Beware: 3,726 words.
It was a big crowd for a very small space. People were hot and sweaty and many were seated in such a way they could not see the slides. Unfortunately, with civil society as impoverished as we are, it was not realistic to expect a better venue, as Braema Mathi, President of Maruah and organiser of the event explained.
I promised the audience that I would upload a version of the talk I gave in the event that they couldn’t see the slides clearly and therefore couldn’t quite follow. In any case, I do want to expand a little on what I said — I was limited by time — and writing is a good way of doing so.
So, here it is:
* * * * *
I carried out an online survey via this blog during polling day (7 May 2011) and about two more days after. In this talk I am going to tease out only a few of the results. Specifically, I am looking at the results that speak to us about parties’ brand values and what the findings can tell us about what needs to be done in preparation for the next election.
I am usually sceptical of online surveys. If we are unable to control our sampling, it is impossible to be sure what the responses represent. At best, we can only make educated guesses. However, one way of overcoming the problem is to get a massive number of responses. I’m not saying that the responses I got were massive, but they weren’t few either.
Total responses = 2,051
Of which, number who voted = 1, 756
Of which, number who voted for an opposition party = 1,609 (>90%)
Let me say straight off, it was a skewed sample. Few among the respondents voted for the People’s Action Party (PAP), when 60.1 percent of the electorate did. Furthermore, as an internet survey, I only managed to get responses from those who were online; these would be younger than the average population.
Just to visualise where the respondents were coming from, here’s a slide showing three age-bands of voters mapped against their political affiliations. It’s just my rough guess:
From these three age-bands, my respondents would be indicated by purple dots. That being the case, in this talk I will largely discard any data I collect about voting for the PAP, and focus only on those who voted for an opposition party.
How close to being representative was my sample to the opposition-voting population? Well, it certainly wasn’t fully representative because of age and internet-use skewing, but in terms of party preferences, it wasn’t too bad. The survey asked participants which party they voted for, and we can compare the distribution obtained against the electoral results.
As you can see, it’s pretty close. For example, 27.4 percent of my respondents said they voted for the National Solidarity Party (NSP) when nationally, 30.2 percent of those who voted for an opposition party did so. Another example: 34.3 percent of my respondents said they voted for the Workers’ Party (WP) when nationally, 32.2 percent of those who voted for an opposition party did so. Hence, I can say with some confidence that the sample from my survey is a reasonable cross-section of opposition-voting citizens. It is not skewed to supporters of any particular opposition party.
Now, let’s look at the first finding. These are responses to the question: If you had a free choice of all parties, including the PAP, to vote for, which party would be your first choice?
This question was asked of all 2,051 respondents, but some indicated that the PAP would be their first choice. Of the remainder,
The result is stunning. The Workers’ Party is far and away the first choice for the great majority of respondents. There’s also a clear runner-up — the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).
This result echoes one obtained by the New Paper conducted in March 2011 — I do not know the details because I only read about it on the SDP’s website — that showed the same order, with the Workers’ Party in first place and the SDP in second place.
In the New Paper survey, about 42 percent said the Workers’ Party was “very credible” or “credible” while about 22 percent said the SDP was “very credible” or “credible”. The numbers however cannot be compared with my survey numbers because in my survey they could only choose one party as “first choice” whereas in the New Paper survey, participants could rate as many parties as they liked. It’s the rank order of parties that is pertinent, not the percentages.
Of those who chose the WP or SDP as their first choice in my survey, what were their second choices?
The area of the respective disks is proportional to the number of respondents.
What did I find most interesting about the above? It was this: a significant minority of those who chose WP as their first choice pointed to the PAP as their second choice. Hardly any of those who picked the SDP as their first choice picked the PAP as their second choice; the white slice in the smaller pie is just a sliver. SDP supporters were more determinedly anti-PAP.
Moreover, while the yellow slice representing the Reform Party in the larger pie was very thin, it was the second largest slice in the smaller pie (even if it was just 5 percent). SDP supporters would consider migrating to the Reform Party when WP supporters would not. The significance? The Reform Party is one that also argues for liberal social values and human rights, like the SDP.
Question 7 asked those who voted for an opposition party why they did so. Specifically, what factors were important in their decision? This question had six subparts, but I will only touch on two today.
