There is some talk about how this GE will be a watershed election. In the larger scheme of things, the 2011 GE represented a watershed. There is a barrier that the electorate pushed against and overcame: Fear.
Fear as an element in voting cannot be underestimated in Singaporean politics. For far too long, people have been afraid of the consequences of speaking up and, worse still, the consequences of voting against the ruling party. For sure, there have been those voters that genuinely believed in PAP’s policies and felt that they prefer that party to any other. However, a significant number of voters that are known to complain left, right and centre between elections but when it comes to voting they dutifully vote for the PAP.
I have encountered many friends and relatives who are like that. They would caution you that your vote is not secret and that it can be traced through the serial number on the voting slip. They would claim that you could lose your job or get passed over for promotion if you are a civil servant and that there might be other vague consequences relating to the HDB flat or such other things you voted against the PAP.
In the 2011 GE, something happened. It is fair to say that there was widespread anger on the ground against the ruling party and many voters were willing to make the journey to cross over from voting for the PAP to voting against them. A friend of mind, a civil servant, confided with me that he wanted to vote for the opposition but was hesitant because of the possible consequence at work. I assured him that the vote is secret. The serial number is an administrative precaution and is found in other legal systems as well. In any event, it is unlikely that the PAP leaders will be so vindictive as to take every individual voter to task even if they rummaged through the votes.
He told me that his family members were generally fearful of voting against the PAP even though they were not happy with some government policies. In the end, on polling day, he picked up enough courage to vote for the opposition though not his family members. It is strongly arguable that what caused the swing in 2011 was not merely the widespread discontent in the country but also an obvious lifting of the ‘fear’ component.
We spoke much about the ‘new normal’ after the 2011 GE. It was a watershed not only because the opposition broke through the GRC barrier but also because the electorate broke through the ‘fear’ barrier.
The question for GE 2015 is whether there are more such voters that vote for the PAP out of fear and whether these voters can be convinced by the opposition parties to vote for them. I do not think that there is a large percentage of such voters. Taking into account hardcore PAP supporters and those that have already crossed over to vote for the opposition, the middle ground voters probably account for about 25% of the electorate. (I use the Presidential Elections in 2011 as a rough guide to arrive at an estimate of the percentage of hardcore PAP supporters. It is strongly arguable that those that voted for Tony Tan represented the staunchest supporters of the status quo – 35%. In the 2011 Parliamentary elections 40% voted for the opposition. This leaves a 25% that were sufficiently interested in an alternative to decide not to vote for Tony Tan but had nevertheless not voted for the opposition in the 2011 elections. ) This 25% will be a mixed bunch:
- The politically apathetic that don’t know much about politics and don’t really care who is in power. Apathy often favours the incumbent.
- The voters that are unhappy with PAP policies but not confident about the opposition’s capability
- The voters that are not hardcore PAP supporters but who have some concerns about current policies though this is not enough for them to feel that PAP should be voted out and that all that is needed is to persuade and lobby the PAP leaders.
- The voters that would vote against the PAP if not for their fear that something might happen to them
The last category of voters still exist and I am personally aware of a few. Certainly, from my conversations, the number of voters that are fearful has reduced greatly. The interesting question would be how many voters that still voted out of fear in 2011 have now become convinced that there is nothing to fear (and therefore, can be counted upon to vote for the opposition). Do such voters make up 2% to 3% of the voters? Without any empirical study on this it is impossible to hazard a guess. From my own experience with speaking with friends there are a few that have indicated that they are no longer afraid to vote for the opposition and that this time around they would make the bold choice.
If indeed more of such voters cast off their fears, there should be a little chipping away of the popular vote. Much of the work for the opposition would be to convince the category of voters that are concerned about the quality of candidates.
It is a real pity that the opposition parties are still not able to contest on the basis that they are ready to form an alternative government. Even the Worker’s Party has only indicated that it will contest 28 seats (the largest number for any opposition party). This is not even sufficient to deny PAP a 2/3 majority. In the next 89-seat Parliament, 60 seats will deliver a 2/3 majority for the PAP.
In the long run, if we consider that an opposition party needs to build itself up into a position of forming the government, then it has to at least be able to cross the 1/3 threshold in parliament to deny the PAP the ability to amend the Constitution at will. The fact that the WP is gunning for 28 seats may be quite telling of their intention not to take this first step. This, I find, is disappointing. WP, should have, by now strengthened itself into a position where it can field enough candidates to challenge for at least 1/3 of Parliament. Even on the basis of the 87 constituencies before the Electoral Boundary Review, WP with 28 candidates would have fallen just one short of the 29 required for a 1/3 representation in Parliament.
I suppose that the WP intends to work on the 1/3 threshold only in future elections.
There is no doubt that there is a great deal of discontent on the ground in Singapore. The only thing keeping some voters from switching over to the opposition is the question of the competence of the opposition candidates. The electorate is ready to follow the lead of a strong credible party that puts forward a real platform for forming the government. Clearly, the opposition parties are not in such a position. Whilst there are many good candidates in the different parties. There isn’t any single party that is able or willing to assert that it will form the government.
Until the day that an opposition party bravely fields candidates in every constituency and openly proclaims that it is challenging to take over the governance of the country, many middle ground voters will still hesitate to vote against the PAP. (If the WP or any other party pulls off a surprise on nomination day by fielding candidates in all constituencies like the way Low Thia Khian surprised everyone on nomination day by contesting in Aljunied in 2011, I will definitely applaud that.)
However, there will be some movement of votes against the PAP throughout the country. It is a question of how great the swing will be. The campaign period is, of course, very crucial and the type of issues that crop up then and the way they are addressed can move the voters dramatically in either direction.