8.7% swing to the opposition in yesterday's election
Yesterday's Singapore General Election result is a big problem for the PAP – there was a swing of 8.7% to the opposition parties.
Our people are working extra hard to present the election as a success for us and to claim it as a mandate for our next term of govenment, but the fact is that it shows that we are losing support. In reality, it was a heavy blow both to the party and to the leadership of Lee Hsien Loong.
Our strategy for managing the situation is to keep people's attention focused on two statistics that make the election look like a good outcome for the PAP. They are:
1. The PAP won 82 out of 84 seats; and
2. The PAP won 66.6% of the votes cast.
If we look at these numbers alone, the election appears to be a success for us. When we look at the bigger picture however, the problem becomes obvious.
In the 2001 election, the PAP won 75.3% of the votes cast. In this election however, we won only 66.6% of the votes cast. That equals a swing away from the PAP of 8.7% between 2001 and 2006 and means that despite our control of the media and all the other advantages which we had during the campaign, this election saw us lose 8.7% of our voters to the opposition. That's almost one in ten people who voted PAP in 2001 going over to vote for the opposition in this election. Ouch.
The challenge for the PAP in the immediate post-election period is to keep this fact out of the public's view. If Singaporeans start to realise that there has been such a significant drop in support for the PAP, then they will see through our claim that this election gives us a mandate and reinforces PM Lee's leadership. Of course we will be able to keep this out of the newspapers and off the television, but we can't control discussion on the internet and in coffee shops in the same way, and that is our main concern.
What such a large swing away from the PAP means for us is that we will have to take a close look at both our strategy and our leadership if we are to halt this trend and avoid an even more embarrassing result at the next election. Of course with the way our parliament is made up, we could handle another swing of the same magnitude in the next election and barely lose any seats to the opposition, but that's not the problem - the problem is that it would make us look like our grip on power was loosening.
As to strategy, it seems that our traditional approach of porkbarrelling which this time included the pre-election "Progress Payment" and offers of estate upgrading is no longer working. Nor does it seem that our control of the television and print media is enough - in fact there is some evidence that it may work against us and make us seem authoritarian. One area of focus for the next election however will definately be the internet, which was used against us in this election with what seems to have been great effect.
On the topic of leadership, I wrote a few days ago about discontent within certain sections of the PAP about PM Lee's performance as leader, and especially his inability to score points on the opposition during the election campaign. If PM Lee was not the son of Lee Kuan Yew, there is no doubt in my mind that there would be calls for him to step down before the next election and be replaced with someone who could rebuild support for the PAP and perform better during an election. It is difficult to see him being replaced though, so my guess is that we will have to move some strong deputy leaders up beside him over the next few years to compensate.
For now though, those things can wait.
Over the coming days, we must focus on our key message of a mandate, and taking 82 of the 84 seats in the new parliament. If we can repeat this long enough and loud enough, hopefully we can drown out the voices of those who would ask us "How can you claim that his election was a success for the PAP and an endorsement of Lee Hsien Loong's leadership when there was an 8.7% swing to the opposition?"
Fear – the PAP's most powerful weapon
The secret to the PAP's success is fear.
That's the simple truth, and although only a brave few will ever say so publicly, everyone knows it.
The PAP actively works to make Singaporeans fearful, and there are basically two types of fear that we use.
The first is fear of the PAP itself. This is the fear that anyone who stands up to the PAP or the government will be punished and be made to suffer. Standing up to the PAP might mean voting for or joining an opposition party, or speaking out about something that the PAP or government is doing. The ways that someone might suffer for that could include being sacked from their job, having family members lose their jobs, not being able to find another job, or being sued and bankrupted.
The second type of fear that we use is the fear of the alternatives to a PAP government. We create exaggerated scenarios for what might happen if Singapore had more opposition MPs, or a government formed by non-PAP parties. These scenarios are many and varied, but they all involve either the economy taking a turn for the worse, or political instability.
Fear is the cornerstone of the PAP's strategy in this election , just as it has been in past elections. It has served us well for 40 plus years, and is as effective today as it ever was.
Here are the first two examples which I found in the media today of PAP public figures playing the "fear card" in the election campaign.
Jalan Besar GRC candidate Denise Phua said on Tuesday that if more opposition members were elected to parliament "the analysts will rate our political risk very high, it'll be negative; the stock market will tumble; potential investors will hold back their investments; current business will seriously think about moving business out of Singapore."
On Monday, SM Goh said "Be careful of planting seeds of Opposition in the Parliament as a tree may grow out of it. What kind of tree? No one knows."
Of course we know that the real danger of strong opposition parties in Singapore is not to Singapore itself, but only to the PAP's chances of reelection. All democracies in the developed world have strong opposition parties and political and financial instability are no more likely to occur in those countries than they are in Singapore. Even though the dangers that we speak of for Singapore don't really exist, if we can keep Singaporeans believing that they do, we will remain in government.
It might seem strange to think about fear in Singapore, because the PAP spends a lot of time telling everyone what a safe country we live in. Does it ever occur to you that you are afraid? Maybe not. Singaporeans are so used to living in fear that that most of the time we don't even notice it. Others notice though. When foreigners come to Singapore, they comment that Singaporeans are a repressed people, tense and afraid to speak our minds. They can see what we cannot see because we are surrounded by it every day and for us it is "normal".
So as the election draws to a close, keep the fear tactic in mind and see how subtly and how often it is used, not just in the election but every day of the year.
PAP worried about the leadership of PM Lee
You'll never hear anyone from the PAP admit it in public, but some influential figures in the party are quietly worried about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's ability and performance as party leader and PM.
