Acceptance of a 'fair electoral system' part of new normal

At a conference last week convened to analyse the results of the 2015 General Election, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan had a simple take on the ruling party's landslide win of 69.9 per cent.

"The PAP wins because elections here are neither free nor fair," he said, pointing to its control of the Elections Department (ELD) and influence over institutions from media companies to think-tanks.

In the dialogue that followed, SDP vice-chairman John Tan had an exchange with the People's Action Party's Mr Ong Ye Kung, who is Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), about the independence of the ELD.

While Mr Ong attested to the "neutrality" of the civil servants who run the outfit, Mr Tan pointed to examples like how the ELD banned podcasts when the SDP first produced them in 2006, but later lifted the ban "when the PAP was ready with its new media strategy".

For the SDP and other opposition parties, the topic of the conference itself - the Institute of Policy Studies' traditional post-election survey of about 2,000 voters - showed them out of step with public opinion on this issue.

To me, the most interesting part of the survey, which polls voters about their motivations and their views of parties, was the response on the fairness of the electoral system.

Like in the 2006 and 2011 editions, voters were asked to agree or disagree with the statement: "The whole election system is fair to all political parties."

In 2006, 63 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with this; in 2011, it was 61 per cent.

These figures correspond roughly to the proportion of voters who cast a ballot for the ruling party in those GEs, which makes sense: PAP voters would not delegitimise their choice by impugning the electoral system, just as opposition voters would be inclined to question the system in which their candidates did not prevail.

But this year, everything changed. In the 2015 survey, a whopping 79 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with this statement.

This is nearly 10 percentage points above the ruling party's national vote share - which means that a good segment of opposition voters view their candidates' losses as wholly legitimate.

Such an astonishing surge cannot be ignored by political players and observers: It must be accepted that Singapore voters no longer consider the fairness of the electoral system a topic of interest, much less a concern.

This is all the more amazing when one considers that there were several elements of the 2015 GE which some have characterised as being unfair to opposition parties.

For one thing, the election took place over a compressed timeline of three months from start to finish, as compared to the seven months that the 2011 GE played out over.

For another, the 2015 GE, held four years and three months after the last one, departed from the regular five-year cycle established in 2006 and 2011. It is traditional wisdom that both a longer timeframe and a regular electoral schedule benefit opposition parties, giving them more time to prepare and reach voters.

Then there is the matter of electoral boundary changes: For the 2011 GE, the boundaries of hotly contested constituencies, namely Aljunied GRC, remained largely unchanged. This was not the case in the 2015 GE, which saw the hotly contested Joo Chiat SMC absorbed into a GRC (Marine Parade), and a single-seat ward (Fengshan ) carved out of hotly contested East Coast GRC.

I'm not arguing that any of these elements played major roles in the PAP's landslide win.

This year, the wind was at the back of a reinvigorated and nimble ruling party, and it is unlikely that much could have stood in the way of its stellar showing.

The point to be noted is that in the face of the aforementioned "unfair" elements, voters overwhelmingly reaffirmed the fairness of the system.

To me, it's clear what has been the game changer in this regard.

When the Workers' Party made its GRC breakthrough in Aljunied in 2011, it became no longer convincing to charge that the electoral system is unfair. After all, if the opposition can win a GRC in the system, then how unfair could it really be?

A good analogy is the way that rags-to-riches personal narratives are often used to counter the argument that the workings of meritocracy can actually entrench inequality. "If there are those who made it from the bottom of the system to the top, how unfair could the system be?"

Where the two scenarios diverge is in the behaviour of the "victorious".

In Singapore society, those who have made it from disadvantaged beginnings to laudatory success are often the biggest proponents of meritocracy. Their natural thinking is that their own success illustrates the strength of meritocracy - that it is personal failings that have hobbled others, not the system.

That's not how the WP reacted to its 2011 breakthrough.

During its campaign rallies this year, the WP lambasted the ways in which the system put the party's back against the wall , arguing that the ruling party used the public service to forward a political agenda.

Charging that the taxpayer- funded People's Association works to undermine the WP's elected representatives, and criticising Ministry of National Development staff members for furthering what it sees as a partisan agenda against its town council, the WP said time and again that the system remains stacked against the opposition.

Given its lowered vote-share and the IPS survey results, it must be accepted that these arguments gained little traction with voters.

The irony for liberal-minded Singaporeans and opposition voters is then that the greatest breakthrough for pluralism in electoral history - the WP's Aljunied GRC win - has had the lasting legacy of legitimising the system.

Just as 2011 ushered in the "new normal" of an assertive, combative public space for the ruling party, it has entrenched a "new normal" for opposition parties as well: of a system that is perceived as fair, even among their own supporters.

The WP does not lack for strategic insight, and I believe that it is already adjusting its political behaviour to account for this new normal; the SDP - which achieved a major credibility boost among voters in this GE, according to the IPS survey - must follow suit if its leadership wants to continue to grow in relevance.

This is perhaps an inevitable stage in Singaporeans' political awakening.

An increasingly pluralist landscape has demonstrated for Singaporeans in recent years that all political figures, ruling or opposition, will do whatever they can, with whatever tools they have, to extract partisan advantage.

If an opposition party one day took over the government, would it dismantle the various structures that tilt the playing field towards the incumbent, now that it occupies that privileged position?

Noble manifestos aside, I believe that Singaporeans are beginning to realise that it is not the character of power to give power away.

Then there is the new muscle that the electorate continues to flex after decades of mild atrophy.

Perhaps voters do not feel that they need any help if they want to throw out politicians. Nor are they inclined to give heed to any entrenched elements that, in theory, might prevent them from doing so.

That's the best-case reading of the shift that has emerged.

But for those who want to see an electoral system that is fairer - not to opposition parties, but to the principles of a free and transparent public sphere - it is cold comfort.

This article was first published on Nov 15, 2015.
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