Saturday, January 26, 2013

Punggol East 2013 By-Election, Part 3: The Final Prediction

Note: This article was first published on on 24th of January just before the start of cooling day.

MUCH has transpired in the past few weeks leading up to the Punggol East By-Election to be held on 26th of January. Since the snap polls were announced by the Prime Minister, much drama has ensued. The SDP pulled out the election in stunning fashion. Kenneth Jeyaretnam received death threats, which largely shaped the media’s portrayal of him. Dr. Koh Poh Koon tirelessly defended that he is a “Son of Punggol”- a label virtually unheard of before. The Workers Party has been firing numerous salvos at the ruling party. Also, in the last week, there has been an incredible flurry of good news- from future railway expansion plans to greatly enhanced schemes to encourage procreation. Even the COE prices which showed no signs of cooling down, dipped marginally in the last exercise held on the 23th of January.

In this article, we will make sense of the key developments and understand how they will shape the outcomes for the by-election.

SDP’s stunning U-turn

When the seat at Punggol East was left vacant, it was understandable why numerous parties signaled their interest to run. In an environment, where they often lack media attention, raising up the hand during a by-election is the best way to have some media spotlight on them to showcase their progress.
Also the PAP’s grip on the seat was weak to begin with. Hence, the opposition party’s lack of interest to participate in the election might have been interpreted as a sign of its weakness. Hence to brush off such concerns, it would have been strategic for the party to at least “feign” some interest to run. It would have been better to eventually throw in the support behind a stronger party than to throw in the towel from the onset.

However SDP’s actions- its comical missteps and eventual decision to not participate in the elections- defied all common sense. With the series of announcements about letting the WP manage the town council and it representing the constituency in Parliament and its failed negotiations with the WP, the party solidified the impression of many that it the lacks credibility and ability to govern. It could have managed its exit a lot more gracefully to strengthen its position in opposition politics. But, the SDP completely self-imploded.

SDP’s clumsy exit not only paved a clearer path for WP to secure a possible victory; it also accentuated WP’s disciplined and reliable approach in handling political matters.

The limited impact of RP and SDA

It would be fair to comment that Kenneth Jeyaretnam from RP and Desmond Lim have been really the fringe players in this one-on- one-fight between the PAP and WP. The level of demonstrated support during nomination day and the subsequent rallies was inarguably weak for both these candidates. SDA’s Desmond Lim didn’t have the capacity to hold a rally and he had to make do with teenage supporters, many of whom had barely reached the voting age. Ask any resident about Kenneth Jeyaretnam; most likely what would pop up into their minds is the death threats he received. The more politically savvy and older residents, might also recall that he is the son of veteran opposition politician JBJ. That’s about it. Little about the platform he is running on.

It is near certain that both these candidates will lose their deposit money. At the start of the campaign, they posed a decent chance of eroding some of WP’s share of votes. But given the very poor conduct of their campaigns, their impact is going to be less significant.

Because both these candidates already have a poor polling record, there are likely to be viewed as having almost no chance for triumphing in this tough election. It’s unlikely that voters would “waste” their vote on a candidate they are confident won’t be elected.  The dilution of the opposition vote would be less relevant than anticipated at the start of the race. Most of the support to the WP is unlikely to tilt in the favour of other two opposition parties.

Dr.Koh’s standing in Punggol East

Dr Koh Poh Koon had a shorter time period than others to establish himself. Nonetheless, he soon proved to be a candidate who had the courage to voice out his own opinion even if it strayed away from the party’s official line. His suggestion that perhaps there should be more SMCs carved out to establish greater political legitimacy for elected officials went against one of the PAP’s entrenched positions. He also raised the fundamental question of whether education still remained a social leveler in today’s context ?  He is no “Ya Ya Papaya”. His streak of independence is likely to go well with the increasingly demanding electorate, who appreciate representatives who stand up for their beliefs.

