I think it is safe to say that there are probably very few people left in Singapore who have affection for the People’s Action Party (PAP). The mainstream media may refer, from time to time, to a “silent majority”. Indeed, there is one but the silence is less that of comfortable association with the PAP, but more one derived from fear of speaking out, or the fear of change.
The way I see it, there are just two push/pull factors buffeting voters this election: fear and frustration.
Bear in mind however that I use these two terms very broadly.
Fear is not just the fear of retribution from the PAP. For this essay, I include the fear of the unknown, the fear of “rocking the boat”. There is also the fear of losing out on upgrading.
Frustration is not just over bread and butter issues. There are plenty who belong to the better-off socio-economic strata, who are also frustrated, but over issues such as freedom of speech, minority rights or the uneven playing field for small businesses.
As you can see from the graphic above, voters can be divided into four groups:
(A): Those who are fearful, but not frustrated and generally happy with their lives in Singapore.
(B): Those who are fearful, but frustrated.
(C): Those who are not fearful, but they are quite happy as well.
(D): Those who are not fearful, but certainly frustrated.
The PAP can count on the votes of those in quadrant A. Being happy, but also fearful of the consequences of voting for the opposition, there is no reason to vote for the latter.
Opposition parties can count on the votes of D. They are frustrated, but they not fearful of the consequences. They will readily cast their vote for opposition parties unless the candidate(s) in their respective constituencies look dubious — which I think is not too big a concern this election.
The tricky ones are those in quadrants B and C. You might call them the swing voters.
Those in C — the bottom left quadrant — are quite amenable to casting their votes against the PAP, because the fear quotient is not high. But their lives are good and their frustration level is low. The question then becomes, what is it about the Workers’ Party or the Singapore Democratic Party or whatever other party, that is so attractive, so worthy of their vote? Opposition parties need to think seriously about this question and pitch themselves to them. One possibility I can think of is that of appealing to idealism. It could be the idealism of human rights, or the idealism of compassion for the poor and marginalised.
The problem with courting idealism is that it requires a completely different tone from a pitch to the frustrated. Idealism requires speaking in very positive tones, painting a better world and appealing to the goodness and selflessness in us. Pitching to the frustrated on the other hand requires an angrier, perhaps more sarcastic tone, that takes as its starting point, the rape of the self. The conflict between the two types of messages can be a big problem.
Those in B — the top right quadrant — are also amenable to voting for the opposition because they too are frustrated by present policies. However, they are held back by fear. And the PAP knows that; that’s why you see them ramping it up:
Asked what the PAP would do if it lost the [Aljunied] ward, Mr Lee [Kuan Yew] said: “Well, it’s their choice. And I’d say they have five years to live and repent.”
— Sunday Times, 1 May 2011, ‘Aljunied is the only hot seat’
You also see in the headline a new tactic, but one that is also aimed at heightening fear. The PAP is trying to make the voters of Aljunied feel isolated. There is an attempt to paint a picture of no other constituency swinging to the opposition and Aljunied alone will bear the brunt of the PAP’s revenge.
All opposition parties need to deal with this. The threat issued by the PAP will be read subliminally by voters in all constituencies. This means that, to win Quadrant B voters over, opposition parties should not be talking about frustrations; they should be addressing the fear. But how many of them are really doing that?
Look at the videos that have emerged of rally speeches. Estimate how many minutes are spent banging on about frustrations (and only bread-and-butter ones, not even other frustrations), or going on about wanting to be “your voice”.
Then estimate how many minutes are spent trying to assuage fear, e.g. by dealing with PAP’s threats to withhold upgrading; anxiety over stepping into a different political world; barely suppressed panic about whether the economy and their jobs will suffer from any resulting destabilisation; and concern about vote secrecy.
At the (few) rallies I’ve been to so far, I’ve only seen the Workers’ Party try to do this. Sylvia Lim for example spoke at length about how she’s sure that the vote is secret on 29 April; Gerald Giam told his audience that the Workers’ Party does not oppose everything the PAP proposes and have in the past supported policies that the party feels will benefit the people, such as Workfare. But they are the exceptions, and as yet, nobody knows the answer to PAP’s threat of withholding upgrading.
In short, opposition parties need to be more calculative. The voters of quadrant D are in their pocket. There is no need to keep addressing people’s frustrations as the primary theme for messaging. In the limited time that they have, they need to speak more relevantly to the other two quadrants of voters. They need to talk about fear and about idealism. Time to put frustration to bed.