Shooting non-linear bullets

Readers may have noticed that I was quoted in two places in today’s Straits Times’ feature on opposition parties, their readiness and prospects in the coming general election. Perhaps you may be interested what else I told them. It is in the nature of reporting that the final story cannot possibly include everything that an interviewee has said.

Shooting at more targets

The newspaper’s journalists asked me what I thought were the pros and cons of the discernible strategy to contest as many constituencies as the parties can, a reversal of Chiam See Tong’s “by-election strategy” of 20 years ago (a strategy which, I am sure, few younger voters have ever heard of).

In the published story, they quoted me as saying:

Political commentator Alex Au says that by ‘just shooting at more targets’, an opposition party will have a higher chance of chalking an unexpected win or two. But the risk of a three-cornered fight, which tends to split the opposition vote, is also higher, he cautions.

— Straits Times, 20 Nov 2010, Is the opposition ready to rock?

To be honest, that “shooting at more targets” was the only (relatively) novel thought I had. The rest of what I said in answer to that question was embarrassingly banal: The other two ‘pros’ were that by giving exposure and experience to a larger number of candidates, even if these candidates do not win, it lays the ground for the next election. The experience will also allow parties to get a better measure of their candidates seeing how they perform under pressure, and the kind of people-skills they demonstrate.

Asked about downsides, I wrote in reply to the journalists: “With more candidates interested in contesting, there is an increased risk of a three-cornered fight, possibly throwing the game to the PAP,” and  “if one or more candidates lose his/her deposit as a result of a three-cornered fight, this may deter potential candidates in future.”

Our election law says that candidates have to put up a deposit of S$13,500 each; refundable if they garner at least 12.5 percent of the votes. In the previous election, every candidate managed to surpass this threshold, giving rise to confidence among today’s candidates to put up the money. But if one or two fail to get 12.5 percent the next time, due to splitting the anti-PAP vote in a three-cornered fight, it may get harder to persuade candidates to stand for the subsequent election.

Unlike armchair opposition supporters who keep repeating “opposition unity” as some holy mantra, I will not assume that the many opposition parties, each with more candidates than they had the last time, can totally agree on a carve-up of constituencies. It is possible that in a few constituencies, they cannot come to an agreement and three-cornered fights result. Not that that will be an altogether bad thing:  It will force opposition parties to differentiate and in the process compel more clarity from them as to what they really stand for, rather than merely ride on amorphous dissatisfaction with the People’s Action Party (PAP). The wishy-washiest opposition parties may lose their pants in  three-cornered fight — and if these unfocussed parties are eliminated from our political scene, the shake-out may do our politics some good.

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Deliverable promises

On this note, I said to the reporters that parties might want to change tack somewhat. I have mentioned in earlier essays that they should avoid campaigns that merely echo common gripes (cost of living, immigration, etc) because that’s never going to be enough to secure a majority, especially from an increasingly educated and sophisticated electorate. I have argued instead that opposition parties need to develop level-headed policy programs if they want to be taken seriously.

On the other hand, I realise that resources may be too limited to do this. There is also the possibility that voters may see over-investment in a detailed policy program as so much day-dreaming, given the fact that it is extremely unlikely that any one of them will do well enough at the polls to form the next government.

What may be sellable is for parties to make specific deliverable promises for their role as a serious opposition party. That means declaring to voters:

  • These are the questions we will ask in parliament;
  • This is the information we will extract from ministers in parliamentary debates;
  • These are the proposals we will argue for again and again till we exhaust the PAP’s arguments against them, and make it impossible not to change course.

I can imagine voters buying such deliverable promises, because they are do-able, with immediate results should they vote that particular party in.

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On the Workers’ Party


The Straits Times wrote:

Political observer Derek da Cunha expects WP to secure the largest percentage of votes against the PAP, given the party’s history, relatively strong ground presence among opposition parties, and the popularity of Mr Low.

It clinched an average of 38.4 per cent of the votes in the wards it contested in 2006.

He notes that WP ‘tended to attract a sizable proportion of votes from the Chinese-educated and Chinese-speaking segment of the electorate’.

‘Moreover, since the 1997 General Election, the WP has tended to fight elections from the political centre. That has enhanced its electoral appeal,’ he says.

Political commentator Alex Au believes the election may be a litmus test for the WP, which ‘wants to look young, but actually talks old’.

‘It has invested years in party discipline, old-style door-to-door visits, careful selectivity in what it talks about and projecting a conservative image,’ he says.

Although it will be hard for the party to gain a wider victory, he thinks that it probably has enough of a base to secure several NCMP places.

— Straits Times, 20 Nov 2010, Fighting from the centre

It struck me that the comments I gave to Straits Times were similar to Derek da Cunha’s.

My exact words to the Straits Times were these:

This election may be a litmus test for the Workers’ Party. It is a party that wants to look young, but actually talks old. It knows it is poor at connecting with minority communities but (in my opinion) has not managed to understand why they fail to do so. More importantly, it has invested years in party discipline, old-style door-to-door visits, careful selectivity in what it talks about and projecting a conservative image. It has gambled on avoiding flashy candidates, eschewing new media, ducking issues where it feels out of its depth. Does this formula work?

