Silent majority's roar of support for PAP

PHOTO: The Straits Times

When the silent majority in Singapore speaks, it roars.

Voters gave the People's Action Party 69.86 per cent of valid votes cast, up from 60.14 per cent in 2011, a swing of 9.72 percentage points. The PAP secured 83 of 89 seats, up from 80 in 87 in the last Parliament.

The Sept 11, 2015 General Election was not meant to be a watershed one. Many people expected a status quo election, with the vote share and seats in Parliament hovering around the 2011 levels.

Online, and among the intelligentsia, the opposition was expected to entrench its position. As Singaporeans First's party leader Tan Jee Say said candidly in a press conference at 1am, the swing back to the PAP went against against all the feedback he had received.

Expected hot-seat contests fizzled out. Concern about pro-opposition first-time voters proved overblown. Instead, voters showed their disapproval of the Workers' Party, reducing its vote share to 39.8 per cent from 46.6 per cent, and returning one of its wards, Punggol East, to the PAP.

The PAP's vote share was above 70 per cent in six out of 13 single-seat wards, and nine out of 16 group representation constituencies (GRCs). All over Singapore, as the results from sample counts started streaming in after 9pm, and as they were confirmed by actual vote counts past midnight, people asked: Why? What accounts for the large swing back to the PAP?

In the absence of hard data, it is impossible to offer solid answers. Instead, here's a first-cut analysis.

First, the straightforward answer: The vote swing reflects Singaporeans' backing of the PAP because it remains the party they consider best able to deliver a good government.

If so, then GE2011 was the equivalent of a hissy fit from voters unhappy over rising costs, infrastructure overloads and immigration. Now that the issues are being fixed, the electorate is prepared to return to the PAP's embrace. This is borne out by the uniformly strong showing across the country.

Second, the nationalistic factors. Singapore celebrated its Jubilee year just last month. The death in March of Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew also unleashed a wave of patriotic fervour and reminded Singaporeans of the centrality of Mr Lee's party, the PAP, to Singapore's progress. A sense of solidarity this exceptional year might explain the swing.

Third, the personal popularity of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has been central to the PAP's campaign, with posters of his face everywhere. He urged voters repeatedly to back his team who will form the core of the next generation of leaders. Mr Lee led his Ang Mo Kio GRC team to the second-highest win among all constituencies at 78.6 per cent. Mr Lee thanked voters for the very strong result, and said he was humbled by it. "Tomorrow will be better than today. SG100 will be better than SG50," he said.

Fourth, the flight to safety thesis.

The last time the PAP won such high margins was in 2001, as an economic downturn loomed in the wake of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Voters gave the PAP 75.3 per cent then.

In all the other elections from 1988 to 2011, the PAP got between 60.1 and 66.6 per cent. By the 1990s, many predicted that the days of the PAP winning 70 per cent and above were over for good, barring exceptional circumstances.

This election, the 2.3 million voters put the lie to that idea - but this was an exceptional year. They went to the 832 polling stations across the island amidst a haze that reached unhealthy PSI levels of 150 to 160, an atmospheric reminder of Singapore's position as a small city-state surrounded by larger unpredictable neighbours.

Yesterday was also the anniversary of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Meanwhile, the past weeks' news has been full of China's stock market and currency gyrations, and a likely slowdown in China, Singapore's biggest export destination. Several banks have cut Singapore's full-year growth forecast as a result. As Singapore heads into an uncertain global economy, business-minded voters are likely to prefer a tested party.

Fifth, the parties' track record since GE2011. Both the PAP and WP had four years to woo voters.

The PAP pulled out all stops in a fast-paced programme of policy reform that tackled infrastructure shortages in transport and housing. It tightened the tap on foreign worker growth, and ramped up subsidies to the low- and middle-income groups in the areas of healthcare, childcare, housing, and for the elderly.

As for the WP, it has managed to attract individual candidates with good academic credentials to stand for election - although none of the new candidates won seats.

But as a party, it failed to win the confidence of voters, with its opaque management of town council finances. Support slid even in WP strongholds Hougang (from 62.1 to 57.69 per cent) and Aljunied GRC (54.7 to 50.95 per cent).

But the WP held on to its position as the leading opposition party. Its 39.75 per cent vote share puts it ahead of the Singapore Democratic Party (31.23 per cent). Smaller parties got below 30 per cent, with the Reform Party getting 20.6 per cent in the wards it contested.

Sixth, the result might simply reflect a pushback from those who feel that Singapore needs a stronger PAP more than it needs a stronger opposition at this point.

Unlike in the United States or Britain, not many Singapore voters identify with particular political parties and many do not vote according to political party lines. Anecdotal stories suggest that many are conditional voters, switching their vote each election. Some may have voted PAP this time, for fear of too large a swing to an immature opposition.

If so, then the large swing should be read less as a vote of contentment with the PAP, or representing a diminished desire for elected opposition MPs in Parliament. Instead, it is more akin to a tactical retreat by opposition supporters, to back the PAP on its path of moderate reform, while spurring the fragmented and substandard opposition into doing better.

Perhaps voters took to heart what PM Lee urged: Vote for the PAP to make the opposition work harder.

Even as it celebrates a well-deserved victory, the PAP should beware of one thing: returning to its top-down, arrogant ways that caused it to lose support in Ge2011.

As Singapore voters have shown over the decades, favour once given, can be withdrawn.

This article was first published on Sept 12, 2015.
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