General election 2015: Two opposition parties withstood the rout better than the rest

Feeling depressed by election results? Try retail therapy

Feeling depressed by election results? Try retail therapy

I came across a Facebook post that said quality candidates don’t mean a thing. It was probably written in frustration at the dismal results by opposition parties in this 2015 general election. The Workers’ Party had fielded several candidates whose credentials wouldn’t look out of place on the People’s Action Party (PAP) slate. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) had Paul Tambyah, a professor of infectious diseases. Yet, neither party improved its position in this election, the argument went.

A closer analysis of the numbers would debunk this assertion.

This is related to the question of party brand. The Workers’ Party, the SDP, and the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) tried to present themselves as serious parties. They were careful not to play up (well, maybe a little bit) controversial issues like foreign talent that do not lend themselves to easy answers even if they were temptingly useful for firing supporters up. The SPP had a few good candidates, but they weren’t as videogenic as SDP’s top two.

Now, let’s look at the numbers. The first table shows the vote-share of opposition parties, sorted in descending order.


Unsurprisingly, the Workers’ Party stands at the top of the list. The SDP — and this may surprise some readers — comes in second. With the absence of Chiam See Tong, the Singapore People’s Party has faded; it was pipped at the post by the Singapore Democratic Alliance (imagine that!).

The Singaporeans First Party and the Reform Party, both with speakers that focussed strongly on immigration, fared worst.

What the above shows is that there is a rock bottom of about 20% in support for any opposition party. These would be voters angry against the PAP; they won’t need much persuasion to vote against the ruling party. But even in this election’s heartbreaking results, we can see another 20% of voters who could be swayed by good arguments and credible candidates. They voted for the Workers’ Party where they had candidates; maybe half of this group voted for SDP where they stood for election.

There is almost surely another chunk of swing voters who this time chose to cast their votes for the PAP. After all, they briefly appeared at the 2011 election. They’re there somewhere. At another election, they could be swayed to vote for an opposition party, but it would require much more than bluster to convince them.

Three-cornered contests reveal much

The effect of party brand is particularly visible in the three-cornered contests. In MacPherson, Bernard Chen of the Workers’ Party had to contend with Cheo Chai Chen of the National Solidarity Party, besides the PAP. Both lost, but NSP was crushed. Whereas the Workers’ Party had 8,826 votes, the NSP had only 215. NSP lost its election deposit.

Some brands have more cachet than others

Some brands have more cachet than others

At Bukit Batok, it was the SDP that faced a 3-way contest. Its not-well-known candidate, Sadasivam Veriyah, earned 6,585 votes while the even-less-known independent candidate Samir Salim Neji only got 150. He lost his deposit too, as I predicted.

At Radin Mas, we can see the effect of weak party brand. There, the Reform Party’s Kumar Appavoo faced independent candidate Han Hui Hui. Kumar only managed 3,329 votes, not much better than party-less Han who had 2,629 votes. Kumar Appavoo only narrowly escaped losing his deposit.

What the three examples above show is that a strong party brand can protect a candidate from losing his or her deposit in the event there is a three-cornered contest. No party can control whether a third candidate pops up or not. Or, in the case of the Punggol East by-election of 2013, whether a fourth candidate shows up. It’s good to have the insurance of party brand, not forgetting the value of party machinery.

Another way to look at the numbers is to compare opposition parties in terms of how much vote-share they lost between 2011 and 2015. Bear in mind that in this general election, the PAP gained 9.8%, or to put it another way, the average loss for opposition parties was 9.8%. Two parties lost measurably less; they withstood the rout better than the rest.

They are the same two parties that topped the first table. Here in the second table, it is the Workers’ Party and the SDP again.



To derive the “weighted average change in vote-share” as shown in the above table, the % change by constituency was weighted by the number of candidates the constituency required. If I didn’t do this, the change in vote-share in single-member constituencies would have had disproportionate influence on the average.

Only those constituencies where a party stood in both the 2011 and 2015 elections were used for the above computation, with a few exceptions as detailed in the Notes.

Wither the weaker parties?

