Why I am glad to predict the Punggol East by-election wrongly

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To start, I predicted the result of the Punggol East by-election wrongly as my guess is 51% for the ruling party and 48% for Workers Party with the 1% split for the minnows. Of course, with no polling data available, the way I came to the prediction was to look at the historical datapoints we have in the past. Most of the people including myself (and I am no pundit but a private citizen) would have made the following assumptions and come to the prediction that the ruling party, People’s Action Party (PAP) is the likely winner to the by-election.


(Photo Credits: The Online Citizen)

What are these assumptions and how we end up to be so wrong:

1. Multi-cornered fights no longer favors the ruling party as compared in the past. In the past whenever, there is a multi-cornered fight, the ruling party always win because of the divide and conquer strategy they adopted. Their past wins are predicated on the following assumptions: one, the independents or the centrist voters would vote on their side and two, their own party faithful would vote on their side. I will revisit the 2nd assumption in another point. Instead, we saw a swinging majority went for Workers Party (WP) by 10.83% margin win and of course, the other two opposition parties, Reform Party (RP) and Singapore Democratic Alliance suffered a whopping defeat. This is the first sign of Duverger’s law at work in political science which asserts that plurality rule elections structured within single-member districts tends to favor a two-party system (Source: Sze Meng Soon & Wikipedia). In the next general election in 2016, this may be the trend for all political parties, and only the top 2 take all with the rest trailing by a big margin. 

2. The signals of the Internet and Social Media are now possible validators of the sentiment from the ground. In 2011 General Election, the social media platforms have created a groundswell in the electorate. More and more people within the age groups below 40 are gearing towards alternative sources of media. A way to look at this is pretty simple. Just go back to last week, and count how many facebook posts or links shared on WP and PAP, you will find that your feed is dominated by WP feed. My average count is about 80% (WP) to 20% (PAP). What shocked me most is the centrist voter who typically votes PAP or champions the PAP movement in the past all swing to support WP. As I draw my inference based on the past on the signals from internet and social media being more noise than valid, the conclusion I draw was totally wrong. 

3. The electorate is becoming more sophisticated and complex and credentials don’t mean anything anymore. With strong financial resources and capabilities, the PAP could have easily executed a strong campaign that resembled the change elections that we witnessed in the US and UK, Instead, they did not. Why? Their methods of engaging the electorate are backward and only leaned towards the older generation. First of all, they are really bad at communicating their message and they created their own obstacles by imposing laws that do not allow election polling and not liberalising the mainstream media. The rise of social media created an asymmetry between how the electorate perceived information from the mainstream media with great distrust and to the extent, we viewed it as a government mouthpiece, and not to mention the only two pundits who kept appearing on the CNA and offers no insights but a bunch of platitudes that get the ire of the netizens on twitter. 

As a private citizen who observed how the elites operate, I have come to the realisation that as a voter I would prefer an underdog or someone who has the passion to serve than a person pegged with impossible credentials and awards who have no clue what the ordinary people are living their lives. It’s not that I don’t want to vote a smart person. A smart person without empathy and the willingness to serve the people is not a good fit for political office. Will the ruling party change? I doubt so.

4. Implosion of the ruling party is becoming more prominent: The same mistake I made for this by-election, I have also under-estimated the impact of the last presidential election where Dr Tony Tan, the ruling party’s default candidate almost lost by a margin from Dr Tan Cheng Bock. The reason is that the latter has siphoned votes from the ruling party instead from the people who would vote opposition. With more and more defeats, the grassroots of the PAP would start to question the strategy of the leaders and hence the old order will begin to crumble. Will there be a splinter of the PAP into two parties? That’s a scenario which I hear from private chatter after a post LKY world. If the party splinters into two, then the question will be how the coalition government will be formed if any of the three (including WP) wins the election without a notable majority.

5. The strategy of Workers Party is working by mirroring its opponent. 

In Robert Greene’s “48 Laws of Power”, the 44th law which states that one should disarm and infuriate with the mirror effect. In his analysis through historical examples, this law cannot be defended. No other opposition party other than the Workers Party have the courage to ask why they are not able to win the hearts and minds of the voters. The reason is simple: the Workers Party is mirroring its opponent and making it really hard for the PAP to attack them. There may be some minor differences in their policies and ideas but generally, everything is more or less similar to voter. The Singaporean voter is not an ideological but a pragmatic voter who picks political leaders based on how they deal with their needs. The PAP got their success from the past by doing so. The more I see how the other parties except the National Solidarity Party and Singapore People’s Party (who stayed out), I can see that some of them are already eliminated as times go on. 

If there is one lesson which the by-election teaches us, is the lesson of learning from your mistakes. Unfortunately, our ruling party seem not to learn from their mistakes and are unable to change because they have become too big and inflexible to other points of view. In the end, I am actually glad that I have predicted the outcome of this election wrongly, and happy with the outcome of the results as an independent. I want more checks and balances and the electorate have shown it through their votes. Hopefully, the ruling party will get out of their third world way of running their election campaigns and take the electorate seriously.

Note: Here are the other interesting commentaries I have read

* Cherian George, Air Conditioned Nation: “Punggol East: They are not kidding around

* Alex Au aka Yawning Bread, “PAP suffers 10.83% swing in Punggol East by-election

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist