This post is the second in the series that attempts to make sense of the results of the 2015 general election and distil ideas about what opposition parties can do. In Part One, two themes were discussed: the ‘apathetic’ voter and whether parties need ideological platforms.
In this Part Two, we take on two more themes: Naturalised citizens and middle-ground voters.
On naturalised citizens
In my view, some opposition parties inflicted a lot of damage on themselves when they went on vocally against immigration. First, however, it should be noted that immigration is really of three kinds:
- Low-wage work migration, to do the jobs that few Singaporeans want to do;
- Mid- and higher-income work migration, generally perceived as competing against Singaporeans for limited jobs;
- Naturalisation into new citizens.
Much of the electoral campaigning by parties centred on the second. Even the Workers’ Party, often perceived as PAP-Lite, “proposes to limit foreign workforce growth by holding steady the current level of foreign workforce numbers”, in other words, a freeze (manifesto 2015). Much stronger sentiments could be heard from the Reform Party and the Singaporeans First Party.
Worse yet, even as the parties aimed their fire at mid- and higher-income work migration, there was no shortage of others who saw in it licence to make racist references, including barbs thrown at low-wage migrant workers. Many people told me they found this utterly uncalled-for. My sense is that Singaporeans totally understand the value rendered by this group of essential workers.
After the results came out, there was much blame laid on newly naturalised citizens (i.e. those who came in after the 2011 election) for the nearly 10% swing in the People’s Action Party’s favour. More sober analyses from IPS Commons among others debunked this. Others maintained that we shouldn’t only be looking at the numbers post-2011, but that a decade or more of high naturalisation rates has brought in far larger numbers.
This is a totally useless debate. It’s just a figleaf for finding scapegoats.
My thoughts are as follows: Even if it’s true (and where’s the empirical data?) that naturalised citizens tend more strongly to vote for the PAP, some opposition parties virtually ensured that very outcome by their own rhetoric. If you unsettle those who are foreign-born so much, how else do you expect them to vote? Secondly the ugliness of this trope was a turn-off to large numbers of native-born Singaporeans; we don’t like to be associated with ideas that come perilously close to racism and xenophobia.
At the Maruah post-election forum, I took pains to point that the immigration debate is not a one-way street. Immigration always has winners and losers. There are plenty of Singaporeans, notably entrepreneurs, who would resist shutting the door too tight.
Repudiated by voters
In the end, the Reform Party and Singaporeans First did poorly. Reform Party’s vote share fell from 30.7% to 21.4% in Ang Mo Kio GRC between the 2011 and 2015 elections. In West Coast GRC, it fell from 33.4% to 21.4%. In absolute terms, about 31,000 voters deserted the party between the two elections, though it should be noted that there were some boundary changes affecting both Ang Mo Kio and West Coast. Click the thumbnail at left for the data.
That said, there are surely many other reasons for the Reform Party’s poor showing. Gilbert Goh, who made his name protesting immigration, was on the party’s Ang Mo Kio ticket, but not on its West Coast team. Yet the latter did just as badly.
Singaporeans First made its maiden effort this election, contesting Tanjong Pagar GRC and Jurong GRC. Tanjong Pagar had not seen a contest for 24 years, so neither the party nor constituency had meaningful historical data for comparison. However, it is clear from first sight that SF did poorly, winning only 22.3% of the votes. In Jurong GRC, it polled even less: 20.7%. This could be compared to the score obtained by the National Solidarity Party in Jurong GRC in 2011 of 33.0%, though we must allow for the fact that this constituency had some significant boundary changes.
While we cannot pinpoint the immigration issue as the sole cause of Reform Party’s and Singaporeans First’s poor performance, it is nonetheless very clear that taking a strident stance was no help at all. My take is that Singaporeans much prefer the language of inclusion than the language of exclusion.
Paving a new way forward
At the forum, I made one suggestion which I have never heard anyone else make before. I said opposition parties should begin to speak up for the concerns of new citizens; if possible find one or two as candidates. Speaking up for their concerns shouldn’t be very difficult. In real life, their concerns are not much removed from native-born Singaporeans’ concerns: education for their children, cost of living, etc. It just takes a special effort to signal that we’re cognisant and accepting of their place within Singapore. Finding candidates may be harder in the short-term; a half-measure might be to identify one or two who can give a rally speech even if not stand for election.
I also said parties should not shrink from criticising other opposition parties. In Part One, I stressed the point that we should forget about “opposition unity”; it doesn’t do the stronger parties any favours. If anything, a party that puts on record its strong objection to an anti-foreigner stance of another party will help immunise the former from the distaste so generated by such speech. I wager too that assuming the higher moral ground wins more votes than it loses.
One of the questions from the floor during the Maruah forum went like this: What should opposition parties do to win middle-ground voters? This question is somewhat related to the themes I will deal with in Part Three: digital media and rallies. There, I will argue that elections are won or lost mostly in the quiet months (or years) prior to the actual campaign. During the campaign itself, I’d say that people are just looking for some sort of confirmation for their voting intention.
On this theme of winning over the swing voters, there are two sub-parts: Owning the bragging rights, and Check and balance.