I am hearing today the idea that it might be better if the weaker parties closed shop and went away. This would mean the stronger parties contesting about half the seats leaving another half as walkovers. It would be the ‘by-election effect’ all over again, where voters, assured that the PAP would form the next government would show themselves more willing to support opposition parties, at least in the constituencies where they were standing.

I somehow think this is hard to justify from the perspective of democratic principles. It would be a case of the ends justifying rather callous means, depriving many citizens of a chance to vote.

In any case, our history has many examples of pathetic little parties hanging on to life. Despite losing their election deposits in one election, they still spring to life again to fight the next one. Where they find the financial means to sustain themselves is a mystery to me. Wishing that they’d go away is to wish against the historical trend.

Fear of a freak result

There is the argument going around that the intense support for opposition parties on social media scared enough voters into thinking the PAP might lose power. The fence-sitting voters then responded by voting for the PAP to ward off the unknown. Within that argument is a certain irony, that as much as opposition parties have benefitted from the channels available to them via digital platforms, this can also hurt.

Political news not on the shopping list

Political news not on the shopping list

It’s a seductive hypothesis, and it is possible some voters were affected by such a concern, but I doubt if it was a major factor. This ‘explanation’ assumes that those who aren’t normally opposition supporters were exposed to as much pro-opposition news as the politicised ones were. In my opinion, this assumption is not supported by evidence. From what I’ve seen, many Singaporeans received very little election news on their digital devices, nor would they be interested enough to search for information. As I noted in an earlier post, The general election campaign so far: demographic and media landscape,

Looking at other passengers on buses and trains and observing what they are interacting with on their social media as they pass the time, I can tell you there are plenty of people who aren’t getting any election stuff at all on their devices.

In the case of these voters, I still think it’s an apathy issue. Without nothing much to stir anger this election, they didn’t take much interest in politics and come polling day, did the one thing that seemed least unfamiliar or risky: vote PAP.

And that’s where we come back to party brand. A good brand has recogniseable values attached to it, has consistent exposure through time so that it is not unfamiliar, nor does it seem a risky choice. Some opposition parties are doing better at this than others. It will count for a lot in due course.



14 Responses to “General election 2015: Two opposition parties withstood the rout better than the rest”

  1. 1 lsconv 13 September 2015 at 00:52

    Here’s another evidence to the same conclusion. This is the average rejected votes by each opposition party in the constituencies they contested in:

    WP: 1.21%
    WP/NSP: 1.46%
    SDP: 1.73%
    SPP: 1.76%
    SGF: 1.85%
    SDP/IND: 2.01%
    PPP: 2.46%
    RP: 2.54%
    NSP: 2.58%
    RP/IND: 2.66%
    SDA: 2.83%

    If we interpret reject votes as an indicator of voters dissatisfied with PAP but find the alternative inadequate, then it lends further support to your conclusion that WP and SDP are better regarded. However, a few anomalies do surface:

    1) By their rejected votes, SingFirst actually did pretty well. Probably even better than SDP, if you include in the SDP/IND category. Perhaps anti-foreigner rhetoric does have some traction with voters?

    2) Likewise, SPP has a relatively low rejected vote percentage (probably because of the Chaim brand), yet they suffered the largest swing. Is it a case of voters saying, “yes we know who you are, and you are crap.”?

    If you look at rejected votes in each constituency (I’ve posted it here), there is not much variation within party. For example, WP’s reject vote share range from 1.0% (East Coast) to 1.4% (MacPherson); RP’s reject vote are 2.4% (West Coast), 2.6% (Ang Mo Kio) and 2.7% (Madin Ras). So it seems that party affiliation more important than the candidates themselves.

  2. 3 Hard Truths 13 September 2015 at 11:18

    Let us start from the bottom of the list you have provided:
    Reform Party [“Singaporeans are stupid”]:: The irony is that the biggest xenophobe of all, Kenneth Jeyaratnam’s, father was an FT (Sri Lanka) and his wife and son are FT (UK). Gilbert Goh, whose wife and daughter are FT (Australia) becomes the xenophobe-in-chief of RP. However KJ and his party’s biggest short fall is that they question Singaporeans’ intelligence. What was KJ thinking when he put Ravi and Roy (whom Ravi accused of swindling money in public) in a team to take on the PM? Singaporean voters paid back by booting out RP with the lowest vote share.

