Air-Conditioned Nation

Essays about Singapore / Cherian George

Month: January 2013




What the Punggol East result says and doesn’t say about the future.

Predictably, the Workers’ Party’s decisive victory in Punggol East has prompted speculation about whether this spells doom for the People’s Action Party in the 2015/16 General Election.

Such thoughts – wishful or alarmist, depending on your point of view – are unrealistic. First, GRCs do not behave like single seats. It is much harder to produce big swings in mega-constituencies than in a ward like Punggol East – a fact overlooked by Alex Au in his thought experiment on the effect of a national 10-point swing.

Tough customers: Spectators at a WP rally.

More importantly, such extrapolation overlooks one of the main characteristics that the Singapore electorate has revealed about itself in election after election. It wants opposition – but not just any opposition. Parties and pundits have consistently underestimated how discerning the electorate will be. In the run-up to last weekend’s poll, we wondered if Kenneth Jeyaretnam and Desmond Lim would split the opposition vote or confound swing voters so much that they would eventually stick with the PAP. In the end, the lack of opposition unity didn’t matter because voters made up for it with their singular focus on the most serious opposition team.

We can expect the number of high-quality opposition candidates to grow dramatically by the next GE, but we still won’t see them blanketing the whole island. For every constituency with a Lee Li Lian or Chen Show Mao taking on the PAP, there will be one or two others where the opposition candidates are just so-so or just loco. These individuals are not going to get the kind of swing that the WP enjoyed over the weekend.

A scenario that is more sober but still gamechanging is a major increase in opposition representation, but with the PAP still firmly in power. Arguably, this is the endpoint that Singapore’s middle ground has in mind. The WP leadership seems to think so, too. Its response to its latest victory dismissed talk of replacing the PAP, positioning itself as an effective check to keep the ruling party on its toes.

A caring PAP can still win big.

The PAP has tried to argue that it already has enough incentive to perform – primarily from its innate desire to serve – and that there are enough alternative voices in Parliament, thanks not only to the elected MPs but also NCMPs and NMPs.

If Punggol East voters speak for the country, it’s clear that Singaporeans don’t quite agree with the PAP that the right equilibrium has already been reached. Until an acceptable balance is achieved, we’ll continue to see the electorate practise a kind of affirmative action in favour of the opposition, with its candidates constantly given generous benefit of the doubt while PAP candidates are punished for verbal slips, or even just for their facial expressions (the “arrogant smirk” that Yawning Bread detected on Koh Poo Koon’s face might have been read as cool confidence, and the “fixed plastic smile” as understandable nervousness in front of the cameras, had Koh been wearing the Hammer badge).

What then is the “right” number of opposition MPs? My guess is that it is much higher than the current 8 percent of Parliamentary seats, but maybe not as high as 40 percent – the proportion of Singaporeans who voted for the opposition in the last election. As the number of opposition MPs rises beyond 20-30, you’ll see more voters wary of a “freak” result ousting the PAP entirely, and becoming more conservative. You could also see the PAP reforming itself dramatically, giving voters less reason to reject its candidates.

If the opposition grows to occupy more than 40 percent of the House, it would be because of a major slide in the performance of the PAP, which is of course not beyond the realm of possibility.

Even if the opposition collectively claims more than half of the seats, this may not spell the end of the PAP in government. It depends on whether the opposition parties are willing to form a coalition. As the Punggol East campaign showed, nobody should assume that just because opposition parties are repelled by the PAP, they are attracted to one another.

I don’t think it’s preordained that if the WP had to choose between the SDP and the PAP in a hung Parliament, it will opt for SDP. It could instead enter a grand coalition with the men in white, in return for a few Cabinet positions and legislative reforms, say.

WP: Angry but cuddly opposition?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should at this point declare that I am one of those who totally misread the Punggol East by-election, believing from start to end that the PAP would retain the seat. For more reliable predictions of future election outcomes, visit your local bookie.

But even if the eventual numbers are anyone’s guess, it is possible to make fairly firm non-quantitative predictions about how electoral politics will evolve over the next few years. Some of the dynamics were already apparent after the GE and last year’s Hougang by-election (see my earlier articles here and here). In addition, there are a couple of other developments to look out for.

First, we can expect to see the Workers’ Party attract several heavyweight candidates – including members of the establishment with some stature. This is a no-brainer, because the signs were already there in 2011. The WP’s most significant gain from Punggol East may not be the one additional seat, but the several fence-sitting, high-calibre potential candidates whose last remaining doubts about the joining the party will now evaporate.

Second, we will see the PAP torn between tactics. In the battle for Aljunied GRC, the PAP offered multi-million-dollar upgrading inducements, tried to tar Chen Show Mao as a foreigner and threatened voters that they would regret and repent if they kicked out the PAP. Voters kicked out the PAP, giving the WP 54.7 percent.