Owning the bragging rights
Most observers now agree that the huge swing towards the PAP in the 2015 results can be attributed to the way the government moved to address the most acute issues related to housing, healthcare and public transport, while also tweaking much of their wage and foreigner-intake policies after their electoral setback of 2011. On the Workers’ Party website (under the section “WP in Parliament”), I found a table showing “Examples of Manifesto 2011 Proposals and Policy Changes After GE2011″. It points out that many of the government’s policy changes resembled what the Workers’ Party had proposed in 2011. I have extracted this table; click thumbnail at right.
I don’t know when the Workers’ Party put up this table, but it looked to me like a response that was too little too late.
One must expect that political parties will steal ideas from each other. The list of ideas that the British Conservatives have stolen from the Labour Party and vice versa would run to encyclopaedic length. The response to this reality of political contestation, it would seem to me, would be to try one’s hardest to own the bragging rights. That is, speak so loudly, and early on, about your policy ideas that a good section of the public will know it originated from you — before it gets stolen. That way, even when filched, you still get credit for it because sufficient numbers of people can attest that it came first from you.
My background in marketing and business leaves me under no illusion how difficult it is to fight for mind-share, let alone top-of-mind recall. Even so, I think many would say that between elections, the Workers’ Party (and others too) are doing too little in the public arena. They need to up their game — and look for the resources to enable them to do so.
I would also recommend you read Vernon Chan’s analysis in The Online Citizen. He argues that the Worker’s Party’s choice of a “convergent strategy” proved a major factor in its setback this election, once the PAP stole its ideas. He further argues that ultimately a convergent strategy is non-viable and, to take the logic further, the Workers’ Party may face serious difficulty holding on to its pole position among opposition parties.
Check and balance
In the section above, I argued that opposition parties need to beat their policy drum harder to establish bragging rights in case these ideas are stolen. Yet, I would also suggest that starting around two or three months before the official campaigning period, they should tone down their policy ideas. The reason is that the swing voters are still unnerved by the notion of a non-PAP government. Saying “we should do this, we should do that” unavoidably gives people the impression that such-and-such a party aims to seize power. In other words, there has to be a major tactical flip as an election approaches.
The flip involves turning the campaign over to stressing that there is no real chance of pushing the PAP out of government, but you’re presenting yourself as check and balance. I know this is an old campaign theme, but in my view, there is still a lot of mileage in it despite 2015’s election setback for opposition parties. My sense is that a broad spectrum of Singaporeans want some opposition in parliament. However, they need more cogent (and perhaps selfish) reasons to do the one thing that is unfamiliar to them — to vote for a party other than the PAP. So as an election looms, candidates need to spell out:
- What kinds of questions you are going to ask if elected as the opposition;
- Why getting answers to those questions is important to ordinary citizens.
The weakness I observed during the GE2015 campaign was that while many candidates at rallies tried to make the point that they would be “check and balance”, the argument tended to be cast in over-general terms. Few went further into sufficient detail nor made a convincing argument what check-and-balance would mean in actual practice and how it is beneficial to the voter. There was a tendency for politicians to speak about the things that drove them into politics, which easily comes across as merely a discussion of what’s wrong with Singapore as it is now. Since, in the minds of swing voters, letting you form the next government is out of the question, yet if neither do you explain why letting you form the opposition is helpful, then what reason is there to vote for you?
Politicians may need to learn from washing machine salespersons. These guys and gals don’t talk about what annoys them in life (or in laundry), they stay focussed on how the features of what they are selling will make your life so much better.
Did WP squander its parliamentary question-time?
In politics, one is never quite in virgin territory. Any attempt to argue why electing you to ask probing questions in parliament will come up against people saying the Workers’ Party members of parliament (2011 – 2015) weren’t particularly active.
Firstly, this is not fair. The statistics clearly show they were more active than the typical PAP member of parliament. The party put up a simple table on their website prior to the election campaign to show the numbers. The blue part of the table below reproduces those figures. The claim that they gave us more bang for the buck is substantiated by them.
Naturally, I began to wonder whether they could have done more. So I calculated the maximum number of questions they could have asked, and as readers can see from the yellow portion of the table above, they could have asked over a thousand questions per year.
It’s not easy to come up with questions. Where to find a thousand questions?
At the Maruah forum, I suggested that opposition MPs should work more closely with civil society groups, who always have a zillion questions waiting to be asked. Moreover, for every answer (or partial answer) provided by the government, they are likely to have several more follow-up questions. One side benefit of working with civil society to pose parliamentary questions is that gradually more and more people (including many who are not particularly interested in politics, but interested in their pet causes) will have a stake in an opposition presence. This is one way to widen the stakeholder base of support.
Political parties need to get over their reticence to engage with civil society. The Workers’ Party in particular, has long given the impression that they wish to keep civil society at arm’s length. I can understand that they don’t want to run the risk of being entangled in issues that civil society activists care about, but are controversial and also not fully in line with the party’s stand, but surely there is a way to argue that as a representative of the people, you’re there in parliament to ask the questions that some citizens want asked. If one is not prepared to take the slightest risk, then the claim to be the voice of the people rings a little hollow.
Part Three will touch on the themes of social media and whether rallies make any difference.