Securing almost 70% of valid votes cast, the huge win by the People’s Action Party (PAP) must have left nearly all observers stunned. During the campaign itself, no one I know seemed to have even imagined, let alone predicted, such a result.
This outcome should be highly revealing of the Singapore electorate. It may be too early to say exactly what it reveals, but it certainly is an important data-point. I shall make some guesses in this essay.
My sense. especially when read against the 2011 results, is that this electorate remains
- very comfortable with the notion of a paternalistic state;
- unconcerned by the state resorting to repressive measures, even if it means loss of civil liberties;
- uninterested in details of how problems should be tackled, instead trusting of broad assurances that they will be tackled;
- unmoved by appeals for check and balance (do not see much value in it).
Before I go further, perhaps it is useful to table a comparison of the 2011 and 2015 results.
2011’s protest vote soothed
The 2011 results, including the by-election results following that general election, now have to be read as purely a protest vote. People were angry at a few things, and once the government took the sting out of these key issues with a number of policy tweaks, the electorate reverted to form. Arguments by some opposition parties made in this election (and in the 2011 election) that more needed to be done or that the model needed to be re-examined, cut no ice. People didn’t seem interested in the details or the nature of the solutions; they were basically saying when casting a protest vote: “I don’t care how you solve the problem, I have no time for details, enquiry, or understanding of the issues, just solve them.” This is a sign of a very short-termist — and if you wish to be uncharitable, intellectually lazy — electorate.
Another indicator of a short-termist electorate is that the arguments for the need to build sufficient checks and balances, with the long-term objective of having the safety-net of a opposition party strong enough to form alternative government 2 or 3 elections hence, had no impact. Even in the immediate term, they are comfortable with having an over-dominant government with a track record of paternalism.
Consider this: The PAP didn’t even bother to address the broad issues in much of their campaign. They stuck to local improvements combined with mud-slinging at the opposition. Yet, it was enough to satisfy voters and win a landslide. They knew they weren’t facing sophisticated voters.
Some other observations:
Despite attempts by some opposition parties to use the high rate of immigration and temporary work migration as a rallying cry, I can see no effect. This confirms what I have long felt (and said to several journalists recently). Xenophobia is not a defining characteristic of Singapore. Yes there are outbursts from time to time, especially on social media, just as we had racist outbursts against fellow citizens from time to time, but on the whole, Singaporeans are very comfortable with a cosmopolitan landscape full of foreigners with varying degrees of assimilation.
The CPF issue also fell flat. Despite the decibels, it doesn’t appear as if that many Singaporeans are upset about pushing back the retirement age and new limits on withdrawals of pension funds. As for the points made by some candidates regarding the need for transparent accounting of money in our sovereign wealth funds, where the CPF funds are invested, it seems too “cheem” (intellectual, complicated) for the voter. This lack of any urge to demand transparency again tells me that this electorate is quite happy trusting the government without demanding details about solutions.
Some may argue that this election result was heavily affected by the high rate of naturalisation in the last decade or so. The prevailing meme is that new citizens are solidly pro-PAP. This question is certainly worth investigating. To begin with, we really need a better idea how many were naturalised in the last 20 years, and what percentage they are now of the voting electorate. I’m not sure where we will get the data in sufficiently exhaustive detail, but I would strongly urge the opposition members of parliament to ask for an annual breakdown of the numbers (and age of naturalisation) as soon as possible.
What I find a little surprising is that the cost of living issue had no traction either. Every day, we hear people complain about costs; the steady rise in prices is hard to miss. With very little done to narrow the income divide (though there have been efforts to help the lowest-paid, e.g. cleaners) no broad, structural solution is in sight. Yet, this issue had very little traction in the campaign. I wonder whether people have become like lab rats, so inured to the pain, they no longer think it abnormal.
I’m almost sure some people somewhere will make the argument that with the collapse of the Chinese financial market and the unmistakeable signs of an economic slowdown rolling towards us (our second quarter 2015 GDP grew only 1.7% year-on-year, and shrank 4.6% quarter-on-quarter), this result could be compared with the 2001 general election result. In times of economic uncertainty, the argument goes, there is a flight to safety politically. I am not convinced. The effects of the slowdown hasn’t really hit us yet; and no party made much mention of this angle in the campaign.
What about the issue of financial management at the Aljunied Town Council? I stand by the prediction I made in previous posts: it had little effect. Sure, the Workers’ Party vote-share went down by 3.7% in Aljunied GRC, and down by 7.1% in Hougang; it went down 5.3% in Punggol East (compared to the Worker’s Party’s 2013 victory in a by-election), but these declines are lower than the overall decline in opposition votes throughout Singapore — a decline of 9.8%. If indeed the issue played strongly on voters’ minds, then one would expect a greater detrimental effect on voters in constituencies where WP was the incumbent.
Looking long term
The bottom line is this: This election result, when read against the 2006 and 2011 results, is very revealing of the Singapore electorate: one that is very comfortable with trusting an over-dominant government to steer the way and find solutions to immediate problems. It demands solutions, but is uninquisitive as to the details of the solutions, the modelling used, the price (in side-effects) to be paid, or whether these solutions store up problems for the future. This electorate will protest when it feels pain, but is easily pacified with short-term fixes.
The core “anti-government” block remains at about 30 percent. It seems to have renewed itself generationally, and with that, the nature of the anti-ness may have evolved into one more concerned about checks and balances at an intellectual level, plus a large dose of social liberalism (versus the old “antis” who were visibly socially conservative) but the numbers don’t seem to have grown.
Looking at the long term, this result kind of confirms what I have long felt to be Singapore’s future: A lengthy period of stasis supported by a complacent electorate, increasingly relying on outmoded models of governance, gradually losing vitality. The failure to accommodate incremental change or build political safety nets will mean that when scandal and political crisis hits, as it surely will, the tumble will be very severe. I have long entertained the possibility that the tumble will be so severe, e.g. a prolonged period of economic malaise, that the only solution is to be rescued by a foreign country. This would naturally come with a concomitant loss of independence. This election result is totally congruent with my view of Singapore’s cloudy long-term prospects.
For easy future reference. I append here the detailed vote-counts by constituency: