Rabbits or rebels? Making sense of Singapore’s 2015 elections

On September 11, 2015, Singapore held its 12th general election since independence in 1965. While voting is mandatory, this was the first post-independence election in which all Singaporeans could vote, as all seats were contested. Despite massive turnout at opposition rallies, insistent complaints of government failings, and some formidable challengers, the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) increased its vote share by nearly 10 percent, to 70 percent, and won back one constituency, to secure a total of 83 out of 89 seats.[1]

Pundits strove to make sense of a seemingly anomalous result; while a PAP win was certain, only few had anticipated the party’s actually gaining ground. Most credited the result to: a mixture of a slew of goodies for all, delivered since the PAP’s poor showing at the previous election; the hubristic afterglow of Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations one month previously; fealty to the beloved Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away in March; persistent fear of a “freak result,” in which the opposition actually forms the government; the PAP’s increased efforts to respond to bread-and-butter grievances and appear more human and humane; concerns over the opposition’s competency at municipal management; gerrymandering and consummate political surfing; the lesser reputation or credibility especially of the smaller, newer opposition parties; and, national security amidst political/economic meltdown in Malaysia, debilitating air pollution from Indonesia, Syria’s Islamic State, and invocation of an earlier “9/11.”

Rather than rehash these arguments, I will focus on what these elections might indicate. In short, the progress of the elections suggests a changed political landscape. To explain, I look first to the PAP and the path it has carved, then to the opposition, and lastly, to the voting public.

The PAP has won securely, but at the cost of ever-higher expectations. In its yen to claim responsibility for all things good in Singapore, the party also takes the blame when anything goes wrong: a subway breakdown mid-campaign seemed potentially calamitous, however tangential to elections almost anywhere else. And its securing support through heavy social spending not only encumbers the budget, but also undercuts the PAP’s eschewal of welfarism and dependency. Rather, voters may now come to expect sufficient carrots for a nation of rabbits.

At the same time, technocratic expertise is no longer sufficient. PAP rally speeches proudly tout the party’s “unpopular” policies, versus the opposition’s “populist” approaches. Only a party that does not expect to compete can so dismiss popularity. The PAP can heretofore anticipate not only real competition, but a voting public that demands convincing that the policy alternatives chosen are the best ones.

By the same token, as PAP candidates’ rags-to-riches personal rally narratives made clear, the party recognizes the need to exude likeability and humility. (“Heart” references peppered discourse on all sides throughout the campaign.) The vast majority of MPs live not only outside their constituency, but outside the subsidized Housing Development Board flats in which 80 percent of Singaporeans reside, and many are demonstrably out-of-touch with the masses. While the PAP is unlikely to significantly revise its secretive, top-down system for tapping candidates, often from top ranks in the civil service and military, party leaders are aware that much of the public resents the assumption of a “natural aristocracy.” Already the victors’ paeans to humility have begun.

Legwork then becomes all the more salient. The PAP has been holding meet-the-people sessions and door-to-door walkabouts since its inception in the 1950s. These efforts benefit from extensive “grassroots” assistance. However, MPs themselves—chosen for their high-flying careers and professional competence—are increasingly expected to show their face, however inefficient a use of their time.

The opposition confronts many of the same concerns. Perhaps the biggest sign of an emerging “new normal” in Singapore is the climate for opposition politics—but the magnitude of that thaw should not be over-estimated. No opposition candidates were charged with libel, none were barred from contesting on technicalities, and personal attacks on character and quality were less vitriolic than in the past. Moreover, politically interested citizens swarmed opposition rallies with impunity, while PAP rallies drew larger than expected crowds—even if few actively flaunt opposition loyalties.

The opposition still faces an uphill battle. Their candidates must match the blend of likeability, competence, and credentials expected of PAP rivals. They must be able to convince voters not only of their policy aptitude, but also of their ability to manage a housing estate, a role accorded to MPs since the 1988 Town Council Act. The former requirement led to highly technical cross-rally parries over provisions and funding mechanisms for policies enacted or proposed. Yet the latter is more of a challenge. Opposition-run town councils lack the support of the People’s Association network of local organizations that monitors and supports PAP-run wards. (The PAP appoints a “grassroots advisor” in opposition-held constituencies; elsewhere, the MP plays that role.) Opposition MPs are less able, too, to secure government grants for desired improvements. These town councils find few takers for their management contracts, lose economies of scale in service-provision, and face tight scrutiny. Heavily publicized alleged anomalies in town council accounts undoubtedly cost the votes for the Workers’ Party of Singapore (WP), notwithstanding cognate revelations about PAP-held wards. Less established opposition parties have an even harder time convincing voters of their management wherewithal.

