Statistics only tell half the story - why the opposition may well spring a surprise on the PAP for GE2020 - Alvinology

Statistics only tell half the story – why the opposition may well spring a surprise on the PAP for GE2020

This article is contributed by Fong Wei Kurk in response to our previous article, STATISTICS DON’T LIE – WHY THE PAP WILL WIN BIG FOR GE2020.

Statistics may not lie, but they only tell half the story.

I read with interest Katherine Goh’s article on 1 July 2020 arguing that statistics, coupled with typical voting behaviour in times of crisis such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, foretell a dramatic “clean sweep” in favour of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in the Singapore General Elections 2020 (GE2020).

She further bolstered her position with reference to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s ruling coalition scoring a resounding victory in the recent South Korean elections. Let’s get this red herring out of the way first so we can focus on the real issues at hand.

My wife being from South Korea has offered me some intimate insights into the intricacies of South Korean politics. No doubt South Korea has handled the COVID-19 crisis admirably, as acknowledged internationally. However, President Moon’s popularity and success was already entrenched in South Korea way before the COVID-19 crisis erupted. South Koreans had for years already been less than enamoured with the corruption-ridden administration of former President Park Geun-hye and the interlinks with the Korean chaebols (typically family-owned conglomerates the likes of Samsung and Korean Air).

As someone who rose from poverty without the typical connections that are deemed as imperative for succeeding in Korean society, and even being imprisoned for his human rights activism, Moon represented a breath of fresh air as somewhat of a South Korean version of Nelson Mandela. It is therefore tenuous to base his electoral success on the COVID-19 crisis alone.

Turning now to the local position, I offer the following arguments for why the opposition might well surprise in GE2020.

1. Crisis in a Crisis

Admittedly, the incumbents tend to do well in times of crisis, probably why the PAP opted to call for general elections at this time in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. The PAP has made the clarion call for a strong mandate to tackle the immense challenges arising out of this crisis. Nevertheless, this argument only holds firm assuming the PAP government managed the COVID-19 crisis effectively.

It is widely acknowledged that the Singapore government handled the COVID-19 crisis astutely when it first erupted and infection numbers were kept low well into March 2020. Come April, the infection numbers exploded exponentially, primarily in the foreign worker dormitories. This has led to widespread criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis, and whether it could and should have anticipated the potential for widespread cross-infection in the close-quarter living conditions of the foreign worker dormitories.

Things were not helped by often haphazard and confusing communications from the government on measures to cope with the crisis, such as whether one could exercise outdoors with one’s family. The about-turns on whether mask-wearing was necessary, and later the use of face shields in a matter of a few days, left Singaporeans bewildered and struggling for clear directions.

To be fair, even though we had experienced SARS previously, the sheer scale and evolving nature of the COVID-19 crisis would have made it difficult for any government to say with confidence that it could, and did, handle the crisis to perfection (except, perhaps, for New Zealand). Nevertheless, the point is that the PAP government’s handling of the crisis may have left a sour taste in some voters’ mouths, and left them wondering if this was truly a government they could trust to lead them through difficult times.

2. Own Goals

This general election will be remembered for the bloopers and ‘own goals’ scored by the various political parties long after the hustings and voting are done and dusted. The now infamous Ivan-gate must have taken even the PAP by surprise. Long touted as being scrupulous in its selection of ‘whiter than white’ candidates, the damage done to the PAP by Ivan-gate cannot be underestimated. For once, the opposition can leverage on this to argue that voting for the PAP is no guarantee that you’d get the best candidates into office.

The now heavily memed ‘East Coast Plan’ slip-up by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat at his Nomination Day speech was perhaps even more devastating, having garnered international attention with Tourism Malaysia and the Tourism Authority of Thailand jumping on the bandwagon to announce their own East Coast Plans. Many sympathise that it was an unfortunate slip of the tongue and no one should be held to standards of perfection. While that is generally true, Singaporeans are now left wondering if the Prime Minister-designate is well-suited to represent our little red dot in taking on the likes of China and the United States on the international stage.

