's next for the opposition?

The landslide victory for the PAP does not mean the opposition has been sidelined. It is a good thing that the WP was re-elected in Aljunied GRC. It would not have been good for Singapore if we went back to the situation of one opposition member in Parliament. We have evolved beyond that.

My taxi driver could see we need some opposition in Parliament. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam made it a point to reiterate after the general election that the opposition can "play a constructive and positive role in Singapore politics, as they must".

So in the "new normal" of Singapore politics, expect the "old normal" but with an electorate that is now more demanding, seeking participation (a voice), and more accountability than ever before.

And heartland culture was in full expression.

The campaign saw far more dialect, Malay, Mandarin and Singlish used to reach out to the crowds. After the election results, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has promised that, going forward, he and his team will continue to emphasise inclusiveness, openness and citizen involvement.

The PAP, the opposition and voters all live in exciting times, as we try out the limits of the "new normal".


•The writer chairs the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities in the Singapore University of Technology and Design. She is the author of the award-winning book, The Dynamics Of One Party Dominance: The PAP At The Grassroots (1978).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2015, with the headline 'The strategic voter in the 'new normal''. Print Edition | Subscribe