In the battle for Punggol East, the PAP fought an unusually clean campaign, with no personal attacks, bribes or threats. And? Voters kicked out the PAP, giving the WP 54.5 percent. Two different tactics, same result. Unfortunately, there goes the theory that if the PAP was just more pleasant, voters would like it more.

Being nice: no effect?

While the PAP is sure that its broad policy directions are in Singaporeans’ best long-term interests and that they will eventually realise it, you can hardly blame the party if it feels at a loss over what political tactics will keep it in power. Expect an internal debate between hardliners and moderates (though, given the party’s strong cohesion, we may never hear about it).

Thankfully, even the hardliners probably don’t believe that the old tactics of acting tough with voters can ever work again. However, how they treat opposition politicians, civil society activists and other real or imagined opponents is another issue.

Frustrated at the apparent lack of headway it’s making in public debates, some government leaders may decide that they have been too nice to their opponents. If they can’t control the demand for alternatives, they might be tempted to choke its supply, raising the barriers to entry for serious individuals who are tempted to join the opposition. I’d be happy to be proven wrong – but we should not be surprised if things get ugly.




The Punggol by-election reintroduced Singaporeans to laugh-a-minute opposition parties. The Workers’ Party is not one of them.

In the end, the three-way split in the opposition assault on Punggol East proved immaterial. The Workers’ Party has won the constituency with an outright, unambiguous majority.

This had seemed like the ruling party’s seat to lose. In the last General Election, it won the seat with 54.5 percent of the valid votes. That was barely 21 months ago. Since then, PAP may not have satisfied most Singaporeans that it has fully reformed itself or fixed everything that needs to be fixed, and policy improvements may not yet be felt on the ground – but few fair-minded Singaporeans could honestly claim that the PAP has actually become much worse since May 2012. That being the case, it wasn’t clear how the WP was going to pick up the additional votes it needed to swing the constituency.

Sure, the PAP incumbent let down his constituents. But, thanks to the leadership’s swift and decisive response, it did not seem likely that voters would blame the party for the wayward Palmer. Importantly, the PAP maintained its apologetic tone, fighting a gentlemanly campaign and dispensing with the scare tactics, unfair inducements and bully behaviour that has marred previous elections.

On the other side, the Workers’ Party appeared to lose some of its 2011 sheen. The single most significant development in the Punggol East by-election campaign was the boiling over of opposition antipathy towards the WP.

Opposition disunity is nothing new. But past opposition leaders tended to bite their tongues or confine themselves to the occasional thinly veiled snide remark. Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s criticism of the WP marked the first time in memory that the leader of a prominent opposition party launched a full-frontal assault on another.

The PAP took advantage of this windfall by echoing Jeyaretnam’s criticism: it agreed that the WP hadn’t really made a difference. This was an unusual line for a ruling party that has traditionally equated the growth of the opposition with the End Of Singapore As We Know It.

If the charge of WP impotence had been levelled by the Reform Party alone, or by the PAP alone, it would have been discounted by most voters as mere rhetoric. But to hear the same point from both ends of the political spectrum could have shaken the faith of some voters who have otherwise been inclined to vote for the WP.

How then did the WP pull it off? It is tempting to conclude that this was a protest vote, signalling voters’ rejection of the PAP’s efforts since May 2011. But this theory may not give enough credit to the WP’s tactical genius.

We now have enough evidence to conclude that Low Thia Khiang is Singapore’s best electoral strategist. The decision to re-field Lee Li Lian – instead of some new star catch or one of his more famous NCMPs – seemed anti-climactic at the time. In hindsight, I wonder how many decisive swing votes WP got by demonstrating to Punggol East voters that they could count on the WP for constancy and loyalty – a particularly powerful message in the wake of their betrayal by their former PAP MP.

The WP may also have been able to capitalise on the PAP’s understandable wavering, over whether to treat this like Koh Poh Koon’s fight or to roll out the big guns. The first approach could make the PAP look too weak, while the latter would make it look desperate. The WP had no such self-doubt. They consistently signalled to constituents that their entire party leadership was here for them. At each rally, the WP’s entire star cast was there on stage. For a constituency in the far north, unreached by the amenities enjoyed by more central and mature estates, such attention must have been novel and welcome.

However they did it, this is a result that no politician anywhere on the political spectrum can ignore. For the PAP, it is not really anything new. It already knew that it had to correct its course. It would do well to consider whether it has moved decisively enough since May 2011. But it can also comfort itself that it might already be doing the right thing, except that policies take time to bear fruit, so the people “don’t feel it yet”, as Bill Clinton said in his speech supporting Barack Obama.

What will certainly be felt tonight, though, are the shockwaves in the rest of the opposition. I doubt if two party leaders have ever does so disastrously in a Singapore election as Kenneth Jeyaretnam and Desmond Lim performed today. For them, there is nowhere to hide. They will search for others to blame, but should eventually accept reality.