That cannot bode well for the PAP. Whilst it is almost unthinkable that our Prime Minister-designate could potentially lose his parliamentary seat in the East Coast GRC, against the likes of Nicole Seah from the Workers Party, the seeds of doubt may now have been planted in the minds of the residents and victory no longer seems as guaranteed as it once was.

3. The Famous Jamus Factor

Statistics only tell half the story - why the opposition may well spring a surprise on the PAP for GE2020 - Alvinology

Perhaps not since a demure looking yet feisty Nicole Seah burst onto the political scene in 2011 have we seen a political candidate with Rockstar appeal like Workers’ Party (WP) candidate, Jamus Lim. Not only did he perform credibly in the first round of political debates on 1 July 2020, his mic-dropping ‘blank cheque’ closing statement has now been etched firmly into voters’ minds and endeared himself to their hearts. Unproven anonymous smear campaigns against him since then are perhaps further testament to the political heights to which he has risen since the televised debates.

No matter how popular Jamus is at the moment, one man alone cannot take down the well-oiled machinery of the PAP. The Jamus factor is however singularly important for this one thing – in taking on (and some say prevailing over) perhaps PAP’s best debater in the form of Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, a seasoned politician, Jamus demonstrated that he had more than sufficient chops to take on a senior PAP minister and thereby showing that PAP did not have a monopoly of the political talent in Singapore.

This is huge in the context of Singapore politics as it has long been a lament of opposition supporters and perhaps even the neutrals that the dearth of good opposition candidates made it difficult to vote for the opposition even if one did not agree with the PAP. Jamus’ arrival on the political scene, even if not a complete game changer, has at least sparked the hope of belief that a new age has perhaps dawned for the opposition.

4. Underlying Grounds of Resentment

Statistics only tell half the story - why the opposition may well spring a surprise on the PAP for GE2020 - Alvinology

Singaporeans’ favourite pastime arguably being to complain, it is no surprise to find us complaining about everything under the sun from crowded MRT trains to long queues for bubble tea. Beneath all the casual chatter however lies a more insidious layer of resentment against certain policies (or perceived policies) of the government. From accusations of a widespread influx of foreign PMETs competing for local jobs to a proposed GST increase to the change in the Presidential Election rules that many viewed as “Tan Cheng Block” to deny Progress Singapore Party Secretary-General Dr. Tan Cheng Bock victory in the 2017 Presidential Elections, many Singaporeans appear to remain aggrieved by these issues, even if expressed mainly in coffeeshop talk. 

Traditionally, it has been difficult to see such grouses translate into votes at the ballot box. However, let’s not forget that widespread unhappiness over immigration policies and the high cost of living during the 2011 General Elections resulted in an opposition party garnering a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) for the very first time and Singapore losing a hugely popular foreign minister in George Yeo. Therefore, anything is possible, especially as some of these resentments appear to have been bubbling underground for some time now.

Conclusion

No one seriously doubts that the PAP will be returned to power once GE2020 is over and that it will even attain supermajority in Parliament. Nevertheless, some battle grounds do not appear as secure as they seem.

It looks challenging for the PAP to dislodge the Workers’ Party from their perennial stronghold of Hougang Single Member Constituency (SMC). The PAP appears to have ‘admitted defeat’ in Aljunied GRC by fielding a ‘second-string’ team without any minister to contest against the incumbent WP ‘A’ team, including party chief Pritam Singh. East Coast GRC looks set to provide an interesting fight after the East Coast Plan slip-up with the popular Nicole Seah in the Workers Party team taking on DPM Heng and his team. The fight for Sengkang GRC by the political man-of-the-hour Jamus Lim will be a closely watched one. The ever-popular Dr. Tan Cheng Bock looks set to be the dark horse in the West Coast GRC, returning to the constituency he served in for 26 years under the PAP. He will be up against 4G Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee.

Close fights might also be expected in Bukit Panjang SMC between SDP chairman Dr. Paul Tambyah and PAP’s Liang Eng Hwa, and in Marymount SMC between PSP’s Ang Yong Guan and political newcomer PAP’s Gan Siow Huang.

Whether the opposition in Singapore can rise from the ashes to claim power the way South Korean President Moon did remains to be seen. However, a whitewash with a 93-0 scoreline in favour of the PAP? I highly doubt it.

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