A stunning outcome, a moment to reflect

Wake up and smell the landslide.

A lot of bookies would have lost a lot of money this morning. Singapore does not have pollsters but it does have a lot of self-styled political pundits, and this was not the result many of them predicted.

At a private lunch two days before voting, an eminent former Singapore politician, renowned for his political acuity, forecast that the People's Action Party (PAP) would see its share of the popular vote go down by three to four percentage points. As it turned out, neither the extent of the swing nor the direction was right.

Many of the predictions for individual constituencies went haywire. At the end of the campaign, after observing the often electrifying opposition rallies, the pundits predicted that the PAP would lose East Coast GRC (it didn't); that given the lightweight PAP team ranged against seasoned Workers' Party heavyweights, Aljunied would be no contest (it was - not bad for a suicide squad, as one newsroom wag put it); that Holland-Bukit Timah and Fengshan would be too close to call (they were not); and that the opposition would win back Potong Pasir and retain Punggol East (it didn't).

Voters have a way of surprising the experts. This is not unique to Singapore. Before the May 7 elections in Britain, just about every pollster in the land predicted that a hung Parliament was dead certain. In the event, the Conservatives won an absolute majority.

Then, in India's elections last year, the polls suggested that Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies would get a plurality of votes and would probably form a coalition. Nobody predicted a landslide victory.

A landslide is also what the PAP won in Friday's elections and it needs some explaining. People have mentioned the Lee Kuan Yew-sympathy-vote factor following his death, the feel-good SG50 impact and the Lee Hsien Loong-Tharman Shanmugaratnam wow effect.

But this election result is surely about more than that.

There were essentially two competing narratives: The PAP's narrative was "vote for who can govern", while the opposition's narrative was "we need a bigger opposition as a check on power".

Maybe the opposition missed something that voters took on board: that the PAP had in fact listened to many of the grievances aired in the 2011 election, and acted on them. It has curbed the inflow of foreign workers, reined in soaring property prices, increased health subsidies and income support schemes to reduce inequalities, and expanded the transport infrastructure. More needs to be done in many of these areas, but the work has begun. For many voters, that is good enough.

While the PAP has blunted the opposition's old agenda since 2011, that agenda has remained largely the same. And so, if the 2011 election prompted soul-searching within the PAP, this election should do that for the opposition. Rather than depicting the PAP as being rigid, uncaring and tunnel-visioned, maybe they need to acknowledge that it has in fact been responsive - and focus on how they, the opposition, can build on that.

Perhaps, too, they should tone down their anti-foreigner rants; one of the striking features of the campaign was that whereas many opposition leaders blamed foreigners for just about every social problem - from jobs to property prices, to overcrowding - the PAP did not. It took the nuanced view that this is not a simple issue, but, as Singapore's business community knows very well, involves trade-offs.

And maybe, just maybe, the now age-old opposition narrative that "we don't want to form the Government, we only want to be the opposition" does not work any more. If you want to be elected, you should, like opposition parties everywhere else, also be prepared to govern.


The writer is Associate Editor of The Business Times. This commentary first appeared in the Sept 12 edition of the newspaper.

This article was first published on September 13, 2015.
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