    + How to fix RP:: Not possible, just windup so that Andy Zhu can attend his phone calls anytime

    SingFirst [“Elections First”]:: Back to this elections, the most vocal xenophobe, who almost sounded like Hitler blaming foreigners for everything that is wrong, got what he deserved. The migrant society of Singapore (including new citizens who immigrated 100+ years back) paid him back by booting SF. And of course, a dead Lee Kwan Yew is more powerful than 2 GRC full of big mouths. RP and SF will be a good case study for anyone who wants to run the next election campaign on xenophobia. The good thing, in just one election they have changed the meaning of {New Citizens} from {Pariah} to {King Maker}.

    + How to fix SF:: No fix needed. Perennially addicted to standing in elections, I expect him to shortly suspend or disband SF, and start working on the next Presidential Election. If that also doesn’t work, not to worry, he will then come back in GE2020. We will discuss on how to fix SF then.

    Peoples Power Party [“A temporary pause between GE2011 and GE2020”]:: Put together a party few weeks before the election, no rallies, no walking the ground and what did he expect? Become the PM of Singapore? What a sheer waste of his own resources. Post-election he is now asking around for money to which someone responded ‘Who do you think you are? Roy Ngerng?’ That sums it all.

    + How to fix PPP:: No fix required. Goh Meng Seng will shortly disband PPP and move on to SDA. After all, as a matter of principle he changes party after every election, earning him the title of Political Veteran, and very few parties are left.

    National Solidarity Party [“We have a cupboard full of Secretary Generals and short white dresses”]:: They have changed more Secretary Generals than most people change underwear. Add the flip flop, fight with WP, Kevryn Lim’s initial appearance in her short dresses before reappearing as a sobbing single mother (not that anything wrong with her initial dress, but the stupidity is failing to understand how prudish Singaporeans are), the past history of its leadership and the smearing that came with it, and then go on to insult all mothers in Singapore possibly including the candidates own mother. That is a recipe for disaster and the vote count shows.

    + How to fix NSP:: Wind up

    SDA [“Harminder Pal Singh is the new Harbans Singh and Desmond Lim is, well, Desmond Lim”]:: But again, perennially addicted to standing in elections, and funded by some mysterious sources, they are in for the long run as a minor irritant. The less discussed, the better.

    + How to fix SDA:: Why in the world would anyone want to fix this? Singapore needs a joker in the pack.

    Singapore Peoples Party [“Mrs. Chiam is no Mr. Chiam”]:: Mr. Chiam’s charisma can only last that much. Welcoming party hoppers like Mrs. Aruldoss and Mr. Philemon killed SPP faster. Their future as a standalone party is bleak and any hope is linked to SDP.

    + How to fix SPP:: Read on.

    Singapore Democratic Party [“Dr. Chee is a liability”]:: It is now clear that Singaporeans will never forgive Dr. Chee, and the blot on his character will stay forever as the vote share of his GRC dipped even when he stood against a weakened Dr. Balakrishnan. After a fairer MSM putting Dr. Chee’s picture in the front page, after televised debates, after multiple rallies, SDP did not make it and in fact lost overall vote share. A new leadership is what SDP needs. Dr. Chee must stepdown graciously after SDP failing to win elections for 2 decades under his leadership and instead of getting backstabbed by his own party, completing the circle of life.

    + How to fix SDP: I would suggest that Dr. Chee steps down, merge SDP and SPP quickly (let us be honest, Mr. Chiam is running out of time) and make Mr. Chiam as emeritus-SG, Mrs. Chiam as Chairman, and Dr. Tambayah as the SG.