The PM’s signal that Dr.Koh might be appointed to higher political office if elected is however is unlikely to have any significant bearing. In the 2011 General Elections, voters didn’t back the PAP in the Aljunied GRC, even though the ward had 2 cabinet ministers- Ministers George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua- and the PM promised that MP Zainuddin Abidin would be promoted to become the speaker of parliament if elected. This goes to show that voters don’t really place a premium on having representatives who are elected to higher political office. Hence, expect the PM’s ‘promise’ to have little sway.

Sudden flurry of good news

In the past 2 weeks, there has been numerous announcements from various ministries. The notable few:
Ministry of National Development’s assurance that it will significantly ramp up the supply of BTO flats.

Ministry of Transport’s plan to double the rail network by 2030.

A joint ministerial committee’s announcement that our procreation policies are going to be greatly enhanced.

Ministry of Social and Family Development’s policy changes to significantly boost child care and infant care subsidies.

While many have clearly welcomed these developments, the impact of this sudden barrage of  “popular” policies on this upcoming by-election is ambiguous.

These policy announcement will likely solidify the PAP base. The developments prove to the core PAP crowd that the Government is indeed responsive and will implement the appropriate policies to put Singapore in the right stead.

But because the policy changes were announced in the run up to the by-election, they might also strengthen the notion of the opposition’s supporters that PAP is only responding now because of the active prodding of the opposition parties. Hence they would credit the opposition rather than the PAP for these positive developments.

The net effect of these policy changes on the election results will largely hinge on the perceptions of the independent swing voters- who would tend to be middle class young adults- in the Punggol East. My hunch is that they well understand the political agenda behind the “onslaught” of announcements from the Ministries. But for most, concerns about their welfare trumps political considerations. Some of the new schemes announced or enhanced, such as the Baby Bonus scheme or the enhanced subsidies for child and infant care would put more money into the pockets of many.

 Ultimately, I believe these independent voters will use their vote to say “Yes,PAP you are going in the right direction. Please keep pressing on”  in recognition of the changes the PAP has undertaken than reject the PAP because it appears to undertake policy reform not out of its own volition but because of external political pressure.

The Final Prediction

Right from the start, all parties openly declared that this election was going to be tough. There has been considerable will to contest and win this constituency. Even the PM came down to the final PAP rally. He gave a speech and rooted for Dr. Koh Poh Koon.

Since the elections were announced, I believed the WP has gained significant traction as other the opposition parties started to wither off. The electoral battle has gotten clearer. This is to the WP’s advantage.

But in attacking the PAP’s performances, some of criticism has been deflected onto the WP too. Many are skeptical of the party’s promise to live up to its vision of creating a first world parliament.
The WP also cannot rely on the pro-opposition momentum that led its remarkable performances in the 2011 General elections and Hougang By-election. People do still have deep, honest grievances with some of the Government’s policies but they do sense some positive change in the way the PAP governs- a more consultative and inclusive approach is generally evident.

Also, bear in mind, that the residents of Punggol East are not the same as the residents of Hougang. The residents in Punggol East tend to be younger, more English educated and more  “worldly”. They have a keener eye on improving their own lives than trading their votes to further the opposition’s course. To stick with the PAP assures that their still young estate’s infrastructure continues improving.

While resident’s might not factor in Dr.Koh Poh Koon’s future political clout, I do believe most of them view him as an  trustable candidate who will be forthcoming in sharing his ideas on the the government’s policies. Overall, I expect many who sided with the PAP in 2011, to stick with their choice.

In 2011, the margin by which the PAP eked out a victory was slim. I would expect its share to dip further. Given that this is a tight 4 cornered fight, it is highly probable that the winning party would receive less than 50%. It is highly probable that a recount is called by either the PAP or WP because the margin of loss is less than 2%. But given the middle class profile of the estate, the amiable and outspoken style of Dr. Koh, the policy recalibrations by the Government, my prediction is that the PAP would win the seat, albeit with an even slimmer edge over WP.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Potentially harmful to rate our politicians

While politicians are more likely to craft better policies with a better grasp of the public’s sentiments, to have independent agencies “Rate politicians periodically in Singapore” (Jan 14) would be unsound and potentially harmful.

Knowing a leader’s perceived popularity and capability, or lack thereof, will neither identify the problems that need rectification nor effect constructive suggestions to ameliorate the situation.

