Women view opposition parties less favourably than men. Older voters give greater weight to party label and party leadership, than to candidates and issues.
Such granularity is emerging from a number of studies about the recent general election, challenging the tendency, if one looks at pro-opposition commentary in new media, to flatten the Singaporean voter into a single stereotype. In new media particularly, the opinions of some outspoken commentators tend to crowd out divergent opinions from others, giving a false impression of voter uniformity in opinion and behaviour.
A poll conducted by Merdeka Center carefully segmented respondents by gender, age, income and ethnic bands. The results, presented at a lunchtime seminar held 27 May 2011 at the Singapore Management University (SMU), are eye-opening.
Merdeka Center is a Malaysian opinion research organisation. On the Singaporean side, Paul Ananth Tambyah from human rights group Maruah and Bridget Welsh, a political scientist with SMU, coordinated and organised volunteers. Ibrahim Suffian from Merdeka Center made a special trip to Singapore to present the findings, augmented with presentations by Tambyah and Welsh. The findings can be found at Merdeka Center’s website — the slides below came from there — though there doesn’t seem to be an easy and direct hyperlink available to the results.
The telephone poll interviewed 611 Singaporeans aged 18 and older, with interviews carried out between 27 April and 5 May 2011 (i.e. during the formal election campaign itself). This exercise was based on random stratified sampling and Merdeka Center says the margin of error is +/- 3.96 percent.
As presented at the lunchtime talk, this election saw about three in four Singaporeans following the campaign. There is some variation among different groups. The wealthier and older ones were more engaged. As a community, the Malays seemed to be following the news less than others.
As expected, bread and butter issues were of top concern, e.g. inflation, cost of living, healthcare and housing. Welsh however pointed out that there are notable differences between what motivates an opposition supporter and a People’s Action Party (PAP) supporter. For example, on average only 5 percent of respondents said political freedoms were among their top or second-from-top concerns, but if one segregates opposition- from PAP-supporters, one finds that this is an issue that move 11 percent of opposition-supporters compared to one percent of PAP supporters.
Don’t forget, she reminded the audience, that even if respondents didn’t name political freedoms as among their top two issues, it might still be number 3, 4 or 5.
Likewise, economic growth is a selling point for those who were likely to vote for the PAP (12 percent) but it leaves opposition-supporters cold (2 percent).
PAP- and opposition-supporters also get their news from rather different sources. However, one should be careful about cause and effect. Did reliance on certain sources shape a person’s political views, or did pre-existing views influence one’s choice of news sources?
All in all, Welsh felt that the Singaporean voter was a reflective one, balancing various considerations — party, candidate, issues and party leadership. However, in another slide further down, one will see differences in weightage by segments.
Gender is not a dimension that is often discussed, and yet, the poll found significant differences between men and women. The text on the slide is worth reading closely.
The biggest differences, reported Welsh, appeared along generational lines. Younger voters were distinct from older voters on many fronts. Younger voters pay more attention to candidates and issues and less to party labels. Party leadership hardly figures at all among those under 50.
It appears very risky, going forward, for a party to rely primarily on its historical branding and the appeal/trust/loyalty towards its leadership. Increasingly, parties need to have meaningful things to say about issues (i.e. its platform) and to have attractive (if possible, charismatic) candidates.
There are also ethnic differences. Malays, for example, were following the campaign less closely than other ethnic groups, prioritising housing and welfare above other issues. They were also less warm towards opposition parties even as they were reluctant to openly support the PAP. Bridget Welsh has another study (not connected with Merdeka Center’s) focussing on the Malay community which will be included in a new book to be published soon — a blurb follows at the end of this article.
It should hardly be surprising that income differences impact opinions. However, I find it hard to tease out any simple relationships from the data provided in these slides.
A new book – Voting in Change
On a separate note, a new book will be launched about a week from now comprising essays about several aspects of the 2011 general election. Yours truly has a chapter in it, recounting the highlights of the campaign from the angle of parties and personalities involved. Bridget Welsh’s chapter presents the six studies she conducted on six segments of the voting population. Paired into three groups, she compares younger first-time voters with the elderly; Malay voters with new citizens; Christian voters with gay ones. I’ve seen her draft; it makes for fascinating reading.
There are two chapters on the media. Terence Lee, who is with Murdoch University, looks at the Straits Times’ record in the lead-up to the election while Cherian George (Nanyang Technological University) writes about new media. And more. . .
I will announce details of the book launch when I get them. [Update: Book launch will be on Saturday, 11 June 2011 at 10 a.m. Venue: Chinese Chamber of Commerce auditorium. Since seats are limited, registration required. Please go to http://votinginchange.eventbrite.com%5D