Takeaways from Hougang

1. Post-mortem

a. I don’t really expect the 62-38 result for the Hougang by-election. Given the so many negative factors running against WP before the by-election (YSL saga, unsatisfactory performance in the parliament, Dr. Poh Lee Guan’s debacle during the nomination process, and issues of party unity amidst various resignations), I expect that the winning margin will be significantly smaller than in GE 2011, somewhere around 55-45 for WP (surely no one expects WP to lose, right, as the 30-point margin is simply too huge to reclaim in a single election). However, given that the PAP also have their own issues (e.g., MRT breakdowns, skyrocketing COEs, high inflation), I revised the margin to be around 60-40.

What comes as an X-factor, then, is the DPM Teo and NCMP saga, which turned out to be a blunder, worked against PAP, and added a few points for WP.

The perhaps more interesting question, but admittedly more speculative, is to predict what the national percentage now will be if a general election is called today. As the PAP only gained 3 points (2.7 points, to be precise) in Hougang, given all the negativity working against the WP in the build-up, I would argue that the national percentage is around 58-42 now, with PAP 2 points down from 2011 (i.e., without those negative factors, WP will win the BE by 67-33).

b. The swing is not for PAP in itself, but basically a vote against WP. Desmond Choo’s absolute vote only increased by a paltry 145 votes, despite WP losing 1403 votes from 2011. The overall turnout was 964 votes less than 2011. It is partly due to school holiday and hence some people couldn’t cancel their plans, but the other explanation is some of the voters preferred not to vote rather than had to vote for PAP. It’s how they could give a negative signal to WP without having to vote for PAP.

2. PAP: Pay Attention Please

a. Stop negative campaigning and bullying. They don’t work anymore. The voters are not stupid.

b. Correspondingly, stop looking down at your voters. Again, they not stupid. Especially if the voters are living in an area called Hougang.

c. Upgrade Hougang anyway. If you want to win Hougang, you should start by treating Hougang equally like other areas in Singapore. It is the only fair and just thing to do.

Of course, it could backfire in the rest of Singapore, since then they would think that there is no punishment for voting for the opposition. The 2011 presidential election has proved that the hardcore PAP vote is only 35%, and the rest is still negotiable if there is no harm voting against the PAP. But the way they continue discriminating against Hougang couldn’t continue for long as well, as the voters will become more politically informed and have better sense of justice and equality. So I guess either way its a lose-lose proposition for the PAP, which they totally deserved since it is morally wrong in the first place. True to their pragmatism, I think they will simply calculate which way will present the lesser loss among the two. (At least upgrading Hougang is just in itself and potentially has political gains in the future.)

d. Having said that, I’m not really sure how PAP is going to win Hougang in the near future. In 2011, they didn’t campaign much in Hougang, given that the opposition parties contested almost all constituencies, and hence must strategize which constituency to defend most (Aljunied, it is). They practically left Desmond Choo for himself, where he was truly his own man, unlike in BE 2012, where the big names could afford to spend some time campaigning in Hougang. Same thing will happen in the next GE. Hougang is the least priority PAP could think of. So unless WP scored more and more own goals, the ward will be safe for WP. The precedence is Potong Pasir, where PAP finally won back the constituency in 2011. The problem is PAP didn’t really “win” it, it’s more like SPP letting it away from their grasp.

3. WP: Work in Progress

a. Tighten the ship. People come and go in every political party in the world. It won’t become a big deal for an average party. The fact that this issue becomes an issue for WP actually acknowledges the prominence that WP have now in Singapore political arena. WP is no more your ordinary opposition party. Like PAP, they are on their own class now. So it’s more like PAP, WP, and everyone else. But it means that, since humans behave like humans, some members want to have a share at this growing prominence of WP as well, and those who are left behind will feel disgruntled. I personally think that WP should ignore those leaving the party for “personal reasons”. Shit happens. These exits are perhaps good to purify the party. It exposes who only wants the power (and the paycheck that comes with it). It separates the wheat from the chaff.

But, still, some exits might be caused by truly legitimate reasons, and on these cases WP must reflect whether they have treated all members equally and fairly. It is part of growing pains that WP must endure after their gains in 2011, going from 2 MPs (1 elected + 1 NCMP) to 8 MPs (6 elected + 2 NCMPs). PAP themselves have experienced a similar thing during the 1961 split with Barisan Sosialis, and it will be good if WP can learn from this history on how to consolidate their party. If WP can steer through this process well, they will come out stronger. Greater power comes with greater responsibility. If WP is in their own class now, it also means that the people will scrutinize them more and expect more of them, similar to how the people scrutinize the PAP the most.