    Workers Party [“Time to be a Working Party or in the next election it will be a Wasted Party”]:: Looking at the first set of reactions by Mr. Low and Ms. Lim after elections, WP hasn’t learnt anything. It is high time for them to look at their subpar performance and arrogance in parliament, AHPETC (soon to be AH TC) saga, mistreating other opposition parties, association with Alternate Media, and a long list of issues. The one sided reporting of TheOnlineCitizen and the high level of insensitive comments that were never moderated, insulting everything that is not pro-WP, seems to have scared a lot of Singaporeans on what will happen to the country if WP comes to power, thinking TOC is the mouthpiece of WP. TOC’s support of Amos Yee, a boy who has been spewing vulgar language, resulted in WP indirectly getting linked to Amos, and has too done the damage.

    + How to fix WP: Go back to the Hougang routes. Ms. Lim (lost her ward), Mr. Singh (arrogance) and Mr. Chen (silence) to be demoted and Mr. Low takes full charge of the party. Do a forensic accounting of AHPETC at the earliest, before PAP does (and they will do closer to next election anyway) and come clean if something is wrong, saying that WP were new and made some mistake. Run TC close to heart. Even you will agree that we need immigration, but the right kind of immigrants, so stop flip flopping and take a clear stance on immigration, by discouraging xenophobia and by proposing a scheme to enhance the immigration procedures. Nominate Leon Perara and Mohammed Fairoz Shariff (Mohammed Faisal never opens his mouth, he just stands in the background with a puzzled look). Time for WP to let another Malay to speak on behalf of their community) as two of the NCMP. Say no to Nicole Seah right now who is sending feelers clearly showing that WP is not a place for party hoppers based on the drubbing of party hoppers like TJS, GMS, Mr. Philemon and Ms. Aruldoss.

    Opposition Parties [“We are United front”]:: For a bright future of Singapore needs less not more. Singapore needs a maximum of 3 parties. PAP and WP are the first two. The next one should be a merger of SDP, SPP and some good people from the other opposition parties. And RP, SF, PPP must disappear. SDA can remain to provide comic relief.

    + How to fix Opposition: Opposition should campaign for Singapore to be divided into 30 GRC’s of 3 candidates each, one of them being a minority candidate. Any party that scores less than 10% of national votes in a GE must be disbanded. Once a new party is registered, they should not be allowed to contest for 1 election term to ensure they have long term plans. This will allow a more realistic and practical political scene in Singapore.

  3. 4 KL 13 September 2015 at 11:38

    Hi there, was always intrigued while reading your blog. I had posted my analysis of what contributes to the swing on my tumblr yesterday.

    It would be great if you can give it a look!

  4. 5 John 13 September 2015 at 13:30

    You didn’t include rejected votes, from TOC, I think Tanjong Pagar high number of rejected votes, Punggol East least. Might be more accurate after including that. Just that I’m now so sure how to factor it into the model. But it should be included somehow.

  5. 6 Cong 13 September 2015 at 13:36

    If we look at all the votes WP received (281,697) against the total electorate (708,596) of all the constituencies it contested, WP’s average score is 40%

    This is very encouraging. And it’s the same percentage as the nationwide vote share of 60% for PAP and 40% for the opposition at large in 2011.

    This means that if WP were to contest in all the constituencies and assuming it’s the only party contesting against the PAP, we would get around 40% for the opposition (aka WP).

    So it’s still 4 in 10 in the opposition camp and not 3 in 10 as the latest popular vote of 70% for the incumbents would have you believe?

    • 7 yawningbread 14 September 2015 at 10:01

      Vote share in any constituency depends on the quality of the candidate(s) standing in it. If WP tries to stretch itself over all constituencies, it will have a very hard time finding enough good candidates. If it then permits lower calibre candidates to stand under its banner, it will soil the party brand. Not a wise move.

  6. 8 Richard 13 September 2015 at 13:39

    I read on FB that new citizens who are beholden to the PAP Government will tend to cast their votes for the PAP. The accumulated number of new citizens are quite substantial for the last 10 years. It is possible to be in the region of 10% of the voters for this 2015 GE.

    • 9 yawningbread 14 September 2015 at 09:59

      It probably is. If the naturalisation rate is, as reported, 20,000 new citizens a year, then over 10 years 2005 – 2014, we would have brought in 200,000 new citizens. That would be about 8% of the 2.46 million registered voters. However, it is absolutely necessary to have these numbers verified in some way, and also, it is important to have a more nuanced understanding of new citizens’ thinking. We shouldn’t over-simplify.

