I think almost all who were sympathetic to the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) heaved a huge sigh of relief when party leader Chee Soon Juan announced on 15 January 2013 — just the day before Nomination Day — that the party will sit out the Punggol East by-election. As it has turned out, there are enough other candidates, from the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance, to make this a four-cornered contest. The People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Workers’ Party (WP) had earlier announced their candidates and their intention to run.
But before I turn to the by-election campaigns by these four parties, I think it is important to assess how much repair work lies ahead for the SDP. In the short term, people aren’t going to forget this episode and it may hurt them, but its final decision, signifying flexibility and good sense, augurs well for its ability to learn and adjust. In my view, its medium-term prospects won’t be much damaged, and as I will argue in this article, it still has quite a credible route to parliament.
This, however, is not to deny that it has a lot of work cut out for it.
Even though the SDP’s statement to the media was that they “decided to withdraw from the race” because “Singaporeans have signaled clearly that they do not want to see a three-cornered contest in Punggol East which may dilute the vote and allow a PAP win,” adding that “We hear their voices and we have heeded them,” everybody can see that they must have taken a sober look at their chances and seen the prospect of humiliation staring back at them.
Section 28 of the Parliamentary Elections Act states that a candidate’s election deposit (now $14,500) shall be forfeited if he or she does not garner more than one-eighth (12.5 percent) of the total number of votes polled. In a crowded race, this is a pretty high hurdle.
To fight and lose so badly can damage a party’s reputation, casting it as a “no hoper” in future races.
Despite the embarrassment of withdrawal after two weeks of bravado, it is wiser to pull out now and wait to fight somewhere else another day.
The current reality
Across Singapore as a whole — it may vary a little depending on the constituency — about 35 percent of voters will consistently support the PAP. We discern this figure from the 2011 general election result in Hougang (where PAP has its worst showing) and from the presidential election the same year. For the purposes of this article, we’ll call this the “Pro-PAP” bloc.
About 20 – 30 percent of voters can be relied upon to vote for an opposition candidate, whichever party he may be from. This can be discerned from the constituencies where opposition candidates did worst in the 2006 and 2011 general elections:
- In 2011, Sin Kek Tong (Singapore People’s Party) polled 29.4 percent in Hong Kah North;
- In 2011, the Reform Party team polled 30.7 percent in Ang Mo Kio GRC;
- In 2006, Ling How Doong (SDP) polled 22.8 percent in Bukit Panjang;
- In 2006, the SDP team polled 23.3 percent in Sembawang GRC.
We’ll call this the “Anti-PAP” bloc.
In between are the swing voters, making up 35- 45 percent of the electorate. Not only are they able to switch their votes from the PAP to opposition, and vice versa, they will likely pick and choose which opposition party to support based on party platforms and candidates’ personalities.
It is important to understand that they are different from the “Anti-PAP” bloc. The latter is interested primarily in throwing the PAP out, and therefore they are far more likely to vote tactically. Their goal is best achieved by voting for whichever opposition party stands the best chance against the PAP. Obviously “best chance” is not an objective measure, but a subjective one, based on the voter’s reading of the voting intentions of his fellow citizens.
What the SDP probably saw in Punggol East
So, even in the best case Punggol East scenario — only a three-way contest, with SDP enjoying relatively good branding and support — the SDP probably saw something like Figure 1. They would struggle to avoid losing their deposit.
But that’s the best case. Hopefully, they realised that the bungle they made over the weekend (see SDP trips itself up even before Punggol East starting gun) was likely to cause two adverse shifts,
- Any hope that even a handful of the Anti-PAP bloc believing they stood the better chance against PAP than WP, and would therefore vote tactically for the SDP, would have vanished;
- Their slice of the swing voters would have narrowed as voters previously positive about the SDP got totally confused about what the party was about.
… making their red slice in Figure 1 even smaller.