Question 7: How important were these factors in determining your vote choice?
(c) Principles, proposals and track record of the party I chose.
Respondents could choose for their answers Very important, Somewhat important and Not important.
The bar chart shows the WP and SDP standing apart from the rest. Respondents appear to have a more positive impression of these two parties, factoring it into their vote choice.
Question 7: How important were these factors in determining your vote choice?
(d) Quality/likeability of the candidates of the party I chose.
In this bar chart, the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) joins the WP and SDP as leaders of the pack. The SPP is led by the highly-regarded Chiam See Tong, and has also attracted some ex-government scholars and ex-civil servants.
In the interest of time, I’m not presenting the other charts, but in a nutshell the voters largely decided on their vote choice like this:
- When they had the WP or SDP as the alternative to the PAP in their ward, they could decide on the WP or SDP on the basis of (a) wanting to boost opposition presence in parliament or send a protest vote, (b) a positive impression of the party platform and (c) a positive impression of its candidates.
- When they had the SPP as the alternative to the PAP in their ward, they could decide on the SPP on the basis of (a) wanting to boost opposition presence in parliament or send a protest vote, and (c) a positive impression of its candidates.
- When they had any other opposition party as the alternative to the PAP in their ward, they based their decision only on (a) whether they wanted to boost opposition presence in parliament or send a protest vote
Yet, in the actual vote score, the SDP did not do as well as these indicators would suggest. The next slide lists the parties in declining order of vote shares:
Why is that happening? Why is it that despite having a recognisable branding that is relatively well-received, the SDP cannot translate that into votes? I don’t really know. My survey did not seek to fathom this.
What I am going to discuss next is basically a few hypotheses (not mutually exclusive) I have.
* * * * *
The first possibility is that much as voters might think well of the SDP, its candidates and its platform, some of them could not bring themselves to vote for a gay candidate.
The second is similar. Much as voters might think well of the SDP, its candidates and its platform, some of them were deterred by its history of a “confrontational” style. There’s a whole long debate about why Singaporeans think politics should not be “confrontational”, but now’s not the time to get into that.
These first two drawbacks are not difficult to overcome in time for the next election, but it does need a carefully planned and executed communication program, starting now.
The third possibility is that the SDP was not contesting in areas where its supporters were concentrated. This is hard to prove or disprove, for the simple reason that we have no data on the demographic profiles of (a) its supporters and (b) the swing voters who would be prepared to consider voting for this party.
The fourth reason I can think of is a systemic one. For this I first need to digress and speak about the political terrain generally.
* * * * *
In the Singapore context, we can plot political positionings of voters and parties on a map formed by two axes. The horizontal axis is economic, representing the spectrum from deeply interventionist for social reasons (socialist) on the left (thus “leftwing” in political jargon) to strongly free-market or capitalist on the right.
The vertical axis represents the values continuum. At the top end are values of individual responsibility, autonomy, liberty and human rights (in shorthand: liberal). At the bottom end are values that give greater weight to the group than to the individual. Such values are usually packaged in a way that expects the individual to demonstrate obeisance or make sacrifices to group interests; these values also include conformity, and where necessary, expect minority groups to defer to the majority. There is a preference for harmony and uniformity over liberty; a preference for group cohesion over rights, hierarchy and authority over equality.
What “group” are we referring to? It varies from one context to another, and from one country to another. In one place, or in one era, the group can be family or tribe; at other times, it could be the nation. Or it could be ethnicity, or religion. Most times, in fact, it is a mixture of all of these, with the common denominator the belief that the individual should subordinate his individual interests to the demands of the group.
The two axes thus create four quadrants, representing political philosophies which most of us would recognise without difficulty:
The Liberal Left believes in liberal values, but also believes that these cannot be achieved without affirmative action to counter the economic and social inequalities that a capitalist economy tends to produce. It believes strongly that the state has to play a big role in levelling the playing field, e.g. in education, healthcare, labour empowerment, but at the same time, it is careful to ensure that the implementation of such remedies continues to leave choice to individuals, for the goal is that of liberalism, i.e. freedom, not enforced betterment.