      • 10 Hard Truths 14 September 2015 at 19:43

        I am not mincing words – the above argument is plain stupid. I have used the following definitions to present my counter argument.

        [New Citizen] – People who immigrated and become Singapore citizens after 2005

        [Old Citizen] – People who immigrated and become Singapore citizens before 2005 (that is everyone, except a few descendants of Sampan people)

        1. First, why go back to 2005 in your argument? Didn’t the [New Citizens] between 2005-2011 vote in GE2011? Why would [New Citizens] naturalized between 2005-2011 vote 100% anti-PAP in GE2011, but 100% pro-PAP in GE2015 creating the 10% swing?

        2. Here is a counter argument. Why stop going back only until 2005? If you go back a few decades 90% of the population are [Newer Citizens]!

        3. [New Citizens], especially from India, Philippines and Indonesia are more politically astute than [Old Citizens]. In their respective countries they have voted out ruling party unlike [Old Citizen] who have voted consistently for PAP for the last 50 years (now 55 years)

        4. It is a fallacy that [New Citizens] always vote for PAP. I know two who most likely did not – HHH and Samir Neji. Interestingly the only two Singaporeans who had the guts to stand as independent candidates were [New Citizens] and not even one of the millions of [Old Citizens] including Alex, Richard and yours truly (we are just keyboard warriors). That ought to say they think differently from [Old Citizens] who voted PAP for, now 55 years.

        5. The % of voting [New Citizens] since the last election is ONLY around 2%. Google around and you can see a lot of articles narrowing down on these numbers – remember not all new citizens can vote, especially the babies who drink breast or even bottle milk.

        6. There was a 10% swing for PAP in GE2015. If 2% of the [New Citizens] can swing 10% of the votes, any opposition party who ran a campaign on xenophobia has to be afraid, very afraid. At the same intake rate in GE2020 they will be 4% of [New Citizens] and will create a pro-PAP swing of 20% and by GE2035 a 10% [New Citizens] will create a pro-PAP swing of 50%. No need for oppositions after that. Going by this ridiculous argument it is PAP forever then. I can see a panicked PPP, RP and SF now starting a [New Citizen] wing.

        Please don’t make [New Citizens] more powerful that what they are by repeating illogical arguments. It is going to hurt us, [Old Citizens], as political parties start lining up behind [New Citizens].

        Here is the hard truth. Opposition lost because PAP was relatively better than them in comparison. PAP presented their ideas relatively better. PAP is relatively more trustworthy. PAP is relatively more capable. Start accepting it or wait for a 80% PAP vote share in 2020. Good luck.

  7. 11 arh 13 September 2015 at 22:55

    Hi Alex, thanks for the wonderful post. I just want to point out that your numbers for Bishan-Toa Payoh might need recomputing: the SPP’s vote share in 2011 was 43.07%, not 37.6%!

    • 12 yawningbread 14 September 2015 at 09:53

      Thanks for pointing out the error. I have replaced the table to show SPP 43.1% in 2011 election for Bishan-Toa Payoh. That makes their decline in votes in the 2015 election even more awful.

  8. 13 Squirrel 14 September 2015 at 11:56

    Despite msm screaming with celebration for PAP, the last couple of days have been quite solemn in Singapore. Was it me or the haze? May be 40 of Singaporeans are still in shock, if we go by WP’s vs PAP’s share percentage. This 911, is a disaster in Singapore we should never forget in the years to come. I wonder, how will Singaporeans cope with the continuity of an arrogant govt so they loved.

  9. 14 Choon Ping Tan 14 September 2015 at 20:24

    “There is the argument going around that the intense support for opposition parties on social media scared enough voters into thinking the PAP might lose power. The fence-sitting voters then responded by voting for the PAP to ward off the unknown. ”

    That is another problem with our electoral system – opinion poll are not allow. Without polls, all parties don’t really know where they stand until the results are announced. In GE2015, the mainstream media has indeed provided more coverage on the opposition and their rallies. This make the less informed fence sitters think that opposition are going to win big and thus persuade them to vote for PAP.

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