What would be useful are surveys on how policies are being perceived by different groups of people.

We already practise this, for instance, in surveys of the business community on measures introduced in the Budget.

Specific polls on the impact of policies are more effective in pushing politicians to improve outcomes for citizens. In contrast, measuring a politician’s popularity incentivises him or her to focus on form over substance.

One cannot assume that popularity tracks effectiveness. The New York Times reported last month, for example, how Newark’s mayor is popular, despite unsatisfactory municipal management, because of his media blitz in championing causes.

Periodic polls could also weaken politicians’ will to make politically unsavoury, yet necessary, decisions. Concern over their ratings might lead them to be more likely to succumb to public pressure, even if it is not in the nation’s good.

We expect elected leaders to exercise good judgment based on our input, and not to accede to every request.

British statesman Edmund Burke said: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Many democracies have frequent appraisals of their leaders. Singapore is an anomaly in this regard, with only the General Election to reflect the public’s sentiments on a host of issues, beyond a politician’s performance alone, for observers to infer his standing.

However, this is a boon rather than a bane.

To know that our elected leaders are able to make their own judgment and are engaged in the actual work of governing rather than posturing and politicking is more important than to know their standing.

*This article was published on Today on 19th January 2013. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Punggol East By-Elections 2013, Part 2: An unusually tough fight for PAP

THE PAP is always prudent in picking candidates to run under its banner. It is even more selective in deciding who represents it in the Single Member Constituencies(SMCs). Without any voter buffer, results in SMCs could be prone to devastating vote swings. Lacking the ballast from a heavy weight Minister- the candidate representing the PAP must have political heft of his or her own to carry the ground. Hence, it is understandable that the PAP has only put MPs, who had cultivated the ground well, like Amy Khor, Grace Fu and Sam Tan in such single seat face-offs.

However in this Punggol East by-election, the usual advantage enjoyed by the incumbent has been completely chipped away due to the unusual circumstances of this by-elections: The PAP cannot select a candidate with assured support from the ground. With the seat abruptly left vacant by Michael Palmer's resignation, the party had to hastily pick a candidate. Eventually it settled on Dr.Koh Poh Koon. Dr.Koh is certainly a credible and capable candidate but he doesn't have any political experience. Neither does he have any deep knowledge of the constituency to begin with. Claiming to be a 'Son of Punggol' does not help much too. Punggol then and Punngol now are completely different entities.Voters know this.

Had this been a normal election, there is absolutely no chance that the PAP would field Dr.Koh, a political neophyte, in a single seat constituency. It would amount to "Political Suicide". Almost all other - confirmed or plausible- opposition candidates, Lee Li Lian, Dr.Tambyah and Kenneth Jeyaretnam have made their mark in national stage before. Voters have some impression of them. WP's Li Lian even contested in constituency during the previous election and fared well, garnering 41% of the votes. 

The margin by which the PAP won in 2011 is also precariously slim to begin with; Mr.Palmer won just 54% of the vote in the three cornered fight. For those who sided with opposition then I can't see much reason why they might switch allegiance this time. Now, the PAP's candidate is unfamiliar too.Also in the last few months, concerns amongst the sandwich class about the cost of living have been brewing. The housing and COE prices show no sign of abating. Many Singaporeans- especially the younger, more online savvy ones, who tend to be more liberal minded- also feel deeply disenchanted by the Government's iron handed management of the SMRT strike issue and the AIM saga. These sort of concerns are likely to resonate in the constituency given its younger demographics.

Definitely the opposition parties would bring all these national issues onto the table during the hustings.In the previous Hougang by-election also triggered by an MP's extra marital affair, the WP emphasized much on national concerns such as transportation and the need of alternative voices. The PAP kept to its original game plan by giving short shrift to the opposition's contentions on national issues. It was only in the last rally, that the party chairman, Khaw Boon Wan countered WP's arguments on the substantial policy matters.Ignoring WP's arguments was the equivalent of the PAP playing the football game with WP, absent a goalkeeper. WP then had free space to score points.