As election day draws nearer and the pace of campaigning picks up, concerns are mounting about PM Lee. There is an undercurrent of feeling both in the party and in the Singaporean community that he may not up to the task of leading the PAP team to the resounding victory which will be needed if he is to step out of his father's shadow and establish himself as the leader of his party and country in his own right.
So far his campaigning has been lacklustre. He has fired a few shots at the opposition parties, but is yet to score any solid hits. Asking the opposition to "be serious about what they stand for and stop evading the real issues", as he did yesterday, isn't good enough. As we enter the final week of the campaign, he will have to improve on that significantly.
He has also made the embarrassing mistake of running with the "First World" argument in the last few days. Leaving aside the argument itself, using the phrase "First World" to compare Singapore to other countries is a serious gaffe on the international stage. It's a phrase that is now seen in the international community, along with the phrase "Third World", as inappropriate and disrespectful. Over the last decade it has fallen out of use. Now, diplomats and overseas politicians describe coutries as "developed" or "developing" instead. The PM of Singapore should know that, and he's making Singapore look like we are ten years behind the times by using such language. What must other coutries think of Singapore because of this? They already criticise us enough without our PM handing them another reason to ridicule us on a platter.
Of course, there is no doubt that PM Lee will lead the PAP to victory in the election. But simply winning the election won't be enough to establish his credibility because, let's face it, it would be impossible for him to lose. To be taken seriously, he will have to return the PAP to power with an increased majority. That will mean winning 83 seats, or all 84, and that looks unlikely.
It seems that the opposition parties have sensed the PAP's vulnerability under PM Lee. They have moved away from their usual tactic of contesting less than 50% of the seats in Parliament, which they adopted when the PAP was under the leadership of PM Lee's father Lee Kuan Yew and his successor Goh Chok Tong. This tactic was a tacit acknowledgement of the strength of the PAP's position under those two leaders. In this election, 47 of the 84 seats are being contested by the opposition parties, which appear to have determined that the PAP's position under PM Lee is weaker than it has been for the last few decades and that this is the time for them to make their move.
This has all led some observers to draw some unflattering comparisons between the Lee family and America's Bush family. The father of current American president George W. Bush was George Herbert Walker Bush, a successful past president of the USA. PM Lee's father, Lee Kuan Yew, is also a very successful past leader of Singapore. George W. Bush is now widely seen as trying his best as President, but lacking the ability and intellect to fill his father's shoes. As the election campaign goes on here, PM Lee is starting to be seen in the same light. There can be no doubt that he is trying very hard, but he lacks some of the presence and skill of his father, and just doesn't seem to be in the same league as a politician.
PM Lee's has excellent pedigree still makes him a valuable asset for the PAP. The Lee family name is a vote winner and no one in the party thinks we should be without him, but the question is should he really be the party's leader? There is a popular perception in Singapore that he is the PM simply becuase of the influence of his father, and there is no point in denying the truth of that. There are others in the party who are more talented and would make better leaders both of the PAP and of Singapore, but as long as MM Lee is involved in politics, they will not have a chance to challenge his son.
In the meantime, the PAP will have to make the best of having PM Lee as it's leader, and will be campaigning very hard over the next 7 days to hold back the opposition.
Nomination day - the perfect outcome
Nomination day could not have produced a better outcome for the PAP in Singapore.
Why is that? Wouldn't we have been hoping for a walkover in this election - to have have had more than half of the seats in Parliament uncontested so that a PAP victory was assured even before the poll next Saturday?
No. That would have shown Singaporeans and the rest of the world that our electoral system is a sham, and given ammunition to those who say that Singapore is not a real democracy. Now these things are true, but it is certainly not in the PAP's interests to admit them. We have always denied these accusations, and the number of opposition nominations in the coming election gives us another way to continue doing so.
We can now claim that the "large number" of opposition nominations is evidence of the health of our political process. We can crow about the openness, transparency and fairness of Singapore's electoral system - things that the opposition and other countries criticise us for not allowing. In doing so we will conveniently ignore the fact that in any real democracy the thought of 44% of seats in parliament going to the ruling party even before the any votes are cast would be unthinkable. That's just what has happened in this election though - in 37 of the total 84 seats in the Parliament the PAP was the only party to nominate a candidate. This is because in Singapore, the PAP use our control of the government and judiciary to rig the system to keep the opposition beaten down and weak so that an election will never, ever be a free fight.
Even though we now only have to win 6 of 37 seats being contested (that's a whopping 13%) to remain in government, it's important that we put on a show of having to work hard for victory. This evening, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong kept up this lie by saying "So we are fighting this election to decide who will form the next government of Singapore". Everyone knows that the PAP cannot lose this election, but we will pretend that the opposition could actually win, because in a real democracy that sort of thing can actually happen, and we have to pretend that Singapore is a real democracy.
Which brings us to the point about the PAP needing opposition parties. Don't think that putting the opposition parties completely out of business would be in our interests. We could do that in a heartbeat if we wanted to, but it's better for us to have them around. We just cannot afford to let them become strong enough to pose a genuine electoral threat to the PAP. We cannot maintain our lie about being committed to democracy if there is no opposition, but nor can we allow an opposition movement to gain enough momentum to oust us from government.
That's why this nomination day has turned out perfectly for the PAP. Now we will claim that the opposition parties are giving us a run for our money and that our victory is not assured, even though all the cards are stacked in our favour. Then when we win, we'll claim our "victory" shows that Singaporeans truely trust us and are skeptical of the opposition. It's so easy.