When Lee Kuan Yew said, earlier this week, that he stood corrected over the remarks about Malays he made in the book Hard Truths, I thought to myself: That is the biggest sign of the People’s Action Party (PAP) getting election jitters yet.
As someone very proud of his candour and how far he’s come in life giving him the right to be frank, withdrawing what he’s said is no trifling matter. It could only have been because many in his party told him in the strongest possible terms that he risked losing a considerable number of Malay votes for the party.
What he said is not important now. How it was perceived is what counts. Lee’s remarks about Malays failing to integrate must have struck the Malay community as belittling the accommodations they feel they have made to Chinese-majority Singapore. It also reopens the thorny question of what integration should mean. Moreover, when Lee suggested that the community’s high regard for public piety is one of the stumbling blocks, it would have been perceived as throwing a challenge to their interpretation of Islam.
Like any minority community anywhere, Malay acceptance of their place in Singapore is an uneasy one. Under the surface, unresolved grievances lurk.
Yet even opposition party leaders have conceded that Malays give their votes to the PAP in greater proportion compared to other ethnic communities. It is one of the ruling party’s dependable vote banks. With a general election around the corner, Lee’s words potentially jeopardised this pillar of support for the party. That Lee felt compelled to withdraw his remarks indicated how serious the party assessed the problem to be.
Why are opposition parties unable to penetrate the Malay vote in any substantial way? Basically, our opposition parties draw from two wells of support, both slightly alien to Malays.
The first is the section of our society with economic grievances, which are expressed in various ways: for example, bread-and-butter issues, complaints about elitism, and xenophobia. There is a very long tradition of this, stretching all the way back to the British colonial period. Then, the primary movements for social equity were found in the unions and the Chinese-language schools, and the primary inspiration was socialism that was emerging in Asia, particularly China. Malays and Indians were among the unionists that took to the barricades, but throughout, there was always a Chinese flavour to this kind of opposition politics. This flavour was reinforced when the PAP government closed down Chinese-language schools and Nanyang University. Many of the same people who had economic grievances now found themselves with cultural/existential fears. This turn of events reinforced dissent, but at the same time, strengthened the Chinese dimension of dissent.
It continues today in people’s perception of the Workers’ Party and the National Solidarity Party — that most of their top and middle leaders are more comfortable speaking in Mandarin and Chinese dialects to Chinese crowds. It should be no surprise that most Malays feel rather excluded from their messaging.
The second well of support for opposition politics are those with liberty grievances, which are usually cast in Western liberal terms. That being the case, it resonates most among those who are English-speaking and culturally westernised. Chiam See Tong tapped into this at the start of this career; those with long memory will recall that he first came to prominence campaigning in Cairnhill constituency, a westernised, middle-class area. Chiam, however lost this mantle long ago by his silence on liberty issues.The late J B Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan are the successors, both identifiably English-speaking. Look at the supporters of Chee’s Singapore Democratic Party and Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s Reform Party (Kenneth is the elder son of J B) and it is obvious that the main language among them is English.
The two broad streams of political opposition are not mutually exclusive; the group with economic grievances overlap those with liberty grievances, with the result that opposition parties play a balancing game all the time between emphasising one priority or the other.
The point however is that for the large majority of Malays, not culturally western, liberty issues do not stir them very much, yet they feel marginalised by the economic dissenters and the parties that speak strongly on such issues. The least bad option is to vote for the PAP. At least the PAP values them, as the U-turn by Lee shows.
However, if you’re an opposition optimist, you’d take heart from this little fiasco on the PAP’s side, and hope that a good number of Malays will be so turned off by this episode, they will now give serious consideration to another party.
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For those who see politics in Singapore in purely binary terms — PAP and anti-PAP — the failure so far of opposition parties to agree on parcelling out constituencies among them must cause some consternation. Three-cornered fights are assumed to be disasters in the making — not that I agree with that sentiment, as readers would know from a previous post.
It is harder to get agreement this time around compared to previous general elections because parties appear to have more candidates at hand. If you’re an optimist, you’d read that as indicating that more Singaporeans generally are prepared to support and vote for opposition parties.
I would be very careful about drawing such a conclusion. A key difference this time is that there will be at least nine opposition seats in the next parliament, whether as fully-elected MPs or as Non-constituency Members of Parliament. More honey in the pot naturally attracts more bees.
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In the post Will the morning after see 86:1?, I mentioned a straw poll I did among my friends that arrived at a consensus that the vote-share for the PAP would not be below 60 percent, and that the expected vote-swing is relatively small. To be honest, straw polls are not worth much. The fact to remember is that vote-swings of 10 percent or more have occurred in Singapore’s history. As Eugene Tan noted in commentary piece in Today newspaper (Deep fissures behind Opposition bravado, 7 March 2011), the 1984 general election result saw the PAP’s vote share fall 12.9 percentage points.
If a similar fall occurs this year from PAP’s 2006 vote share of 66.6 percent, then the ensuing result in the mid-fifties will suggest that one or two group representation constituencies will go to opposition parties.
The problem is that we have very little information why voters historically voted the way they did. Singapore is impoverished in that regard. We have neither an array of political research groups or public opinion polls to help us understand what goes on in people’s heads as they decide at the ballot box. With no data to go on, it is little more than pure speculation what the result is likely to be. All we can say is that it is not obvious that there are any burning issues that will drive voters in significant numbers away from the PAP.
I know that last statement will rouse several readers to disagree and they will name issues such as the cost of living, depressed wages, housing prices, crowded trains and buses, and the perennial complaint — the arrogance of the PAP. Yes, these are issues, and I do not dispute that people are upset with one or more of them. But (1) are they that many? (2) do they have enough confidence in the opposition party that happens to be competing in their ward to give them their vote? Unless it’s a Yes on both counts, nothing much will change.
Still, if opposition optimists are looking for reasons to hope things will be different this time, the above three might be the proverbial straws to clutch.
Will things never change? Oh, they will; things never remain the same. In a subsequent post, I am going to explore some possibilities.