Merdeka Center poll highlights differences among voter segments

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

20 Responses to “Merdeka Center poll highlights differences among voter segments”

  1. 1 Magda Anne 3 June 2011 at 19:47

    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.

    I, too, am excited by more literature on Singapore politics; but I do worry that she draws a false dichotomy in comparing ‘Christian voters with gay ones’ – considering that there are many people who fall into both categories, as well as people who would be of interest who may technically fall into those categories but do not use those labels as identifiers.

  2. 2 J 3 June 2011 at 20:06

    “Women view opposition parties less favourably than men.”

    I guess if women have to do NS under the PAP government, then they might view opposition parties as favourably as men.

  3. 3 yuen 3 June 2011 at 20:22

    the second last slide says middle income voters are more willing to see more opposition seats than upper income and lower income voters; I can understand that the wealthy class is pro establishment, but find it hard to see why the less well off people should be; it appears the opposition parties’ appeal has “gone over there heads”; perhaps their emphasis was on freedom, which is close to the hearts of the middle class, rather than equality, more likely to appeal to the disadvantaged (second posting – website address was wrong in first posting)

    • 4 Anonymous 4 June 2011 at 21:29

      I doubt the wealthy class is more pro establishment than the poor. They’re probably somewhere near the middle class.

      It’s the same in the US and most places. In the US, the more well off paradoxically support the democrats. The poor is just more conservative in general.

      • 5 yuen 4 June 2011 at 23:18

        > I doubt the wealthy class is more pro establishment than the poor.

        the slide says the higher income and lower income people are less pro opposition than the middle; it does not compare the wealthy with the poor

        maybe your “doubt” is based on some other data

    • 6 Elizabeth 5 June 2011 at 00:09

      Perhaps the more well-to-do people have fulfilled the first 4 levels in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and part of the pursuit of self-actualisation is a desire for more equality and greater democracy in society?

  4. 7 jim 4 June 2011 at 15:22

    1) media: many will say we’re reading the “state-controlled” papers just so that we can poke holes into the ruling party’s arguments and expose their lies. why pretend that the print media has little credibility? why not just admit that the coverage has increased justifiably because of the opposition’s improved capability and credibility.

    2) gender: your mums are cast iron ballots for pap. just ask around.

    3) inoome: until the opposition can form the govt, the less well-off will continue to believe that the pap represents their best bet.

  5. 8 peiying 4 June 2011 at 16:27

    I’ll be looking forward to read this book Alex!

    Hope all those newspaper cuttings helped you (:

    On another note, I think the survey could have also tried to go deeper. For example, they should survey to see if there is a significant difference in voting behavior between the English-Educated Chinese and the Chinese Educated Chinese. Or perhaps also, the difference in voting along religious lines? (But possibly religion could be a touchy subject)

    My family was also discussing today, if housewives attribute a significant difference to voting behavior among women? Like I said, maybe in the next election, the survey could be more refined. I think it would be very interesting to see what’s the general trend among housewives.

    • 9 yawningbread 7 June 2011 at 14:55

      I do not think that survey asked questions about language or religion, so such analyses can’t be expected.

      Surveys cannot contain too many questions otherwise they may annoy the participants. Thus in every survey design, hard choices have to be made what to include and what to exclude.

  6. 10 Fredrick 5 June 2011 at 12:44

    I have few questions after reading this article. How do we get the malays to be more involved? Do the young malays are more politically engaging compared to their older generation. It will be very comfortable to hear if the answer is yes.

  7. 11 dolphin81 5 June 2011 at 15:38

    I can comment on 2 classifications:

    Men vs Women: Women may be more pro-PAP due to following:

    1)lack of NS issue. By comparison, no local woman is forced to have children.

    2)Jobs issue. In a worse off scenario, a woman who loses her job MAY still be able to get a lower-paid but regular position. However, for a man, he will have to join the self-employed.

    3)PAP tactic of comparing with selected countries to show it has done a good job. PAP track record in women’s advancement has a greater impact on women voters compared to men.

    Higher Income vs Lower Income

    1)higher income pro-PAP needs no further explanation.

