New book on GE2015 looks at the Singaporean voter and the triumph of pragmatism

New book on GE2015 applies academic rigour to explain why the PAP swept to victory

Supporters of the People’s Action Party (right) and the Workers’ Party at Fengshan Nomination Centre on Sept 1, 2015.
Supporters of the People’s Action Party (right) and the Workers’ Party at Fengshan Nomination Centre on Sept 1, 2015. PHOTO: ST FILE

The results of last year's general election, in which the People's Action Party (PAP) swept nearly 70 per cent of the vote, took many by surprise.

While some were quick to dismiss the new normal as an anomaly at first, a group of university researchers and political observers chose to delve deeper to explain what led to the PAP's strongest electoral victory since 2001.

Their new 318-page book, Change In Voting: Singapore's 2015 General Election, is a scholarly account that seeks to explain why Singaporeans voted the way they did on Sept 11 last year.


Few books discuss Singapore's general elections in a scholarly manner, so this volume edited by constitutional law expert Kevin Tan and media studies associate professor Terence Lee is welcome for its rigorous analysis. Their bottom line, seen in the first and penultimate chapters, sets out the idea of a pendulum of pragmatic voting.

Singaporeans, the argument goes, decided to reward the PAP in GE2015 for its performance over the last four years, just as they chose to signal their displeasure over public housing price woes and transport breakdowns in GE2011.



    By Dr Kevin Tan, Associate Professor Terence Lee

    et al

    Ethos Books/ Paperback/318 pages/$26.75/ Major bookstores

Here, the experience of Dr Tan, an adjunct professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS), and Prof Lee of Australia's Murdoch University helps to place last year's result in perspective.

Both co-edited a similar volume after the 2011 polls, titled Voting In Change, and built on this experience to deliver the new volume.

It opens with the argument that the GE entrenched pragmatism as the dominant political ideology in Singapore.

Political scientist Lam Peng Er describes it as a "reward and punishment" strategy.

"The electorate is largely conservative, pragmatic and savvy and is adept at extracting benefits for itself in a 'transactional' democracy," writes Dr Lam, from the NUS' East Asian Institute.

"This majority adopts a calibrated and hard-nosed approach in general elections: It rewards the ruling party if it performs; and punishes it if it fails," he adds.

The rest of the book is grouped into three sections, with 15 chapters in total. The first section introduces the big picture and sets up the broad questions, while the second section delves into specific election issues. The third section analyses elements of the campaign.

The 15 chapters cover a range of topics including personality politics, gerrymandering, voting patterns, social media and rallies.

The book's value also lies in the light it shines on the less-explored corners of electoral politics in Singapore.The issues-based chapters try to analyse the extent to which each issue caught fire, and delve into the effectiveness of the opposition's rhetoric - a fresh approach not undertaken by others so far.

The depth of analysis varies from chapter to chapter, with some running the risk of being no more than a shallow recap of party positions.

Education took a back seat this round chiefly because neither the Workers' Party (WP) nor the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) made the issue a centrepiece of their campaigns, argues Mr Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, a PhD candidate in political science on the NUS-King's College London joint degree programme. He attributes it largely to the closeness in ideological positions of the WP and PAP, which underscores his larger point that the two parties are fundamentally not dissimilar.

Unlike the SDP, the WP does not contest the PAP's core ideologies, raising the intriguing possibility that the WP might be ideologically further from the SDP than the PAP.

Unfortunately, academic Loke Hoe Yeong and private investment analyst Alex Lew do not quite manage to provide this quality of political insight in their chapter on transport, despite covering policies and party proposals in detail.

Mr Loke, an associate fellow at the European Union Centre think- tank set up by NUS and Nanyang Technological University, and Mr Lew establish that transport policy is political, but then fail to tackle the question of why the frequent public transport breakdowns did not drag down the PAP's vote.

They note that "Singaporeans have either been remarkably practical in delinking transport issues from politics, or have somehow been so swept along by the feel-good factor of the SG50 celebrations as not to be dampened by their daily commuting frustrations", without really explaining why.

The first part of the book is useful for those who were away during the election season, or who have only a rudimentary grasp of politics here.

Those who have been keener observers of politics since 2011 can skip the chapter that retraces the minute details of political developments since then.

In some chapters, the language is needlessly convoluted, but overall, the book should be accessible to casual readers.

Though Change In Voting is a collection of academic essays, the casual reader will easily find material that makes for an intriguing read.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'The S'porean voter and the triumph of pragmatism'. Subscribe