The Straits Times says

Reading the collective will better

Even before parsing the emphatic electoral victory for the People's Action Party, one should ask why none had been able to see this surprisingly large swing in its favour coming earlier. Those observing from a distance can be forgiven for getting it wrong, like a Malaysian commentator in The Star who predicted that a demand for political change here could upset results as it had grown into "an 'unstoppable' tidal wave". And an Economist Intelligence Unit editor expected the PAP to only "retain or gain a slightly higher share" of the popular vote. But many closer to home were also blindsided - political pundits, academics, media professionals, bookies and, indeed, all the political players as well. How is it they fared little better than the battery of pollsters who misread the outcome of Britain's elections in May?

The question matters because of the great pains taken here to engage in consultations, pound the beat and make house-to-house visits. So, why was the "silent majority" tight-lipped, and were swing voters adequately covered by outreach efforts? As it happened, all succumbed to the effect of an echo chamber that gave more prominence to pro-opposition narratives, especially on social media, than other views. It's a moot point if a big pitch would have been made for the "rational voter" with a better reading of majority concerns. Would opposition strategies have changed, with less political getai which in the end yielded more disappointment than triumph? Keen contestation is par for the course during elections but, done for its own sake, it can take a toll on the tone and substance of debates.

Knowing upfront what matters more to the majority in election cycles is also relevant to the nature of the politics to be nurtured here. For example, sensing that the bond between a government and the people is largely transactional - based on delivering the goods - would give the leadership sufficient time to accentuate other factors instead, like trust. Otherwise, the frenzy of a compressed campaigning season could spur a race to the bottom, with candidates pandering to material demands which cannot be sustained. Increasingly, what would be of greater concern is the political handling of important trade-offs when the public reach exceeds what's within the state's grasp. Rather than just guess the majority's wants, it would be more helpful for all political participants to know the score and not let an assumption create a reality of its own.

What the majority of voters truly mean by inscribing a simple "X" should not be just left to interpretation after the polls. Indeed, many thoughts might run through minds when making that precious one mark on a ballot. But the public pulse needs to be accurately felt well before that, from both vocal minority and silent majority, especially in an age of consensus politics.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline 'Reading the collective will better'. Print Edition | Subscribe