    2)lower income pro-PAP. This is the moronic group who votes PAP out of fear or veneration of LKY. To them, PAP is never to be blamed.

    • 12 yawningbread 5 June 2011 at 19:02

      I think (1) and (2) are rather sexist. As for (3), it rests on an assertion of fact (PAP track record in women’s advancement) which you need a citation for.

      • 13 jem 16 June 2011 at 09:31

        I would not consider 1) to be sexist. It is after all true that women do not have to do NS, and many men resent it.

  8. 14 Middle-Aged, Married With Children 5 June 2011 at 20:35

    I would like to humbly disagree with this view about women being more conservative vote for PAP. This is too simplistic a view and really other factors should be examined. The fact that Aljunied & Hougang was won cannot be attributed to just the younger & male population.

    A group of us living in an landed estate in Aljunied GRC in our 40s & 50s (married with kids) all supporting WP banded together informally discussed issues with other like-minded females be it at the coffee-shops, other shops, in the parks, carparks, with our children’s tutors. While some of us eagerly when to the rallies & also went to Hougang Stadium to show our support, other who had to mind their businesses & children did so at home. However, unlike men, we don’t just talk about it all the time as we do have to do our jobs and run the family as well.

    If the survey went more indepth, they would find that older women (not just those tech. savvy) can relate more to the opposition. While we may be accused of being sensible, attempt not to rock the boat and take time to decipher the messages from the opposition, we also empathise and understand better the emotional plight of the poor, aged, young couples, young parents, NS (our husbands, brothers serve/d reservists & our sons do/will do NS). We do give them emotional support, drive them to and from camp, and run the whole home single-handedly when our other halves are not around. So please give most of us credit for some wisdom. Why would we note for a party which doesn’t give our children a level playing field in schools, jobs, etc. Housing, cost of living, threat of losing jobs to foreigners, etc, etc, etc and what a lousy job PAP is doing about it is also a forefront in our minds.

    Maybe a clearer survey would be the actual numbers that voted for PAP or the Opposition.

    • 15 yuen 6 June 2011 at 13:26

      since aljunied went 55% for WP, we can assume that more men as well as more women were anti PAP there, so your experience threw little light on the issue of men-women difference in party support

      given that PAP is associated with hierarchy and conformity, while the opposition is associated with openness and freedom (I hesitate to use “democracy” as the differentiation, since both PAP and opposition favour elections, following people’s will, etc; the two sides simply have different ideas of democracy), one would expect minorities like gays to favour the opposition, but it is not so easy to figure out how women think as a group; the survey result appear to indicate that women, with lower financial resources, favour security, while men, enjoying somewhat greater economic opportunities, would prefer greater scope for exercising their own choices

      (If I remember correctly, in USA women vote Republican at slightly higher percentage than men, I guess for the same reason)

  9. 16 Samsul 6 June 2011 at 22:57

    I’d be interested to know more about how the Malays voted based on the survey conducted. Hopefully socio-economic data was captured to make for a more more in-depth analysis. Was there a class effect in the voting pattern of the Malays? To generalise that all the Malays surveyed were not political engaged would be painting in very broad strokes.

    Ismail Kassim – ex- ST journalist – had sent an email to PM Lee on bringing on board the Malays as per the “one united people” pledge. Alex, are you aware of the circulation of this email?

    • 17 yawningbread 7 June 2011 at 14:59

      The survey had just slightly over 600 participants. Therefore the Malay participants among them would not number more than 100. It’s difficult to expect finer detail with this kind of sample size.

      Why didn’t they do a bigger survey, you might ask. Two reasons: Money and volunteers. Very easy for netizens to wish for this and wish for that, but until we are citizens contribute in numbers, either with donations or work, we need to be grateful for what little we get.

  10. 18 yawningbread 7 June 2011 at 17:15

    Book launch details: Saturday, 11 June 2011. 10 a.m. at Chinese Chamber of Commerce auditorium. Seats are limited, thus registration required. Please go to

  11. 19 % 14 June 2011 at 03:08

    Where can one purchase a copy of the book?

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