The Libertarian values freedom to such a degree that it is sceptical of state intervention, even for affirmative reasons. It believes that intervention tends to go down a slippery slope to enforced betterment, degrading liberty. It believes that the competitive environment of the market is capable of delivering freedom, choice and betterment and the purpose of the state is therefore to promote competition and private sector provision of goods and services, not intervene against it.
In a similar way, the Conservative Right also believes in a capitalist and free-market solution to economic questions. However, in social policy, this quadrant believes in using the coercive powers of the state to promote group interests rather than individual liberty. For example, it is natural to the Conservative Right to do means-testing on a family-unit basis (even extended family-basis) rather than restrict it to the individual’s means. It is natural for the Conservative Right to see schooling as a means of inculcating group identity (e.g. religious identification, nationalism) rather than inculcating individualism, which includes a culture of questioning. It does not trouble the Conservative Right very much to demand that minorities, whether ethnic, sexual or whatever, defer to the wishes of the majority. It does not trouble the Conservative Right to apply censorship to shield the sensibilities of the majority from the speech of minorities.
Where the Conservative Socialist differs from the Conservative Right is in the former’s readiness to intervene economically to achieve goals. Like the Liberal Left, the Conservative Socialist believes that the state has a major role to play in levelling the playing field, but where the Liberal Left would be careful to ensure that in so doing, individual choice and liberty are not infringed, the Conservative Socialist gives greater weight to the “greater good”, often defined in terms of group interests. For example, a Conservative Socialist, like the Liberal Left, might favour the idea of generous bursaries and government scholarships, but the Conservative Socialist would be more ready to steer (or even allocate by quota) students to prescribed courses. Likewise, the Conservative Socialist might be more ready to proscribe certain things on the ground of “morality” which itself is a group construct.
Through history, we have political ideologies that aren’t easily accommodated by my map. Among the “off the chart” ideologies I indicate three here, just to illustrate how each of the above four political philosophies can, at their extremes, create unusual belief systems. Don’t scoff at them either. Each is capable of inspiring millions and millions of believers.
But I digress too far. Let me come back to may main point.
I can place on the map the various parties with known platforms, albeit in a very approximate way:
I need to make two qualifiers:
(a) Parties articulate their positions in two ways — through a published manifesto and though speeches at rallies, media statements, etc. In the case of the Workers’ Party (but also true of other parties) what they say in their manifesto is often different, at least in emphasis, from what they say at rallies. The WP’s manifesto has more liberal elements than its rally speeches indicate, but since most people depend on public speeches for information than read a long manifesto, I am largely discounting WP’s manifesto position for the purposes of mapping.
(b) Where a party stands is independent of how well it communicates where it stands. The Reform Party, through party leader Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s blog postings and media statements, is quite clear about its positioning, but very few people have any idea of the party, for quite different reasons.
The SPP and the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) are not shown on the map, mostly because I am not clear about their platforms. I have the suspicion that the SPP is more or less where the WP is and the SDA more or less where the NSP is, but let me not put words in their mouths; let’s wait for them to articulate their own positions.
How does my map explain the SDP’s vote shortfall? Answer: In the way the SDP’s position is the furthest from the PAP’s. Indeed, the SDP expresses many people’s yearning for a more level economic playing field, and greater attention to liberty and rights, and that is perhaps why there is respect for the party’s position as indicated in the bar charts above. But voting for the party means going beyond respect to putting trust in where the SDP wants Singapore to go, and I have a feeling that many voters aren’t quite ready to do that.
It’s like this: Singaporeans aren’t equally distributed across all four quadrants. In their individual political leanings, Singaporeans create a centre of gravity that is slightly more socially conservative and pro-free market than the midpoint of the map:
It also explains how the PAP has created the gulf that exists. The PAP is, for some, too economically rightwing (to the point of being corporatist, as opposed to free market) than people want and for others, too conservative socially than people want. Compare the map showing party positions with the one just above.
The Workers’ Party is closest to the centre of gravity. For most voters who want an alternative to the PAP without radical change, the WP is not difficult to vote for.
The SDP has core supporters — those who are already in their quadrant — but for many others, the SDP’s position is too alien to their own. They can respect the SDP for the courage of its convictions, but it’s harder to give it their votes. It may simply be that the average Singaporean is a risk-averse animal; he finds it hard to vote for change, especially big change. Or he has been acculturated into a deferential animal; he finds it hard to vote for a party that through its reputation for “confrontational” politics, does not display the same deference to established authority — even if it’s an authority (the PAP) the average Singaporean chafes under.