The bungle was a crazy attempt to outmanoeuvre WP. It was a gambit widely seen as foolish machination, raising questions about their grasp of political reality. It undermined their previous efforts at promoting alternative policy visions, because people were led to ask whether at the end of the day, the party was actually less interested in alternative policies despite everything they’ve said, and more enamoured of good ol’ dirty politicking. It also radiated the subliminal message that the party had no interest or confidence in its ability to run town councils.
The party needs a breather to regroup and make up for the ground they lost. They need to work at recovering their credibility.
Three-way contests the future norm
I foresee that gradually three-way contests will become common in Singapore, simply because it is pretty obvious that the WP has no interest in making concessions to other opposition parties. They may not yet have the capability to contest all seats throughout Singapore, but they are likely to expand their reach steadily. This will bring them into conflict with the SDP, National Solidarity Party (NSP) and other smaller parties. SDP, NSP and the other parties will probably be able to agree on constituency allocation among themselves, since they are each still small, and — notwithstanding the example of Punggol East by-election (with Reform Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance in the fray) — will want to avoid duplication of efforts.
So, more and more, we’re going to see electoral contests featuring the PAP, WP and one other party.
Is the third party always doomed? Is the Anti-PAP bloc always going to sense that WP has the best chance and thus vote tactically for it? Because if they do, then SDP (or for that matter, any other non-WP opposition party) can never sniff victory.
But, before I discuss the ways SDP (or any other “third”, i.e. non-WP opposition party) can still find a way to parliamentary representation, let me also sketch out two significant trends:
- Firstly, both the Pro-PAP and Anti-PAP blocs are likely to shrink. Studies by the Institute of Policy Studies have shown these groups to be older than swing voters. Simple demographics will suggest that over time, the percentage who are swing voters will grow. This will give more room to third parties, especially those who are able to differentiate themselves and offer clear value propositions (see box at right).
- Secondly, as I predicted post-general election 2011, the WP will face increasing flak. As they gain prominence, they will come up against rising expectations and more ready criticism. There is already the undertow of comments that they are “PAP-lite”, and that they offer little by way of alternative policy and fail to make effective use of their parliamentary voice.
So coming to the main question: What does it take to break the expectation that WP has the best chance, and thereby unlock their hold on the anti-PAP bloc in any three-way contest? There are two ways to do this, and each of them is a two-step process, i.e. involving two general election cycles:
Scenario A: Do well in a straight fight
In a constituency in the first general election, SDP faces the PAP in a straight fight, and does surprisingly well. It does not need to win; it needs only to come close to winning, by over 45 percent, illustrated by Figure 2.
(You may also notice that Figure 2 has slightly smaller Pro-PAP and Anti-PAP blocs compared to 2013’s Figure 1, to represent evolution over time. And since it’s a straight fight, the tactically-voting Anti-PAP bloc will throw their weight behind the third party, in this scenario, SDP.)
Such a creditable performance enables the party to shake off its “sure lose” image, especially when people can see how many swing voters it captured.
Sceanrio B: Do well in a three-way contest with WP
Even if the SDP party finds itself facing the WP in the first general election, it can still put up a good show — provided it has good branding and has put in the groundwork. Victory or defeat in the polls is often a matter of surpassing or underperforming against expectations.
So, for example, if the result comes out something like Figure 3, where it shows it can capture more swing voters than the WP, SDP will get a whole new lease of life, for thereafter, the Anti-PAP bloc will not take for granted that only the WP can prevail against the PAP.
Of course there will be the accusation that the three-way fight resulted in a win for the PAP despite the WP and SDP together getting more than 50 percent of the vote, but it will not be easy to say that SDP “deprived” WP its win. One may just as easily say WP “deprived” the SDP of a win.
At the subsequent general election
Then in a subsequent general election, whether following scenario A or scenario B, the SDP should have a reasonable prospect of capturing a fair number of the Anti-PAP bloc, even in a three-way fight. This is because some people will believe that the SDP has as good a chance of beating the PAP as the WP.
And as the number of swing voters increase further, it can then exploit a feature of our first-past-the-post electoral system: it can win a parliamentary seat by a plurality — i.e. by having the largest number of votes, without winning a simple majority. See Figure 4.
And after that, we’re into a whole new world.