Comment and analysis

The end of the 'new normal'

Voters want to be won over every time they go to the polls

So, is this the "new normal" of Singapore politics?

Were voters signalling, through the massive 10-point swing to the People's Action Party in Friday's polls, that they wanted a return to one party dominating Parliament overwhelmingly, at the expense of alternative views being heard in and out of the House?

Did the Workers' Party's call to entrench the opposition and add diversity to public discourse as part of the necessary evolution of politics in a maturing society fall on deaf ears?

Do the results mean the PAP now has the political winds behind it and momentum on its side, so much so that it might be tempted to return to the "old normal" of politics here, and the politically dominant - or, as its critics would say, domineering - ways of the past?

Not so fast. To think that would be to commit the same mistake as some political watchers made after the last general election.

Soon after the 2011 polls, when the PAP suffered its worst electoral showing, with 60.1 per cent of the vote, many were quick to declare this the "new normal" of Singapore politics.

The opposition, and especially the WP, was seen - not without an element of wishful thinking - to be in the ascendant, with the PAP adrift, amid much internal soul-searching that went on for months. The subsequent big wins for the WP in two by-elections, in 2012 and 2013, reinforced this view.

It led many to draw a straight political line to the future, with the WP marching ever forward, expected to sweep more seats and, perhaps, even another GRC or two in this election, as the PAP struggled to stave off an inevitable retreat in the face of a better-educated, more demanding electorate.

That didn't happen.

Instead, things turned out more like events in the 1990s. In the 1991 polls, the opposition pulled off a surprise sweep of four seats against a popular PAP leader, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. There was much talk about the imminent emergence of a two-party system, with the rising Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) providing an alternative to the PAP.

Yet, when voters went to the polls in 1997, the SDP was routed, with most of its sitting MPs turfed out for their lame and lackadaisical performances in Parliament and on the ground.

The moral of the story here is simple: In politics, what goes up can also come down.

So, just as the PAP gained from a surge to safety in the snap 2001 elections called soon after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, taking a stunning 75.3 per cent of the votes, it also saw this reversed to 66.6 per cent in 2006, shedding nearly 9 percentage points, almost as big a swing as happened this time round.

Understanding what voters were saying in each of these outings to the polls is thus almost as important as the outcome itself, if parties are to draw the right lessons and secure the people's support for the long haul.

So just what were voters saying in GE 2015?

Was it just the effect of the so-called SG50 feel-good factor benefiting the ruling party? I have always doubted this was enough to sway the vote decisively, and still do.

What I think made the difference was the passing of founding father Lee Kuan Yew in March, which did more than anything else to remind everyone here what SG50 was all about. A week of national mourning focused many minds on the struggles and sacrifices that had been made - and might still be needed - in order for this tiny red dot to survive and succeed in an inhospitable region.

That, plus an unlikely confluence of external events - from plunging stock markets and currencies, to protesters on the streets in Kuala Lumpur, and even the haze that blanketed the island on the eve of Polling Day - helped make clear to voters that the PAP's insistence on the need for Singaporeans to stay united, ever paranoid and forward-looking, if the country was to remain "special", was not just so much political scaremongering.

Add to that the sense that the PAP had made palpable efforts to heed and address voters' concerns on housing, healthcare, transport and immigration, even if there remained much work to do on some fronts.


PAP candidates - especially the PM, who put himself front and centre of the campaign - were also visibly working their guts out to win over each and every voter in the run-up to and during the campaign. That, plus a sense of overreach - and even hubris - among some opposition candidates, who began talking about taking over the government, all added up to cause many to decide that, perhaps, having brought Singapore this far over the last 50 years, the PAP deserved at least another five years at the helm.

GE2015 thus saw a remarkable combination of factors and events - some engineered by the ruling party like the Jubilee celebrations, others pure circumstance like the passing of Mr Lee - unlikely to be repeated.

Yet, that is precisely the point about every election. Each time voters go to the polls is different, and anything can, and often does, happen. There are no straight lines to the future in politics, with all its surprising ebbs and flows, and if nothing else, GE2015 has debunked the idea that a "new normal" was set after 2011. The next election will be no different, with its own set of issues to be addressed, and electoral battles to be won, rather than a simple extrapolation of trends from GE2015.

In the end, voters made clear on Friday that they retain the right to judge at each election just who has understood their concerns best, and acted in their interests, and give their support accordingly.

What voters give, they can just as readily take away. They are in charge, they "are the bosses", to borrow from one of PM Lee's rallies, and that is precisely the way they like it. It is a message that politicians ,whether in red, white or blue, should never forget, in both victory and defeat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 13, 2015, with the headline 'The end of the 'new normal''. Print Edition | Subscribe