By “work” , I mean winning outright anywhere other than Hougang. I think a wider victory may still be uphill. On the other hand, the WP probably has enough of a base to be able to secure several NCMP places. With this mixed result, the test then becomes whether their NCMPs perform in Parliament.

NCMP stands for Non-constituency members of parliament — effectively the “best losers”. There will be up to nine such places in the next parliament.

I also said, further on in my email, that

Old-style house-to-house visits may have been underrated. Familiarity and comfort level with candidates is an important emotional factor. I estimate that if a party has invested a few years in a locality, it can gain 10 percentage points from the effort within that geographical area.

As far as I know, only the Workers’ Party has been disciplined enough to slog it out unrelentingly and one has to admire them for that.

Let me add a bit more to the question of the Workers’ Party relying on Chinese votes, as both da Cunha and I suggested in our remarks. In my view, it puts a glass ceiling over what they can achieve. The party’s keen awareness that the bedrock of their support is from the Chinese-speaking substantially colours their party image and messaging; my concern is that the Chinese mindset is now so strong in the Workers’ Party, they (a) may not realise it, and (b) may not be able to change it. Yet, without increased support from the minority communities it will be very hard for them to win outright.

Let’s take a hypothetical example of a constituency of 100,000 voters, of whom 75 percent are Chinese, 15 percent Malay, 7 percent Indian and 3 percent “other” — an ethnic split roughly matching Singapore citizens as a whole. Suppose, for example, the party can win 60 percent of Chinese votes (a majority from this community), but only manage 10 percent support from Malays and 20 percent from Indians and others. It will do quite well, but as you can see from the table,  not well enough to win 50 percent overall. This despite solid support from the Chinese.

You may ask: What about the example of Hougang, where party leader Low Thia Khiang won 13,989 votes ( 62.74%) out of 22,297 valid votes cast in 2006? There are special characteristics about it. It was a single-member constituency, without the homogenising effects of group representation constituencies. Low himself was the incumbent, well-known to the residents, and possibly Hougang was disproportionately Chinese.

That’s why I said to the journalists, anywhere else  it’s still going to be uphill for the Workers’ Party.

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Singapore Democratic Party

In my email to the newspaper’s questions, I wrote:

The parties that excite the youth seem to be SDP and RP, but by the same token, they probably make older voters rather nervous. Each of them has serious handicaps to overcome: the SDP because of its history, the RP because it has none. Both because of image issues with their leaders. On the one hand, the linear projection may show them facing an even steeper uphill climb than the WP, on the other hand, precisely because they are attracting bright young people prepared to experiment (note how they use new media, for example) the linear projection may underestimate them.

SDP is the Singapore Democratic Party and RP is the Reform Party.

The SDP bears further elaboration, because I suspect the ordinary/mainstream discourse about it — often with a negative tone —  may be missing the point.

Indeed, the government’s demonisation of party leader Chee Soon Juan has painted a very negative image of him in people’s eyes, but it may be worthwhile asking: Who are these people whose eyes we are referring to? They are the ones who were consuming mainstream media between 1993 and 2008, a period when some order seems to have been given from high up to destroy Chee. They are also the ones conditioned to react with fear when they saw such a  campaign.

That makes for a lot of voters, but we should not blind ourselves to the possibility that there is an upcoming generation of voters who do not consume mainstream media, and secondly, whose gut reaction to concerted demonisation is to resist the thought implantation and to feel greater sympathy for the man.

Bankrupted by a defamation suit, Chee is barred from standing for election. I don’t think he can even make public speeches at election rallies. On the one hand, that is a huge handicap for a party leader and the party; on the other hand, it gives a tremendous opportunity for new people to shine. In the process, it accelerates the rebranding  — the very word that the Straits Times used to describe the SDP in its feature story — and adds depth to the group.

If a voter can look past his fear of associating with what the PAP wishes to isolate as pariahs, and actually look with open eyes at what is going on in the SDP, he’ll see a very interesting group of people prepared to experiment, going beyond the tried and tested. They show an ability to adapt, and to think out of the box.

Just a week ago, they held a “Pre-election rally” at Hong Lim Park, with music and a mascot bear. Here are three Youtube videos of the rather slick event (though I wish though they had taken the trouble to subtitle the non-English speeches before uploading them):

Highlights of speeches:

A collection of “best moments”:

Sixteen-year-old Kenneth Lin:

Without doubt, the SDP’s chances in the coming election are nowhere as good as the Workers’ Party, but theirs is not as hopeless a cause as many might imagine. Make room in our minds for the non-linear.

2 Responses to “Shooting non-linear bullets”


  1. 1 Kumar 21 November 2010 at 07:05

    I was once told that when Low took over from JBJ the best bet for the minorities would still be the PAP.Yout thoughts just confirmed that view.

  2. 2 Tanky 21 November 2010 at 08:44

    Remember these words as they will be used extensively after the next General Election: non-linear, tipping point; black swan; blind spot; inception.


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