The Workers’ Party had seemed stand-offish, even arrogant, in its dealings with the rest of the opposition in the run-up to this poll. It was like the WP was trying to say to everyone else in the opposition, we are different.

Guess what. They are.



Only six times before has the Opposition wrested a constituency from PAP hands. Lee Li Lian’s margin compares favourably with all the previous instances. It is similar to the margin in Aljunied GRC in 2011. Only Chiam See Tong, who took Potong Pasir with 60% in 1984, did better in a single seat ward.

If “Rejected Votes” were a candidate, it would have beaten both Kenneth Jeyaretnam and Desmond Lim. There were 415 rejected votes, compared with 353 and 168 votes for Jeyaretnam and Lim respectively.

This is not the first time the Workers’ Party successfully brushed off a potential spoiler from another opposition party when taking on the PAP in a by-election. It happened in 1981, when Kenneth’s father J B Jeyaretnam of WP broke the PAP’s absolute monopoly of Parliamentary seats, despite the opposition vote being split by Harbans Singh of UPF, who won less than 1% of the votes.




I once interviewed Singapore’s most intellectually honest public intellectual, Alex Au, about his Yawning Bread blog and he said with his usual startling clarity that the opposition’s worst enemies are its supporters. I am regularly reminded of the truth of this tongue-in-cheek statement, and no more so than tonight, after the Workers’ Party’s stunning by-election victory. I came across a Facebook post vilifying a blogger for no other reason than that he had opined that the WP had been a disappointment in Parliament and that they didn’t deserve another MP yet.

One chap said simply: “kill him. burn him”. It wasn’t even an anonymous comment. In addition to his name, his Facebook profile declares proudly that he works at Rolls-Royce Aerospace. And to take the cake, it was his birthday. So here’s a WP supporter (supposedly) with a job in a respected MNC, who observes the day his mother gave birth to him by showing contempt for the life and dignity of a fellow human being who happens to have a different political view.

WP’s NCMP Yee Jenn Jong has already come out to say there’s no excuse for such behaviour, even if there is an explanation for the frustration behind it.

It is a useful reality check, I suppose. It hardly matters if the WP wins more seats and inches closer to a First World Parliament, if citizens’ political values are straight from the Stone Age.

UPDATE: The victim has made a police report. Not sure if that was necessary. I would have just asked the fellow’s employer to clarify if this kind of behaviour is in keeping with the company’s professed desire to be a good corporate citizen, and sit back and see what happens.




The obstacles to internal reform are formidable, but citizens shouldn’t discount the possibility entirely.

Picture a PAP government that lets an independent election commission draw constituency boundaries, introduces freedom of information laws and fights for equality even when it’s unpopular. This would be a PAP that committed itself to democratic processes, open government and individual rights.

In my previous blog, I said that this was the kind of PAP that I could believe in and get behind. I can’t say if such changes would arrest the growth of the opposition – probably not, since the opposition’s Parliamentary presence has been unnaturally low and is bound to rise no matter how well the government performs. But such reforms could enhance the PAP’s moral legitimacy and reduce the kneejerk negativity that currently greets its every move.

Creating a checklist for change was mainly a personal exercise to help me avoid two pitfalls as a citizen. First: naivety, which would make me satisfied with superficial changes. Second: cynicism, which would prevent me from recognising and supporting meaningful improvements.

Of course, there are fellow citizens whose visions of a better Singapore include no room for the PAP in any shape or form – and, at the other ideological extreme, people who want the PAP to stay exactly the way it is. I can only promise them greater respect for their opinions than they are likely to give me for mine (since, ironically, intolerance of differing views is a shared tendency of both the pro-PAP and anti-PAP extremes of the political spectrum – some Facebook denizens were so outraged that I could contemplate the possibility of a reformed PAP that they labelled me “closet PAP” and “whiter than white”, which I assume were meant as insults).

Sources of radical change

More thought-provoking were comments from readers who agreed with my sentiments but doubted that the PAP could ever remake itself so radically. Said one: “I am inclined to adopt your checklist as my own as it resonates well, but where we are not aligned is your optimism on the PAP’s ability and will to cross the chasm.”

I’m not optimistic either. Nevertheless, if we want radical change in the medium term – say, the next 10 years – the odds of it coming from a non-PAP government are even lower than it emanating from within the PAP.

Recent history offers some hints of where democratic change might come from. Looking at societies as different as the Soviet Union, Poland, the Philippines, South Africa, Indonesia, Egypt and Myanmar, what’s clear is that freedom must almost always be struggled for (the Kingdom of Bhutan being possibly the only example where someone with absolute power recognised he should give it up long before anyone asked him to).

