What caused the GE vote swing?

Of all the many explanations for the vote swing towards the People's Action Party (PAP) in the General Election, one stands out for what it says about the electorate.

This is that voters, fearing the ruling party might be booted out of office, turned out in numbers to prevent the unthinkable from happening.

The fear of a freak election result almost created another freak to wipe out the opposition.

In the event, the nationwide 9.8 percentage point swing almost caused the Workers' Party's prize catch at Aljunied to fall, and it barely held on.

But was there really any danger of the PAP not being able to form the government?

The still-fuzzy picture that is emerging: Evenone more GRC falling to the opposition seems– going by the result of this GE– to be one step too far for the majority of voters, at this point in the transition.

Could voters have been spooked by the aggressive nature of the opposition's campaign?

Or how the bookie odds which were widely circulated predicted large wins for the WP?

But a non-PAP government was highly unlikely since the WP contested only 28 seats and, even if it won all of them - which was not likely in the first place - the PAP would still have a comfortable majority. The other opposition parties, save for the Singapore Democratic Party, were not given much of a chance, and the results validated this assessment.

How could voters have behaved so irrationally to actually believe the PAP would fall?

There has to be another explanation.

Here is one: There was another fear, not as frightening as the first, but where the danger was clearer.

This is the possibility of the PAP losing seats and votes, not enough to fall as a government, but enough to weaken it and cause Singapore the country to suffer the consequences.

Unlike the first fear, this does not require voters to make such a great leap of the imagination.

But at which point - how many seats did voters fear the PAP might lose - to get them to hit the panic button? Seven? Ten? Twenty?

This is an interesting question because it helps answer one of the big unknowns as Singapore transits into a new normal.

What is the political balance that voters desire between the PAP and the opposition that best serves their interest?

Before this GE, there was only GE2011 to go by, one dot in the electoral trajectory, which is not enough to answer the question.

Now there are two points, still insufficient but better than nothing and there is at least a line to connect the two dots.

The still-fuzzy picture that is emerging: Even one more GRC falling to the opposition seems - going by the result of this GE -

to be one step too far for the majority of voters, at this point in the transition.

This seems an extraordinarily conservative mindset even in a Singapore that has seen only one-party rule.

One explanation is that it is not just a numbers game.

There is a psychological dimension that has to do with how any balance affects confidence in Singapore and the ability of the PAP to act if weakened.

Indeed, during the campaign, its leaders hammered away at this point, about how dangerous it was for the country to have a party unable to govern effectively - like removing the secret ingredient to its success.

You might dismiss all this as election rhetoric but because of Singapore's exceptional performance the last 50 years, many voters could have been persuaded, especially after the SG50 celebrations.

In fact, this message about how a dominant party is critical for the country is at the core of the PAP narrative.

From it everything else revolves.

Pitted against it: The WP's story about the importance of checks and balances to make for better governance and stability.

Taking the results of GE2011 and GE2015 together - the two dots on the curve - you could say the score is now one each for these two opposing points of view.

Four years ago, the WP's version was in the ascendant.

Now, it is the PAP's.

But the two narratives remain the same, and the battle for hearts and minds continues.

Voters are far from deciding conclusively how far they want to go with one or the other, and subsequent elections will see them adjusting their preferences depending on the experience in the intervening years. This has ramifications for both sides.

For the PAP, it is a golden opportunity to clinch the argument made during the campaign that the opposition is not necessary to make it work for the people's interest.

It has the next five years to drive home this point.

This means not just solving policy problems but changing the perception that it is an elitist government with leaders out of touch with the lives of ordinary Singaporeans.

Given its strong mandate, it should have greater confidence to rise to the challenge, and leave the opposition even less room to manoeuvre.

For the opposition, and in particular the WP, it might be forced to adopt a more conservative approach when contesting the next election.

Given how sensitive voters are to radical change, the WP might have to consider targeting fewer, say just two more, GRCs.

This is not about curtailing its ambition but about understanding the electorate's conservative nature and making the best of it.

When voters want baby steps, contesting 28 seats and declaring it was aiming for 20 is moving too far ahead of the curve.

But while it should be understated in its electoral designs, its MPs will have to be more proactive to live up to their promise of adding to the diversity of views here and making the government accountable. The WP needs a well-thought-out strategy to walk this political tightrope.

For voters, Singapore's new electoral trajectory is only just taking shape.

But they now have a richer experience from which to decide which turn they want it to take.

Look out for more twists in this evolving story.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline 'Fear for Singapore propelled vote swing'. Print Edition | Subscribe