Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fear Factor - Elections in Singapore

For too long, too many Singaporeans have lived in fear of voting for the opposition.  This is not the kind of fear that involves wondering if an opposition candidate can run a Town Council or if the opposition can form the government.  This is the kind of fear that involves an irrational belief that one might lose his/her job or business deals, that one would not receive priority treatment in school admissions, licensing applications or any variety of activities that require government approval. 

The reason why I am blogging about this now is that I just had a conversation with a person that openly stated that he is afraid to vote against the PAP.  He is fearful that 'they' will find out and his rice bowl will be affected.  After GE 2011, one would think that most Singaporeans would have risen above such fears.  But, it looks like such fears still persist. 

So, this is a public service announcement for all voters in Punggol East. Your vote is secret.  They can't find out for whom you voted.  Even if it is not secret, grow a spine! 803,482 of your countrymen have done just that in 2011.  Voting against the PAP has not cost them anything.  There are many civil servants amongst them that are openly vocal as well.  Nothing has happened to them.  Cast away your fear.  Vote for more checks and balances.  Vote for a healthy democracy.  Vote wisely (without fear).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

If I were a Punggol East resident...

Firstly, I am not a Punggol East resident.  But, the dynamics of this by-election is quite different from the Hougang by-election and I was wondering how I would vote if I were a Punggol East resident. 

I have voted in three general elections so far and each time my vote was an anti-PAP vote rather than a genuine vote for the opposition party itself.  It is probably true to say that most Singaporean voters that vote for the opposition do so as a direct result of the need to keep the PAP's unbridled power under check. 

Judging from the online discussions, it is clear that this by-election is turning out to be as much about a vote in favour of an opposition party as it is about a vote against the PAP.  A developing issue of WP's performance in Parliament since the 2011 GE is capable of turning out to be the decider for some voters.  The issues as raised during the hustings have focused on PAP's policies, WP's performance in Parliament and the question of what SDA and RP might bring to the table if elected. 

PAP has clearly benefitted from this four-cornered fight as there has been (arguably) more discussion (amongst opposition supporters) about which opposition candidate to vote for rather than about the PAP's policies.  There is a possibility that enough disarray has been created within the opposition ranks to secure a PAP win even if the PAP polls less than 50% of the votes. 

If I were a Punggol East resident, I'd be worried about how my vote might affect the outcome.  All Singaporeans have experienced the effect of vote splitting in the First Past the Post system.  The Presidential Election in 2011 was a painful lesson for many of us.  Clearly, in a two-horse race, the non-PAP endorsed candidate would have won.  A resident in Punggol East voting for the opposition would be very wary about voting for either SDA or RP.  In the 2011 GE, WP had already picked up a sizeable chunk of the opposition vote in that ward with SDA's candidate losing his deposit. 

The only reason why a voter that voted for WP might vote otherwise in this by-election is because of the repeated noise in the mainstream media as well as online about the poor performance of WP in Parliament.  Much has been made about how they backed away from issues and failed to be combative or to provide ideas and about the fact that they have not tabled any motions for debate and have been satisfied with tabling Parliamentary questions.  (I have my reservations about some of the anti-WP rhetoric that is floating around on the net and although WP's performance can be improved, it is not as bad as it is made out to be.)

Some postings online (especially by individuals claiming to be Punggol East residents) seem to indicate that there's a possibility that SDA or RP would pick up some votes at the expense of the WP and also that there may be an increase in spoilt votes.  An increase in spoilt votes is a distinct possibility.  I was talking to a taxi driver yesterday and he was complaining about WP's performance and said that if he could vote, he would spoil his vote as a protest.  I chided him for his attitude and gave him a lecture about the importance of the vote.  We complain so much about the PAP.  But, when it comes to exercising the right to vote, we cop out.  That might have been just one taxi driver.  But, I think that it is indicative of a certain disenchantment that some voters are feeling about the WP. 