It’s also clear that democratic change is sometimes instituted by those within the palace walls, and sometimes imposed only after those outside break open the gates and take over control.

What’s even more striking is that although historians can join the dots with benefit of hindsight, it is extremely difficult to look ahead and predict the path to democracy that a nation will take. People power movements that threw out seemingly immovable leaders like Suharto took most by surprise. Equally, radical reformers who transformed the establishment from within, like Mikhail Gorbachev and Thein Sein, seemed to emerge from out of the blue.

Perhaps, then, the lesson for those who want democratic change is to be steadfast about their preferred destination but agnostic about which routes will get us there. The examples of Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela are instructive. They are heroes in the history of democratisation not only because of their moral courage but also because they kept open minds, knowing when to do business with reformers on the inside, for the larger good of their countries. Conversely, people who want change but refuse to work with elements of the old regime tend to get nowhere.

Diverse strategies

Freedom from doubt is an occupational hazard of politicians, but in reality, nobody knows what will ultimately work. Faced with irreducible uncertainty, it is foolish to place all of Singapore’s eggs in the PAP basket. Fortunately, most Singaporeans now accept this as common sense rather than as an unspeakable heresy.

Unfortunately, in the so-called new normal, too many intelligent Singaporeans seem to be oblivious to the opposite risk, of putting all our eggs in the anti-PAP basket, as if no good could ever come from the ruling party.

The same nobody-knows principle applies when deciding among different opposition strategies. Opponents of a regime are often split between more accommodationist and more belligerent strands – and it is usually difficult to predict which will be more effective. In post-war Singapore, the more radical PAP triumphed, while history would come to consign the more moderate Singapore Progressive Party to the role of rather wimpish also-rans. On the other hand, in the American civil rights struggle, the more acceptable Martin Luther King Jr. achieved what the radical Malcolm X could not.

Fast forward to today’s Singapore, and we find opposition loyalties split between the Workers’ Party and the Singapore Democratic Party. The WP seems desperate to avoid what it perceives as the self-destructive confrontational tendencies of the SDP, while SDP politicians will privately tell you that the WP has sold out – sitting pretty on its seats, afraid to take risks. Understandably, passions on both sides run high, just as they do among PAP loyalists.

The truth is that Singapore democracy is best served by different groups trying different things. Most likely, there is a complex interaction between all these forces, with more radical forces opening space for more moderate opponents, and both applying healthy pressure on incumbents.

Revolution from within?

One plausible scenario is that, pushed by opposition parties and ordinary citizens, reform-minded leaders within the PAP will persuade their comrades to undertake radical change.

Although plausible, this is not likely. Here’s where the PAP’s traditional strengths – its cohesion and internal discipline – become its Achilles’ heel. Its top leaders are selected because they share certain convictions, and it is difficult to see any of them shed those beliefs to adopt a more democratic agenda.

The PAP will also find it harder than most major parties elsewhere to reform itself from the bottom. The conventional way for new blood to take over a party is for them to come up through the ranks, developing a base within party branches, competing for influence against other contenders, and finally making a bid for the party leadership at the party convention. This open, competitive process allows would-be party leaders with bold new ideas to move from the fringes to the centre. It allows parties to regenerate and revolutionise their thinking to keep up with the times.

The PAP, however, long ago dismantled such mechanisms for internal revolution. After the break with Lim Chin Siong and the radical left, Lee Kuan Yew restructured the party, installing an impervious phalanx of cadres that would ensure that the PAP could never be captured from below. This has been part of the formula for PAP stability for the past five decades. But it could also induce paralysis.

The PAP’s best hope is that, somewhere in Singapore today, is a handful of men and women with the independence of mind, boldness of vision, and determination to serve that characterised the party’s founding generation of leaders. The PAP must hope that these individuals believe that the ruling party remains a seaworthy vessel, and that they will strive to take over its helm.

But this is where the party’s structure does not match its own best interests. The hypothetical dream team would face a Catch 22. They cannot reform the party fundamentally until they reach the top. But they cannot reach the top unless they shed their revolutionary ambitions. Thanks to the cadre system, it’s only with the blessings of the current leadership can they climb the party hierarchy – and the current leadership is unlikely to sanctify young turks with radically different views.

So, all in all, one shouldn’t be too optimistic about the PAP’s ability to remake itself. But then nobody describes politics as the science of what’s probable. It is the art of the possible. And though unlikely, perhaps PAP minds can be changed.

The case for bold reform is that this could finally enable the PAP to seize the political initiative, in a way that the current gradualism has not. The argument for doing it sooner rather than later is that the PAP has less to lose if it institutes changes while still in a position of strength, than if it waits till it’s cornered and forced to compromise with its opponents. Whether anyone in the PAP is willing and able to tread this path is the big question. If the unlikely happens, I hope enough Singaporeans will be sentient enough to see it and welcome it.



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