The agenda for any election is ultimately not set by any party. It is set by the residents of the constituency. Parties need to be responsive enough to align their campaign with the residents' concerns.

Will the PAP take the opposition's arguments on national issues head on ? Unlikely. Doing so would be politically risky for party. At all costs, the PAP would want the results of the upcoming election to be seen just as a reflection of the residents sentiments on party's management of constituency matters. By enagaging with national issues like cost of living and political reform, the perceived significance of the election results would escalate.The PAP is sensible enough to not to wager it overall reputation on the outcome of an unpredictable local election..

So certainly in all fronts, this is an incredibly tough election for the PAP. It would be interesting to see what issues surface during the hustings and the PAP's response. Because it was an ex-PAP MP's indiscretion which triggered the by-election, how offensive it can get would also be curtailed.

So yes, a tough fight awaits the PAP. But this doesn't mean the opposition is going to have it easy. In fact, the opposition is facing challenges of a different sort in capitalizing this golden opportunity. The most critical one: to not squabble and split the greater support for the opposition. In the next part, I will examine why so many opposition parties rushed to state their interest and how the drama might further unfold.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Punggol East By-Elections 2013, Part 1: PM's call for snap elections-Sound Political Judgement

Punggol East has been a source of many surprises. No one expected Michael Palmer, a likable and capable MP, to have such a disgraceful exit. The PM's decision to call for a snap election took many by surprise too.What more surprises will Punggol East bring ? How will the by-election pan out ? Most importantly, who will triumph in Punggol East ?

In this multi-part election analysis series, I will be exploring different aspects of the Punggol East 2013 by-election. In this first part, I will look into the PM's rationale for the snap polls. Most have argued that the PM is calling for the by-election now so as to limit the time the opposition parties have to forge consensus and make further inroads into the constituency. I concur with their analysis. But is there more than what meets the eye ? In this article, I lay out two other plausible complimentary reasons behind the PM’s decision.  

PM's call for snap elections-Sound Political Judgement

TOGETHER with the announcement of the by-election in Punggol East, the PM also explained why saw he saw the need to bring closure to the Michael Palmer incident. With the busy national schedule- the white paper on population issues, the upcoming budget debate and Singapore Conversation picking up pace- the PM reasoned that it was better to get done with the elections. He didn't want politicking over a vacant seat to distract the ruling party from the more pressing, practical concerns of governing. The PM's rationale certainly makes sense. But there might be other considerations too in calling the elections now.

For one calling the election during this period, effectively shifts the public attention away from the brewing AIM saga . Just one day before the election dates were released, the PM announced that the Ministry of National Development would set up a committee to look into the AIM-Town Council transaction for the sake of "transparency and maintaining trust in the system." His announcement on the committee gave some temporary closure to the episode which saw unrelenting ferocious pick pong between the PAP and WP. While I don't want to comment on who was right and who wasn't, it was evident that the PAP's reputation took a hitting because of the entire episode. By carefully timing, the setting up of the committee and the call of the by-election, the public as well as the opposition's attention has been effectively switched from the AIM matter to the upcoming election.  Even if this wasn't considered, (I doubt it wasn't), the ruling party must sure be pleased that it can now take a break from strenuously defending the AIM transaction.

Calling for a by-election in Punggol East now also prevents the results of the local election from being considered a referendum on the party's policy positions on deeply unpopular issues such as immigration that would come into sharp focus during Parliament's debate on the white paper on population matters and the Budget. Given that defending Punggol East is no guarantee  the PAP would sensibly want to ensure that the Punggol East by-election is not construed as a proxy of national support or rather its lack for the critical policies it implements during these busy few months.  

The resignation of party's ex-speaker Mr.Palmer due to an extramarital affair was a major blow to the reputation of the PAP. Now, the party finds itself forced to fight an election in a tough political environment- all the more with an untested political rookie- Dr Koh Poh Koon, who might likely face opposition candidates who have had greater national presence and political experience than him. The cards the PAP might be playing with are far from desirable but it has played them all well. Eking out a hard fought victory, as the fragmented opposition parties engage in their squabbles, is still well within its reach.