With its electoral victory in Aljunied group representation constituency and a landslide in Hougang single-member constituency, the Workers’ Party is likely to get a fresh surge of new members, volunteers and donations. It is putting some good distance between itself and other opposition parties.
By the next general election, the party may look to contesting even more seats.
Yet, if other parties are serious about improving their vote-shares the next time around, they have to invest effort in groundwork as soon as possible, for this is perhaps the biggest factor in electoral success. Wouldn’t this mean incipient conflict as parties work the same ground?
Of course it won’t matter if opposition parties aren’t afraid of three-cornered fights. The fact, however, is that the weaker opposition parties will want to avoid this, especially after seeing Desmond Lim of the Singapore Democratic Alliance humiliated in 2011’s only three-cornered contest in Punggol East single-member constituency (SMC). He got just 1,386 votes (4.5 percent of the valid votes cast), one-ninth the number that Lee Li Lian of the Workers’ Party got. He also forfeited his election deposit of S$16,000.
Another question that complicates matters is the near-certainty that electoral boundaries will be redrawn before the next general election. SMCs can disappear overnight, absorbed into neighbouring group representation constituencies. In 2011, MacPherson SMC and Yio Chu Kang SMC, for example, vanished off the map. Even group representation constituencies (GRC), e.g. Jalan Besar GRC, can disappear.
These huge uncertainties make it hard for parties to invest time and energy in groundwork. There is a tendency to wait until the new electoral boundaries are known, then haggle among themselves for a carve-up before getting to work. By then, it is way too late.
What if the negotiations are protracted? This election, for example, the various parties could not reach a comprehensive agreement at all. Going forward, as the Workers’ Party grows, it will be less and less inclined to even negotiate with the others. When it has strength, and has worked a particular area for years, the party will see no reason to quit an area just because another party wants it.
Too many parties
I’ve said it before and I will say it again: I think there are too many opposition parties in Singapore. I cannot see the smaller ones, centred around one or two personalities, as viable in the longer term. Realistically, there’s space for just three opposition parties — these being the Workers’ Party, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Solidarity Party (NSP)
They also have the benefit of differentiation (well, at least two-and-a-half of them). The Workers’ Party is increasingly a centrist party but still Chinese-flavoured. The SDP has nearly as strong a branding, but its relative radicalism (by Singapore’s meek standards) on human rights, social policy and more recently, economic policy, earns it strong likes and dislikes.
NSP’s chief strength seems to be its openness to all sorts of comers and all sorts of ideas. It has quite a respectable base of volunteers, but it really needs to get its act together in terms of ideology, disciplined messaging and a better understanding of the electorate. Right now, it is suffering the pain of transition from being a party for and by Chinese towkays (businessman), more comfortable in Mandarin and dialect, to a younger, more modern, English-speaking party with room for ethnic minorities.
I will leave out the rest for now because their sustainability is unproven (Reform Party, Socialist Front) or because they don’t actually stand for anything (Singapore Democratic Alliance, Singapore People’s Party).
The three-party carve-up and which ground to work
This was the electoral map for the general election of 2011:
I see trouble ahead. I see the Workers’ Party muscling into adjacent areas that the NSP claims by virtue of its unsuccessful contests in 2011.
The Workers’ Party has worked out a very clever strategy which other parties would do well to emulate. They work the ground across a contiguous part of Singapore island. Contiguity provides the following benefits:
- Better sharing of resources because areas are close by
- Less affected by electoral boundary shifts. So what if a boundary shifts from one GRC to another when the party has worked the ground in both? So what if an SMC is absorbed into a GRC when the party has covered both intensively?
- Spillover effect at election time when a party enthuses the voters in one constituency
- Synergy among town councils in the same area should the party win the constituencies.
I see the SDP beginning to do the same by choosing to contest the recent election in three contiguous constituencies: Sembawang GRC, Bukit Panjang SMC and Holland-Bukit Timah GRC.
In a three-party scheme, the NSP will have to consider doing a “long march” to get out of Workers’ Party’s way in the eastern half of Singapore and concentrate in the western parts. If they do that, then the five-year plan for working the ground by the three leading parties will look something like this:
As you can see, conflict is minimised with the Workers’ Party free to cover the eastern and northeastern regions, plus the Thomson corridor up to Yishun.
The SDP gets to cover the Bukit Timah corridor all the way to Woodlands. But it also begins to focus on Holland Village, Queenstown, River Valley Road and Tiong Bahru (all currently part of Tanjong Pagar GRC). These are areas either already with yuppies and the upper middle class, or increasingly so as the older estates are gentrified. This demographic suits the SDP best.
The NSP is better off with heartlanders. The orange-coloured area thus includes Telok Blangah, Redhill, Clementi, Boon Lay, Jurong West, Bukit Batok, and Choa Chu Kang — again, a contiguous stretch arcing around the south and west of the island.
Jurong East is a toss-up between NSP and SDP. Parts of it are as “heartland” as can be, but adjacent parts like the Toh Tuck area are chockful of private condominiums. In any case, the SDP will still need to sell itself to heartlanders if it is to work successfully in Woodlands, Bukit Panjang, Ghim Moh, adjacent parts of Clementi and Bukit Ho Swee. Woodlands is best served by the SDP because this part of Singapore has a slightly disproportionate number of Malay residents. The Chinese-flavoured Workers’ Party and NSP may have trouble reaching them.
But I have the feeling all this is just a pipe-dream. We will likely continue to have a multiplicity of small parties yet. And getting the NSP to pull up stakes from the areas they have contested before will be very hard. Perhaps they can keep Tampines and the Workers’ Party may indulge them. Or they get ready to face off in three-cornered fights sooner or later.