(In relation to that, for all the reasons that Low Thia Khiang could complain about the media treatment to WP, well, at least the WP is constantly in the news, unlike the other parties. WP has simply become part of the mainstream consciousness now. The other parties will die for the media coverage that WP has.)

b. Improve the performance in the parliament. Actually their lackluster performance is still understandable since they don’t have the throngs of technocrats, scholars and civil servants like the ruling party. The people also understand this to some extent, and are ready to give WP some slack. But eventually they must buck up. The learning curve is steep, indeed, but somehow they need to pass this test. WP is superb in working the ground, no doubt about it, but it’s about time that they complement this with their parliamentary performance as well. If they can’t perform well in the parliament, the people will not trust them running the government. Of course, WP themselves have admitted that they are not ready to form the government. But the people can’t wait forever, can they. For a start, WP can perhaps emulate what SDP did with their Policy Unit.

4. Other parties: What to do next

a. Learn from WP. Work the ground. Don’t just come up every five years during election time. What has not been properly acknowledged is how good WP is when it comes to working the ground. They might be still in a steep learning curve for their parliamentary duty, but no one will deny that WP is very good on the ground. So, same thing, the voters are not stupid. If you come up just before the election, the people won’t vote for you.

b. Don’t bother contesting the election if you don’t work the ground. Don’t think that the constituency is your birthright only because you contested it in 2011. SDA is pathetic and should just dissolve. RP is a joke. SPP depends too much on the Chiams. NSP’s share in GE 2011 in their contested wards (39.25%) is almost identical with the non-PAP share (39.86%). NSP’s gain in GE 2011 (+6.37%) for all practical reasons matches with PAP’s loss (-6.46%), so a vote for NSP is basically a vote against PAP rather than a vote for NSP in itself.

Not that WP is perfect, but the combo of first-past-the-post and GRC system punishes the opposition parties and greatly advantages the incumbent in a multi-cornered contest. A mature democracy will eventually consist of multi-cornered contests, to be sure, but until they scrap at least the GRC system, the best thing for the opposition parties is to have a straight fight with the ruling party in each ward. The problem is the number of constituencies is limited but WP will want to expand. Expect them to spread its wings to Tampines GRC and Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC (against DPM Teo some more, it will be epic). SDA has lost election deposit once in 2011 when they are trapped in a 3-cornered fight in Punggol East SMC with WP and PAP, so I don’t think they will dare being in the same situation in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC in the next election. After all, the deposit will be six times of the deposit for an SMC. But, it will be much harder to convince NSP to stay away from Tampines GRC. Nevertheless, WP will still go ahead with 3-cornered fights to consolidate their position as the second choice party in Singapore, and they could even contest in Ang Mo Kio GRC and Marine Parade GRC as well, to cover the entire Eastern half of Singapore.

And basically three parties is enough to cover the entire political spectrum in Singapore: PAP, WP, and SDP. PAP is for what I call the Confucian conservatives, WP is for the Confucian moderates, and SDP is for the Western liberals. The rest are just duplicates and redundant for a 4-million population. But democracy is a democracy so all the clowns could form whatever party that they want to. You want the good things of democracy, you should be prepared for the “bad” sides of democracy.

(The political spectrum in Indonesia is between the secularists and the Islamists. So in one end you have PPP and PKS, and in another end you have PDIP and Golkar. The rest like PKB, PAN, and Partai Demokrat fill in the “middle” with various degrees. From Islamist to secularist, I think the ideological order — based on practice — goes like this: PKS, PPP, Partai Demokrat, PAN, PKB, Golkar, and finally PDIP.)

5: Epilogue: A tribute to Low Thia Khiang

a. I guess this by-election should cement further the legacy of LTK as the most astute and shrewd opposition politician Singapore has ever had as for now. Dogged by multiple controversies before the by-election, WP somehow emerged stronger than it was before. The first time an opposition party has more than two seats in the parliament post-independence didn’t end well — two years after the breakthrough in 1991, SDP crumbled after the internal party disputes between Chiam and Chee and as a result Chiam See Tong left and formed the SPP. The YSL saga and Hougang by-election could have the same effect for WP, but somehow they emerged stronger from it. It will indeed be very disappointing if all the democratic progress that has been made in GE 2011 was destroyed because of this. The fact that it didn’t, I think, owed significantly to the leadership of LTK. Somehow he managed to steer his party out of these controversies so well.

b. The way he deliberately slammed at the mainstream media is also brilliant. He has hinted a few times during the last rally about the way the media deliberately spinned the NCMP controversy, but it was never full blown. He blasted the media fully only after the confirmation that WP has won Hougang again, proving that despite all these attacks, WP still won Hougang and hence could aptly use the victim card and expose the bias of the mainstream media. You can’t overuse the victim card, as people would think that you are just a crybaby, and, indeed, the next day LTK said WP would move on and cooperate with the government to better Singapore. Nice.

c. LTK might not be the technocrat that PAP would wish for their government. He might not have the technical skills to run a ministry let alone a government. He might not be able to articulate his visions in English well. He might not be the idealist that you hope for (for that you need to turn to CSJ). But there is no doubt that in terms of political games, LTK could play the ball very, very well. The difference between WP and SDP is WP is taking PAP at its own game while SDP is trying to play another game (and of course PAP doesn’t allow it). This round, WP managed to beat PAP at its own game. Hougang BE 2012: LTK 1 – PAP 0.


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