So, how would I vote?  Gaining opposition seats in Parliament as quickly as possible is of paramount importance if we are to claw back the PAP's total grip on power.  The magic number is 30 opposition seats to deprive PAP of its 2/3 majority.  Realistically, this should be the short-term goal (to be achieved by next GE or the one after that).  Every seat that is capable of turning opposition must be made to count.  Punggol East was close in the last GE.  PAP received 16,994.  The combined opposition vote was 14,164.  In terms of absolute numbers, that is a small difference to make up.  If every opposition vote goes to the WP, there is a realistic chance of displacing the PAP. 

Amongst the candidates fielded, I have to admit that Kenneth Jeyaratnam from the RP would be a very useful addition to Parliament.  (I was initially upset to see a multi-cornered fight developing and like many Singaporeans I considered RP, SDA and SDP as spoilers before changing my view on that   Given his background and with the budget debates coming up, one can expect some serious questions to be asked about our Executive's spending.  Personally, I'd like to have someone with finance background from the opposition to be in Parliament.  But, clearly, it is unlikely that RP would garner sufficient votes.  (Sometimes I feel that KJ needs some PR guidance.)  WP and PAP would be the frontrunners.  So, as a natural progression in the first past the post system, there will be a tendency to vote tactically.  That, in fact, is what I will do.

I'd go for WP, not because I am thoroughly convinced that their candidate is the best, but because they have the most realistic chance of winning the seat.  Tactical voting.  (In any event, they do have a down-to-earth, likeable candidate.)

In the end, if Punggol East were to turn against White, it would be because of a significant amount of tactical voting that turned the vote blue. 

What do I expect to see on Saturday?  There will be a swing against the PAP.  The question is as to how much of a swing it would be.  There might be an increase in the number of spoilt votes.  Who's going to win?  That is anybody's guess.  But, I'd be rooting for the Hammer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A poll during the blackout period? What was ST thinking?

Fact:   Straits Times published on 10 June 2013, the results of a poll it claimed to have conducted amongst Punggol East residents after the Writ of Election had been issued.  The best part about it was that ST openly stated that the poll was 'after' the Writ of Election. 

Fact:   It is an offence under the Parliamentary Elections Act to publish the results of a survey during the 'blackout period' (from Writ of Election to polling day).  The relevant statutory provision is:

78C. —(1) No person shall publish or permit or cause to be published the results of any election survey during the period beginning with the day the writ of election is issued for an election and ending with the close of all polling stations on polling day at the election.

(3) In this section, “election survey” means an opinion survey of how electors will vote at an election or of the preferences of electors respecting any candidate or group of candidates or any political party or issue with which an identifiable candidate or group of candidates is associated at an election.

Having been exposed by some netizens, the ST's article is now being investigated by the police. Today ran an article on 13 Jan 2013:  Warren Fernandez's response is classic:

In response to TODAY, Editor of The Straits Times Warren Fernandez said: "Our reporters spoke with residents in Punggol East to get their comments and a sense of the ground for our election reports. This was not a full-scale survey, or scientific poll, by any means.

"The headline for our story overstated the significance of the information gathered by calling it a poll. We are sorry for this lapse. We will, of course, co-operate with the Police for any investigation," he said.

The editor of ST has inspired me to come up with some pseudo-reasons for not prosecuting ST.  By the way, if you think any of this sounds impossible, you haven't come across the case of the parachuting candidates.

Argument No. 1

The Parliamentary Elections Act deals with election offences committed by individuals and not corporations.  Though ordinarily the word 'person' is often associated in other areas of the law with both 'legal persons' (e.g. companies) as well as 'natural persons' (you and I), it is specifically a reference to 'natural persons' for the purpose of electoral law. 

SPH is a company.  It is not a natural person.  The offence refers a 'person' that publishes election surveys.  SPH published the survey.  But, SPH is not a 'person' for the purposes of the Act. 

It is not an offence to conduct a survey.  The reporters conducted the survey.  Publishing is an offence.  Conducting the survey is not. 

