You can almost hear the boos. The Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) proposal for “compromise” with the Workers’ Party over a joint candidate for the Punggol East by-election is so ridiculous, some may question whether they have a grasp of reality.
To quote the statement put up on SDP’s website (link):
In the spirit of compromise and cooperation, we would like to propose that our two parties run a joint campaign and field one candidate from the SDP. If victorious, the SDP candidate will enter Parliament and the WP will run the Punggol East Town Council.
— Press statement by SDP, 11 January 2013
Immediately, they got little else but online flak. Many characterised this idea as one where SDP will get the glory in parliament and WP do all the grunt work.
The Workers’ Party is not going to agree with it — and I see that Gerald Giam (WP) rebuffed it in a statement to the Straits Times a few hours later.
Did SDP think anyone would take it seriously? Or, as reporters asked, is this all posturing? Maybe they wanted people to see that they’re trying their utmost to seek opposition unity?
Nonetheless, it sends out a highly negative message: That the SDP has no confidence in its ability to run town councils. Just saying “We’d very much like to . . . run town councils,” as party leader Chee Soon Juan did in a press conference 11 January 2013, isn’t going to counter this conclusion. If voters think that the party has either no interest or no capability to do so, then it’s as good as fatal to the party’s chances.
Of course it remains a good question why members of parliament should also be running town councils, and there are good arguments for separating the two roles. But for now, it is a moot question. That’s the way it is and no resident wants his local government to fall apart.
It’s a very bad mistake by the SDP and I think it will be paying a steep price for it.
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I have said it before and I will say it again: All this yearning for opposition unity is not in the best interest of Singapore. It caters only to the minority (25 percent at most?) of Singaporeans who want the People’s Action Party out at any cost. Most voters are interested primarily in issues and solutions and are quite agnostic about which party delivers them. So long as they get them.
Yet, ‘chuck out the PAP at any cost’ is a major motivator behind opposition parties. It is the steely, single-minded determination of those who subscribe to this view that keeps opposition parties going despite the innumerable obstacles. But alas, it can also mislead opposition parties into thinking that opposition unity is of paramount importance to the electorate.
The other argument in favour of opposition unity is a utilitarian one; the calculation being that three- or four-cornered fights split the ‘opposition vote’ allowing the PAP to win.
I’ve always wondered about the assumptions inherent in statements like that, assumptions that are probably fallacious: The first is that there is a homogenous ‘opposition vote’, and the second is the defeatist view that the PAP’s vote bank is always larger than any single opposition party’s support. There is the supposition that in a straight fight a supporter of Opposition Party A will always support Opposition Party B rather than the PAP.
None of these ideas have been tested; they do not even stand up to logical scrutiny. And if the 2011 presidential election shows anything, PAP’s core support base is not much more than 35 percent.
Yes, our electoral ground is terribly uneven. It’s been jigged and re-jigged to favour the incumbent party. Our first-past-the-post system plus a homogenous electorate (i.e. voter profiles in all constituencies don’t differ by much) makes it brutal to small parties though there is another angle to it, which I will mention below. But that’s the lay of the land, and at least for now it’s an unavoidable reality.
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Too many of this ‘anyone by the PAP’ lot are looking at Malaysia and asking why we cannot duplicate a broad alliance like Malaysia’s Pakatan Rakyat (PR) here. This especially with a new report that suggests a slightly better than even chance of PR winning the next election and forming the federal government:
Malaysian polls: Economist predicts narrow PR win
Bank Islam Malaysia Berhad’s chief economist has predicted that the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition alliance will eke out a narrow victory in Malaysia’s upcoming general election.
In a presentation at yesterday’s Regional Outlook Forum, Mr Azrul Azwar Ahmad Tajudin considered three scenarios for the election that must be called by April 28: a narrow win for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), a narrow win for PR, and a larger victory for PR.
The study looked at factors like past voting patterns and demographic changes, such as the increase in young voters and urban voters.
Mr Azrul’s number crunching found that the scenario with the highest probability was for BN to win only between 97 and 107 of the 222 parliamentary seats. Such an outcome would mean a narrow win for PR, leaving it short of the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments.
This scenario includes estimated ethnic vote shares for BN: For instance, 55 per cent to 60 per cent of the Malay vote, and 20 per cent to 25 per cent of the Chinese vote.
However, if PR does win the next general election, Mr Azrul predicts a “knee-jerk reaction” by financial markets, as well as a longer-term perception of political instability by business.
Economic sabotage – in the form of resistance to reform by business interests or civil servants sympathetic to the current BN government – is also a possibility, he added.
— Straits Times, 11 Jan 2013, Malaysian polls: Economist predicts narrow PR win, by Janice Heng
The day before, opinion research organisation Merdeka Centre reported that Malaysian prime minister Najib’s approval rating slipped from 65% in October 2012 to 63% in December 2012. Those ‘dissatisfied’ with his performance increased from 28% to 30% the same period.
Those ‘happy’ with the government slipped from 48% to 45% in the same period. However, those ‘unhappy’ also declined, from 41% to 38%. This suggests a very fluid mood among voters, making it very hard to predict results for the next Malaysian general election. For opposition optimists, it means that there is at least a good chance that PR will unseat the ruling Barisan Nasional.
If Malaysians can do it, why can’t we? Singaporean opposition supporters will ask.
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I think we forget that there are key differences between the Malaysian and Singaporean political landscape. Beside the fact that Malaysian constituencies have diverse voter profiles, each of the three component parties in PR is keenly aware of structural limits. Parti Se-Islam Malaysia can’t realistically grow much beyond its Malay-Muslim base. DAP can’t go far beyond its Chinese base. Parti Keadilan is squeezed between the two, appealing more to the moderate Malay and too reliant on a single leader. Precisely because they aren’t directly competing for the same voter, it makes tactical sense to make common cause.
There are no structural limits to any opposition party’s support in Singapore. None of them appeal along ethnic or religious lines. Not even along class lines.
Which is a good thing.
But it also means there is no compelling reason to co-operate. Instead, each opposition party has to sell its vision of the future to the people.
It may sound like a hard slog, but as respect for the People’s Action Party erodes, mathematical modeling of multi-party electoral fights will suggest that all it takes to secure a seat is to win just 30 – 40% of the voters in a ward. In other words, don’t see the first-past-the-post system only as threat, see it as opportunity too.
The hopeful thing has been that the SDP has indeed invested in generating alternative ideas, in healthcare, housing and other areas. They’ve made a good start and were beginning to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. But now, it seems, they are throwing it all away making that hare-brained ‘compromise’ proposal that makes people wonder again whether it’s a party only interested in declamatory politics (albeit in parliament) than in serving people on the constituency ground.