Compared to the general election of 2006, the electorate in 2011 appears to be more mature, in that a larger number of them are swing voters. They are less easily pigeonholed into pro-People’s Action Party or pro-opposition camps.
Even so, among young adults, the tertiary-educated and those in upper-middle-class households, the pro-opposition camp is about twice as large as the pro-PAP camp.
These findings came from a survey of about 2,000 eligible voters conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in the fortnight after Polling Day.
In Part 1, the discussion was about the issues that voters considered important, the communication channels they considered influential upon them and the overall credibility of political parties. Here, we look at how political orientation and perceptions of political parties varied with respect to age, educational level and household income. The survey had also looked at the effect of gender, occupation, housing type, ethnic group and more factors, but variations in opinions are not as sensitive to these other factors as to age, education and household income.
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IPS used three terms to classify political orientation: Conservative, Swing and Pluralist. Respondents were placed into these three classifications based on a matrix of questions, such as how important it was to have checks and balances.
The problem I have with these terms is that they are not particularly intuitive — especially as Conservative is more often used in a different sense — and though it may be slightly inaccurate to do so, for the purposes of this article I use the terms Pro-PAP, Swing and Pro-opposition. In the specific context of Singapore with a dominant party that argues for the status quo, Conservative would in effect mean Pro-PAP. At the other end of the spectrum, those who believe in a more plural political system would in the present Singapore context be seen as pro-opposition.
The striking thing from the data is that except for young adults, the Swing category in 2011 has grown from 2006. This growth came at the expense of both pro-PAP and pro-opposition camps (except senior citizens). Voters may be becoming more eclectic, or even tactical, in their choices. They may be more concerned with issues and proposed solutions, rather than party label.
The 16 percent aged 21 – 29 however tilt markedly to the opposition. They are the only group where the Swing category is not the largest.
The next bar graph shows how significant education is to the formation of political opinion. Pluralist or pro-opposition views get stronger as the educational level goes up.
Educational level correlates with income, and the next chart, based on household income, shows a similar trend.
These are loud warning bells for the PAP. As a party reputed to favour the elite, it is striking how it is failing to win the hearts of the better-educated and the better-off. Instead, it is increasingly relying on the support of the educationally and economically disadvantaged. Yet, the widening income gap and wage stagnation points to increasing frustration among the disadvantaged. For now, they may be voting for the PAP as a default option, perhaps because opposition parties still find it hard to reach them since this demographic group is less connected to the internet, and reaching them through retail politics is very resource-demanding. But when the day comes that the disadvantaged realise that there are meaningful alternatives to the PAP, they may turn against the PAP with a vengeance.
The other warning bell for the PAP is how it is losing the next cohort of voters. The leading indicator can be seen in the 21-29 age group where those with Pluralist/pro-opposition orientation outnumber those with pro-PAP orientation by two to one.
Why does the educational and economic elite not strongly support the PAP? It can’t be because of many specific policies since these have in the main benefitted them. My guess is that it’s probably got to do with style, and perhaps humanity/idealism. Precisely because they are better educated, they find it hard to stomach what they perceive as a top-down, arrogant style. They may also be chafing at civil liberty issues (although the survey did not ask about these). Thirdly, just because they are better-off does not mean they lack compassion or idealism about fairness and social justice. Being economically secure themselves, such ideals may even be stronger in them.
Here again, the PAP should be very concerned. To win these voters back may require a complete revolution in how the party goes about governing. Both ends and means have to be upended, but as far as I can see, such a revolution is nowhere on the horizon.
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Perception of parties
The next three graphs show how voters perceive the credibility of the seven parties that participated in the 2011 general election, according to age, education and household income. It is obvious from all the graphs that the PAP and Workers’ Party (WP) stand head and shoulders above the rest.
In yet another danger signal for the PAP, among young adults, the WP has the same credibility score as the ruling party.
In general, those under 40 years of age view most of the other opposition parties more favourably than their older peers.
The graphs for the PAP and WP are different in the second chart compared to the one above. The lines (nearly) converge as educational levels go up.
In the discussion above, it was pointed out that Pluralist or pro-opposition political orientation rises with education. Here you see it in finer grain, in that the support really goes to just one opposition party — WP. There is no increasing support for other opposition parties as educational levels go up, with the possible exception of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). But why so? Why the WP and possibly SDP? Is it because the WP is considered a “safer” bet compared to other, “wilder” opposition parties? Is it because the SDP is more idealistic, or simply more internet-savvy?
Likewise, the WP is viewed more favourably by the better-off than by the less well-off.
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The new normal or old normal?
Part of the seminar discussion revolved around the theme of whether Singapore is moving towards a new normal. Sociologist Chua Beng Huat argued that “liberalisation of Singapore is not avoidable, because the only competitive edge we have in Singapore is education”. As you would have seen from the charts above, education is perhaps the chief driver of shifting political opinions.
Moreover, we’ve already seen a key break from the past. “One of the major factors,” Chua added, “is the retirement of Lee Kuan Yew. A lot of the authoritarianism of the past was due to one man’s personality.”
Lam Peng Er seemed more ambivalent, noting that former prime minister Goh Chok Tong promised a more consultative government way back in 1990. I think he was alluding to how in 2011, the PAP is still promising the same.
Yet, noting that if the PAP loses another 5 percentage points in vote share, it could lose more group representation constituencies such as Marine Parade and East Coast, Lam wondered why the PAP has become so quiet after the election. “Why is the feedback mechanism malfunctioning?”
Chua (right) felt we could stagnate at this level for a while. Although “there is a change in [voters’] mentality, and while the political consciousness has changed . . . but does the political culture allow that liberalisation to express itself?” He foresees the PAP remaining as the dominant party for another twenty years. After that? Perhaps “we may become more like India” — with no party getting an outright majority.
Both Chua and IPS Deputy Director Arun Mahizhnan thought we shouldn’t lose the historical perspective. Singapore had a vibrant political culture fifty years ago. We are not so much moving to a new normal, but re-normalising after a long period of the abnormal. We even “accepted that abnormality to be the only way things should be,” Chua observed.
Among the odd things that we have in Singapore is the Straits Times. It is “a very strange newspaper; it always reports the future,” he said. Whenever it writes about an issue, it will report what the government will do some time in the future in relation to it.
Coming back to the question of new normal or old normal, perhaps it is too soon to tell. Perhaps the changes we saw in 2011 are not that significant. “We are so starved of change,” Chua cautioned, “that we make every little change to be the start of the next big thing.”