Meanwhile, opposition parties suffer from the more mundane issues of chronic disorganization, inability to collaborate, and resource constraints. Funding is especially challenging. Only contributions of less than SGD5,000 may be anonymous, which discourages larger donations, while foreign funds are verboten. Most opposition parties rely on sales of newspapers, books, and paraphernalia to support their efforts. The uncertain election date and brief campaign period make it harder for opposition parties to secure not just printed materials, but vehicles, sound stages, and other campaign equipment. Online videos face byzantine regulations, and rallies are permitted only at precisely demarcated times and venues. Nor is it an easy matter to decide to run. Longer-time opposition leaders in particular have

lost jobs or faced other penalties for their politics, and others have been sued or imprisoned. If they do stand, friends and family may still hesitate to align openly with them.

Still, polls demonstrated that voters
discriminate among opposition parties. About one-fourth will vote for any non-PAP candidate, but garnering even one-third of votes requires an active positive assessment. What voters seem to want most, though, limits opposition parties: the electorate favors a “co-driver” or “responsible opposition” frame. For a party to present a different ideology or vision is deemed radical and would raise untenable expectations, regardless. To say a party “opposes for the sake of opposing” is a (frequent) insult.

Lastly, outreach remains the bane of opposition politics. Much as it does for the PAP, the electorate now expects to see opposition party representatives working the ground and propounding proposals between elections. Yet unlike elected MPs, opposition activists are not paid hefty salaries for doing so, do not have well-resourced grassroots networks at their disposal, and are not in a position to
much for the voters. Social media are available and cheap, but serve more to magnify voices of supporters than to reach swing voters or opponents, and mainstream media still lean PAP.

Which brings us to the voters themselves. A dearth of useful surveys—forbidden altogether during election time—renders a nuanced reading of specific segments’ preferences or leanings difficult. The volume of complaints and the crowds at rallies suggest voters do want a chance to vent; it is less clear whether they require opposition MPs to then amplify their grievances in parliament, once the (increasingly responsive) PAP has heard them. If the real goals were a mere liberal polity, we might see greater efflorescence of civil societal activity or other modes of participation outside elections and media, yet there has been no notable upsurge in associational activity, nor has civil societal organizations tested proscriptions against partisan engagement this election. Widespread consternation over recent crackdowns on several bloggers in particular might have made civil liberties a central election issue, but in fact, even the civil libertarian Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) focused overwhelmingly on more material concerns.

Meanwhile, even party strategists are hard-pressed to pinpoint their core and swing voters. While the PAP credits young voters for saving the day, other parties are more vague on their base. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) deems upper middle-income voters their main backers while the less well-off are too dependent on PAP to defect (and the PAP obfuscates what is from the state versus the PAP) and the upper class are less concerned with the policies parties tout. The WP’s traditional base is in the Teochew dialect group, concentrated on the east coast, yet ties to that heritage have weakened over time. Both the WP and the Singapore People’s Party, though, seem to appeal more to Chinese-educated voters than either the SDP or the PAP—with the caveat that socioeconomic class may trump other affiliations, and the older “Pioneer Generation” (many of them non-Anglophone) seems to have responded well to handouts. Expecting close races, both sides courted minority votes, too. Malay candidates addressed their community specifically in Malay language, advocating the need for either a strong mandate for an inclusive single party to fulfill community aspirations, or a lively and substantial parliamentary opposition to raise “sensitive” issues and protect against discrimination.

In the end, the PAP won the day. Still, the party governs now on somewhat new terms. Gone are the days of blind acceptance of technocratic management—or suppression with impunity of those not willing to toe that line. Politics has changed in Singapore, however subtly, regardless of who sits in parliament. 

[1] My thanks to many friends and colleagues whose perspectives have deeply informed my own, especially Loke Hoe-Yeong, Luenne Choa, and Eileena Lee.