Before we get carried away by the inroads made by the opposition parties in the recently concluded general election in Singapore, here’s a cautionary analysis of the election results by Law Sin Ling:
Reflection on General Election 2006
(The following observation is made under the assumption that the polling process had not been perverted by widespread fraudulent actions)
If there was ever a nightmarish period for modern day Singapore, the last oppressive 5 years was inarguably just such an example.
Fees, fares, levies, charges, and taxes were raised at the nadir of the economic downturn at the start of the new millennium. Unemployment soared, as over-inflated property prices spurred by flawed government programmes plunged, leaving many with neither the means to repay their housing loan, nor the ability to offload without accruing more pain.
Cost of living races rapidly ahead of income and already overworked parents are further compelled to neglect their vocation of parenthood, leading to increased teens problems. Per capita suicide figures made the Guinness Record for the tiny island-nation as preteens and the elderly took the shortcut out of their journey in life.
Foreigners flooded the market, wrestling jobs from local Singaporeans even as government civil servants lost their ‘iron rice bowl’ (assured long-term employment). Governmental botches from SARS, dengue, and collapsing standard of healthcare services, to massive blackouts, inexplicable loss of lives, multi-million dollar scandals, and unaccountably poor returns from State investments hit the headlines.
The PAP government had suddenly looked less omnipotent than they had boasted.
Yet, despite the seemingly endless stream of dejecting news which had abundantly exposed the innate shortcomings and hubris of the overstayed incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) government, the people of Singapore had voted for their choice – The status quo.
Statistically, about a third of voters had cast their lot for the Opposition. This mathematically represents a more positive response from the people compared to the election of 2001 where the Opposition aggregated less than a quarter.
But appearance can be deceiving. And posturing may have rather hollow significant.
This election had typically illuminated one fundamental characteristic of the majority of Singapore voters – A vote for the Opposition is sometimes a mere political act of spite against the PAP, and not a demonstration of real support for the cause of the Opposition to create a balanced democratic Parliament.
Furthermore, it illustrated that a public feeling of unhappiness does not invariably equate to fervent discontentment. That is to say, Singaporeans may appear to be perceptively unhappy, but they are at the core contented and satisfied with the standard of government, however questionable, and would prefer to make do with ‘inconveniences’ than to adapt to changes and uncertainties from the untested. Better the devil you know.
Simply said, if the PAP government can resolve their grouses, these fickle voters will swing their obsession back in favour of the PAP.
Singapore is a society where the people have an uncannily high threshold for punishments. For many, their collective mindset of ‘predictability over uncertainty’ is cast in very firm iron mould. Suffice it to say, such a society cannot be expected to progress too rapidly out of its nascent shell of comfort. And it would certainly have a rough time adapting to rapid global changes without at the same time readily deserting key values and principles.
The PAP, having been returned to power, will not sit idle insofar as retaining ruling-right is concerned. They will have the next 5 years and more to plug their weaknesses, with the comfort of history to know that they will retain public support even in their most dire state of mismanagement.
The Opposition support has a dangerously high probability of dwindling at the next election short of a catastrophic public-relation fumble by the PAP, and a complete washout of their policies.
Hence tellingly, the increased percentage of votes for the Opposition is not an accurate gauge of their progress in the direction of creating a multi-party democracy. There is the immense danger that the Opposition may be misled by what they may perceive is a natural increasing tendency, and as a result proceed with the same smug SOPs of wooing voters without real innovation or dissection.
The ‘optimistic’ reaction of some Opposition politicians to the improved polling percentages demonstrates just such a worrying habit.
Many Opposition ‘supporters’ will not hesitate to abandon the Opposition when the PAP government satisfies their short-term needs. And that is not to mention the ability of the PAP government to re-demarcate constituencies to work the demography to their favour.
This peculiarity is essentially also the reason why encouraging the casting of blank votes is detrimental to the Opposition. Voters can be expected to vote the Opposition through a transient sentiment of displeasure towards the PAP. But it is not realistic to expect people to vote the PAP for a similar feeling of unhappiness towards the Opposition. In the latter case, a non-partisan of PAP is more likely to cast a blank vote.
The Opposition has more to lose over blank votes than the PAP has.
All in all, contrary to popular logic, the election results offer a less than rosy outlook of the future of the Opposition movement.
The shod Opposition has always depended on the heel-wearing ground work of establishing personal contacts with the population to advertise their ‘wares’. But this traditional albeit seemingly effective form of outreach is increasing proving to be unreliable and inadequate to address the psychological inertia of voters, culminating in an undesirable outcome for the Opposition at the final crucial moments.
The lowly-educated and the desperately dependent cannot be counted upon to win votes through simple political preaching. Such voters do not understand the essence of the Opposition cause, and will sway with the feel-good mood within their psyche through factors such as the availability of jobs and the strength of material inducement.
The intelligentsias and self-sufficient on the other hand are not wholly concerned with political ideals of checks-and-balance, fair representation, or even alternative ideas. For them, voting with their feet is a genuine option.
This raises the challenge for the Opposition who counts to a large extent on the rewards from the personal approach gained from ‘walking the ground’ for hours on end. Alternative methods such as pervasive constant dialogues and forums to engage and educate the population are viable, although the modality does not appeal to the seasoned Opposition politicians bent on the more direct tried and tested.
The biggest battle is now fought over winning the young voters and those reaching the eligible age to vote. Engaging this group of people is fairly easy as they are usually more connected to the information network. However, there is the constant danger that some might develop an obsessively skewed opinion favouring radical allegiance over sensible objectivity.
Votes won through the influence of sound and sight, prejudice, and facilitated emotion is not substantially meaningful for the long-term interest of Opposition politics.
While there is no single best formula, the greatest challenge remains for the Opposition to convince the largely politically passive and self-engrossed Singapore voters to look beyond the present.
Unfortunately, many Singaporeans remain too addicted to the PAP brand to care for alternative voices in Parliament, and too blinded by materialism to understand the evolving social changes and its impact on the future generations. Singaporeans today are not ready for diverse politics. And this looks to be the dominant trend for the next 10 to 20 years.
The infusion of naturalised foreigners carrying a mentality that predisposes them to feel beholden to the government whose policy has led to the fulfilment of their aspiration will further advantage the incumbent PAP.
With a population struggling badly to suffuse its ranks with fresh young blood from the justifiably procreation-phobic local population, the PAP government had over the years been diligently wooing foreign breeds to settle down and take up citizenship to create the mass needed to advance the government’s economic policies.
Naturalised immigrants are psychologically more averse to rocking the boat which had accommodated them in exchange for another which might not offer them the same comfort of trust.
In conclusion, the importance of Opposition politics remains poorly understood by the voters, leading to a virtual lack of strong convincing public demand for more.
And with the gripes and grumbles from the public persistently translating to an overwhelming win for the incumbent PAP, the Opposition needs to confront the reality that verbal dissatisfaction is not to be confused with a real desire for political alternatives.
Ultimately, the future of Opposition politics rests on “the choice of the people.”
It is not a misrepresentation to qualify that Singaporeans are as reactive as the PAP government which they had predictably elected to power. As far as logic goes, Singaporeans deserve the government they had chosen.
And in the eyes of international observers, this election has proven once again that the PAP and the Singapore voters are unmistakably birds of the same feather. It couldn’t have been a more harmonious match.