* * * * *
It may seem that the thing for the SDP to do is to move its platform closer to where people are if it is to gain votes. Emulate the WP’s success. However, I would be careful about such a simple answer.
Major dilution of the party brand will lose it its core supporters, without any guarantee that it will gain new ones with the same ardour. All that hard-earned respect for the courage of convictions will vanish once people think that convictions have been chucked out the window and courage folded away. Furthermore, politics is not just about following the crowd; it’s also about exercising leadership. The most honourable politics is that of sticking to one’s beliefs while trying hard to persuade others to one’s vision. And this means: communication, communication, communication.
Less clearly perceived is the enormous risk that the WP is taking by staking out a position so close to the PAP’s. If the PAP should reform itself, make itself more responsive and shift its policies slightly back to the centre of gravity, half the reason to vote for the WP will disappear overnight. This is a serious risk by the next election. Do not make any straight-line projections for the WP too soon.
What about the other parties? The position staked out by the Reform Party (RP) is an interesting one. If we look at the way Jeyaretnam’s early policy proposals struck a quick chord with a fair number of netizens, there may be a political future there — if the party can get its act together.
The position I mapped out for NSP is really a very subjective guess of my own. The NSP has never set out a coherent platform. Even during this recent election, the party adopted a “minister-specific strategy”, meaning that its message varied from one constituency to another depending on which minister it was competing against. Add in the Nicole Seah phenomenon with quite different sources of appeal and it gets really hard to figure out where the party stands. Generally, however, we know that the NSP never speaks about liberties and rights, so it is obviously not in the two upper quadrants. In fact, when thrown a question about Section 377A, it took an anti-gay position. The NSP has taken a rather anti-foreigner position too, a classic indicator of social conservatism. Where it has spoken on economic issues, the party has largely taken a position of state intervention, and for this reason, I’ve placed the NSP in the bottom left quadrant.
Here is the interesting thing: The famous Group of Eighteen that defected from the RP to the NSP in February and March went diagonally from the upper right to the bottom left quadrant. You would have reason to ask: What exactly do they believe in? I’m afraid I can’t answer that question; only they can.
There’s no need to discuss the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA); personally I’m not sure if they will remain a player going forward.
Lastly, as for the SPP, this party is undergoing a major transition at the moment. While it has a short manifesto on its website, I am told that at its election rallies, it mostly dwelled on its competence in running town councils, something that I saw for myself via video recordings. It may be a while yet before it consistently articulates its positions on issues. But it has to, soon. If not for Chiam See Tong’s standing, the party would not have made it to the top three in question 7(d). Chiam, as we know, is moving towards retirement.
You might ask: Didn’t the party’s good score for quality/likeability of candidates also depend on ex-scholars and civil servants like Benjamin Pwee and Jimmy Lee, who are likely to stick around? I don’t think they were that important a factor. Look at NSP with Hazel Poa, Tony Tan and Nicole Seah; these didn’t lift NSP’s candidate quality/likeability score by much.
So without Chiam, the SPP’s brand risks becoming nothing. That’s why it’s urgent to build a brand and enunciate its platform.
* * * * *
Between party brand and candidates’ allure, the temptation is often to rely on allure. The personality factor. This is short-sighted. This factor is always one scandal, one criminal conviction or one defection away from disaster.
Another problem is that no personality can stand in more than one constituency. How does one person swing votes across multiple constituencies? You should hear some of the comments made by voters in Moulmein-Kallang constituency about the Workers’ Party slate of candidates there. There wasn’t a lot of Low Thia Khiang magic to be seen. Don’t forget too, the SPP also contested Hongkah North single-member constituency. Without Chiam See Tong anywhere nearby, the party crashed to the lowest vote-share of any ward bar the three-cornered fight in Punggol East.
Brand value is portable and more lasting. Unfortunately, it requires much hard work. It requires intellectual coherence, discipline on the part of candidates and party members to sing from the same songsheet, a good sense of the ground and a capable media team. But I’ve never heard of shortcuts to lasting political success, have you?