The then American vice-president Spiro Agnew claimed to speak for the “silent majority” in 1969 after Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election, defeating the Democrat Hubert Humphrey. In Singapore, where there are no opinion polls, the “silent majority” defected to the opposition Workers’ Party in Punggol East – the second constituency lost by the ruling party – in a by-election last night.
The social media in Singapore has long been the playground of the young and the irreverent taking potshots at the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). But who knew the “aunties” and “uncles”, as the older folks are called, were going to act up, too? Some of them had to have voted for the opposition, too, for the Workers’ Party to win so big a victory.
The PAP, which won Punggol East with 54.5 per cent of the vote in the May 2011 general election, secured only 43.7 per cent in the by-election.
The Workers’ Party candidate Lee Li Lian, who polled only 41 per cent in 2011, won this time with 54.5 per cent of the vote. The roles have been reversed. The Workers’ Party won as big a share of the vote as the PAP in 2011.
More than 3,000 votes, or 10 percentage points, separated the winner and the loser. Lee Li Lian won 16,038 votes against 12,856 for the PAP’s Koh Poh Koon in what was practically a straight fight. The two other opposition candidates picked up fewer than 400 votes apiece in a constituency with over 31,600 voters.
It is a staggering defeat for the PAP – losing by 10 percentage points a seat which it had won by more than 13 percentage points one and a half years ago.
The PAP lost even though the government went all out to address people’s concerns before the by-election.
People complained of high property prices. The government unleashed a seventh round of price-control measures to make housing more affordable.
Couples reportedly could not afford little bundles of joy. The government raised cash bonuses for parents of newborns and introduced paternity leave.
Commuters whinged about overcrowding. The government unveiled plans to expand the railway network.
The government followed the people’s wishes and yet the voters cast their ballots for the opposition Workers’ Party in Punggol East.
This is the second consecutive defeat for the PAP, and the second successive victory for the Workers’ Party, which retained its stronghold, Hougang, in a by-election last year.
Punggol East is not representative of Singapore, it is said. It has a younger, better-off electorate than other constituencies.
This is the second constituency the PAP has lost to the Workers’ Party, which wrested away Aljunied in the 2011 general election.
Even before the election result was announced, there was talk of a by-election effect, about people voting differently in a by-election from a general election because only one constituency was at stake and not the future of the whole nation.
PAP leaders said they expected a tough fight. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to his credit, dd not shy away from the battle. He visited the constituency and addressed the voters. So did other ministers .Yet the PAP candidate lost.
I felt for the Prime Minister when he reminded the crowd at the election rally that the PAP had always worked for the people. He was right. Singapore has prospered under the PAP. Yet the by-election was won by the opposition Workers’ Party, which is almost as old as the ruling party. The Workers’ Party was set up in 1957, three years after the People’s Action Party, by David Marshall, who was Singapore’s first chief minister, from 1955 to 1957.
Lee Li Lian, the Workers’ Party candidate who will now represent Punggol East, is being hailed as the first woman from the opposition to be elected to Parliament from a single-member constituency since independence in 1965. She won that distinction through a by-election. It neatly ties in with the Workers’ Party history. It won its first seat in Parliament also in a by-election when JB Jeyaretnam was elected from Anson in 1981.
Now Jeyaretnam ‘s son, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, heads the Reform Party – and lost his deposit in the Punggol East by-election, getting only 353 votes – while the Workers’ Party is led by Low Thia Khiang, with whom JB Jeyaretnam parted ways to form the Reform Party.
With the victory of Lee Li Lian, the Workers’ Party now has seven elected members of Parliament. All the other 80 elected MPs belong to the PAP. There are no other opposition members in Parliament.
Inevitably, there is talk of whether Singapore is moving towards a two-party system. Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim at the post-by-election press conference that, with 80 seats still held by the PAP, Singapore was still a long way from a two-party system.
But I was looking at the history of the Labour Party in Wikipedia. Set up in 1895, it won only two seats in the 1900 general election , but rose to power in 1924 when Ramsay MacDonald became the first Labour prime minister. Subsequently, until the recent rise of the Liberal Democrats, Westminster has seen virtually a two-party system. There have been occasions, such as during the Second World War, when Labour has shared power with the Conservatives, just as the Conservatives are doing now with the Lib-Dems.
Winners and losers
Labour’s rise coincided with the decline of the Liberals.
The Workers’ Party is winning, but no other opposition party has an elected member of Parliament. The Workers’ Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang did not go along with the opposition Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan’s call for a “unity candidate” at Punggol East.
The Straits Times website says: “The WP’s win, with a bigger-than-expected margin of 10 per cent, makes it a hat-trick of big electoral wins for the party, following its historic capture of the Aljunied GRC at the 2011 general election and its successful defending of the Hougang stronghold in a by-election last May.”
Note the newspaper says the Workers’ Party won by a “bigger-than-expected” margin. So the opposition party was expected to win, after all.
It was clear which way the wind was blowing before the result was announced. Channel NewsAsia quoted PAP sources as saying, during the vote-counting, that it looked like a tight race and there might have to be a recount. In the end, the Workers’ Party won so convincingly a recount wasn’t necessary.
The media coverage during the counting process could have been better. Channel NewsAsia had presenters and reporters talking about the election candidates and their supporters, but not about the voting trends. The newspaper Today stopped liveblogging shortly after polls closed 8 pm. The Straits Times website also slackened off.
For voting trends, one had to check Twitter. Singapolitics tweeted updates from party sources at the counting stations. The updates were picked up by websites like Yahoo and the Straits Times.
So we saw the Straits Times tweet: WP source tells Singapolitics: “Confirmed, WP wins”. One expected the Straits Times, the leading newspaper of Singapore, to give the news on its own. Instead, it was quoting a Twitter account.
The internet has really made a difference. One need no longer depend solely on the mainstream media for news.
Even the Prime Minister, while graciously congratulating Lee Li Lian and her Workers’ Party on their victory, released his statement on Facebook and not just on newspapers and television.