COMMENTARY: Punggol East by-election was a tipping point

What is one to make of the Workers' Party victory in Punggol East? Its candidate Lee Li Lian got 54.2 per cent of the votes, beating People's Action Party's Koh Poh Koon who got 43.7 per cent out of 29,415 valid votes cast.

First: Voters like loyalty, preferring candidates who stick by them over a new face. Ms Lee, who got 41 per cent in the General Election in 2011, improved her showing by about 13 percentage points, winning over nearly 4,000 voters more.

Second, the WP is now firmly entrenched as a serious challenger to the PAP in the battle for votes. In 2011, it went beyond its stronghold Hougang to win neighbouring Aljunied GRC. In 2012, it retained Hougang in a by-election, despite the scandal over the sacking its own MP in relation to alleged extramarital affairs. On Saturday, it showed it can wrest a secure PAP seat despite PAP bigwigs campaigning for Dr Koh.

Some may say voters were turned off the PAP because its MP Michael Palmer resigned over an extramarital affair. But that alone wouldn't have accounted for the wide margin between the WP and PAP vote share of 10.5 percentage points or about 3,088 votes.

Third, the result suggests the desire for an opposition nestles wide and deep among Singapore's voters of the future. Wide, because the margin over the PAP is a full 10.5 percentage point. Deep, because it prevailed despite the PAP's best efforts to woo voters. It ran a gentlemanly campaign with no scare tactics, unlike the past. The PAP government even timed the announcement of billion-dollar projects to boost public transport, healthcare, and parenthood incentives during the campaign week. It has also tried to tackle issues of housing, immigration and transport that angered voters in 2011.

All that appeared to have little impact on voters.

What of the future? Is Punggol East an aberration or the harbinger of things to come?

I think it is the latter. Punggol East has a demographic profile of the future: voters are younger and better-off than the national average. It is solidly middle-class. Future elections will be full of people who think and vote like those at Punggol East. Hougang in this respect was very different: an older, working class estate that has always been a WP stronghold. I said then that Hougang voters spoke only for themselves. But Punggol East goes further, and might be a signal of future political battles.

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