Political researcher James Gomez once said to me: “Elections in Singapore all follow a pattern. The first two or three days of the campaign are about the issues and the rest are about a man.” At the time, he was referring to general elections. I see now that it applies equally to by-elections.
The People’s Action Party (PAP) has made character assassination its chief campaign strategy. Again. The “man” in this instance is obvious – it is Png Eng Huat, the Workers’ Party candidate in Hougang. I see that today’s mainstream Straits Times has whipped itself up into a suitably loyal frenzy by using the phrase “allegations of dishonesty” in one of its headlines.
I have no intention of commenting on the details of these “allegations”. They are so ridiculously inconsequential, it only shows how clean the man is. Is that all the “dirt” that the huge machinery that is the PAP can find on him?
Sometimes, I wonder whether the PAP is aware how they damage their own brand by such strategies. Shrill personal attacks over nothing only remind voters how petty and perhaps vindictive PAP leaders are, from Lee Kuan Yew on down.
As my friend Jason Leow wrote on Facebook: “Didn’t voters reject this type of politicking in the last GE? Branding opponents as cultural chauvinists, liars and opportunists … give us a break. Whose era does this remind you of? If I were good at graphic design, I’d put out a YAWN poster to react to this kind of campaigning.”
The blog TR Emeritus shared similar sentiments. “PAP-ST slime campaign – small gains today for big loss tomorrow?” went the headline of a post dated 23 May 2012.
Then there was PAP member of parliament Denise Phua who told a small PAP rally crowd Sunday night that
. . . it was possible to have a check on the Government, without voting more opposition MPs into Parliament.
She also suggested that bloggers and independent-minded PAP MPs could provide enough diverse voices to bring about change.
— Straits Times, 23 May 2012, Remarks on opposition MPS sparks retorts
And one is immediately reminded of the absolutist tendencies of the PAP, and of the dismal days when the PAP controlled all but one or two seats in the legislature.
If there’s anyone out there who still believes that the PAP has changed since last year’s general election when it took a beating, its behaviour at this Hougang by-election should disabuse him of the thought. The PAP continues to behave the way it has long behaved. I am tempted to say PAP stands for “Politics on Auto-Pilot”.
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But will the measures work? Will Hougang vote in Desmond Choo of the PAP as its new MP?
We have no indications one way or another. Opinion polls on voting intentions are as rare as snow in Singapore. All we have are vote counts from previous elections.
In 2006, Workers’ Party leader Low Thia Khiang won 62.7% pf the Hougang vote against Eric Low Siak Meng (PAP). We have not heard about Eric Low since.
In 2011, Yaw Shin Leong (WP) won 64.8% against Desmond Choo (PAP).
While it looks as if the Workers’ Party has a significant buffer against vote erosion, I’d say it has no reason to be complacent. For one thing, there is almost no upside, while the downside risks are all too evident.
My guess is that Hougang voters went for the Workers’ Party strongly in previous elections for three chief, and overlapping, reasons:
- Disgust with the PAP and determination to vote against it (a strong emotional reason);
- Expression of frustration with recent PAP policies (a less emotional, more situational reason);
- Low Thia Khiang’s high likeability (a personal factor).
We know that the first factor generally assures almost any opposition party about 25% of the vote. This suggests then that about 40 percentage points of Yaw Shin Leong’s vote-share came from factors 2 and 3.
Has the PAP’s actions since last year’s general election – reducing ministerial salaries, focussing on transport improvements and revving up the public housing program – been enough to significantly reduce factor 2? Has the departure of Low Thia Khiang from Hougang, and the mute stubbornness of Yaw Shin Leong since allegations of marital infidelity broke eroded factor 3?
If the Workers’ Party loses half the 40 percentage points that they got from factors 2 and 3 in 2011, then, at this by-election, their vote share will only be about 45%. It would be a veritable disaster for them and for opposition parties generally.
In three more days, we will find out.