Causing or permitting the publication of an election survey is an offence.  Arguably, Mr Warren Fernandez could be stated to have caused or permitted the publication.  But, at all material times, Mr Fernandez was acting in his capacity as the servant or agent of SPH.  Any act of 'causing' or 'permiting' was done by Fernandez as agent of the principal, SPH.  The causing & permitting was by SPH.  SPH is a company and therefore a legal person as opposed to a natural person.  Therefore, SPH cannot be charged as reasoned out earlier. 

The reporters did not commit any offence.  Mr Fernandez did not commit any offence.  SPH did not commit offence. 

Alternatively Argument No. 2

SPH published the results of a poll.  It did not publish the results of a survey.  'Election survey' is referred to in the statute as an 'opinion survey of how electors would vote'.  According to the freeonline dictionary a 'survey' is a 'detailed inspection or investigation'.

SPH did not carry out a detailed inspection or investigation.  It did a straw poll in a haphazzard manner.  A survey is not a poll.  It is not an offence to publish the results of a poll.  It is only an offence to publish the results of a survey.  Since what was done was not a survey, the publication of the information stated in the ST article was not an offence. 

Alternatively Argument No. 3

SPH lied.  A survey was conducted.  It didn't suit SPH to publish the results of the survey.  So, SPH published 'fake' results of the survey.  It is true that SPH published the results of a supposed survey. .  But, SPH did not publish the results of the actual survey that had been conducted.  In order for an offence to be committed, the results published must be accurate results.  Otherwise, they do not qualify as results of a survey. 

Alternatively Argument No. 4

SPH lied.  No survey was conducted.  If no survey was conducted, no results could be published.  The publication of results of a fake survey is not an offence.  It is a lie but since when is lying an offence?  In fact, since SPH's detractors are so into free speech, lying is a form of free speech.  Check out this American case and you will realise that we are not wrong:

Alternatively Argument No. 5

It was an honest mistake.  We are sorry.  Let's move on. 

(Note:  Nothing referred to herein by way of an argument or the suggestion of an argument is to be construed as being logically and/or legally tenable.) 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Punggol East: An opposition win?

Let me first declare that I am a Son of Bukit Ho Swee (or maybe Son of Kandang Kerbau), whatever relevance that might have to my credibility, credentials or character.

The Prime Minister has decided to call for a by-election at Punggol East and I think instead of criticising him, we should all welcome this move.  Given the fact that in the Mdm Vellamma case (Hougang by-election) the High Court has ruled that it is the PM's absolute discretion to decide on whether to call for a by-election, it is heartening that the PM is exercising his discretion in a fair manner by calling for a by-election early on. (I disagree with the legal reasoning in the Hougang by-election case.  My analysis is set out here:

I have read some nasty comments online about how this decision by the PM is a sudden move.  So what if it is sudden?  It would have been sudden anyway if it happened after Chinese New Year or after the budget debate or for that matter if it happened later in the year.  In fact, the earlier that the vacancy is filled, the better.  I am glad that it only took the PM 3 weeks to make a decisive move on this one. 

So, whilst we are quick to criticise when there is a flaw, let's be quick to give the man a pat on the back when he does the right thing. 


On the assumption that it is a straight fight between PAP and WP.

The first observation that must be made is that if this was a General Election, there would be very little movement of votes away from the PAP to the WP.  A 5% swing in less than 2 years would be difficult to accomplish.  One could safely bet that Punggol East would remain with the PAP. 

This is a by-election and we have to consider one important factor that often influences a not-too-insignificant proportion of the Singaporean electorate.  Nationwide, I would guess that about 20% to 25% of voters belong to a category that is unhappy with the current government's policies and yet wouldn't want the PAP government to be replaced.  Note that in the Presidential Election (PE) in 2011 barely a few months after the General Elections (GE), only 35% voted for the PAP 'endorsed' candidate.  25% of the electorate had switched from voting for PAP in the GE to voting for an alternative candidate in the PE.  Given the fact that the issue of whether the PAP would form the government was not at stake, many voters chose an alternative candidate in the PE. 

Would the entire 25% be a potential vote bank for the opposition parties?  I don't think so.  During the PE, one attraction away from the PAP endorsed candidate was the existence of an ex-PAP MP (a highly likeable doctor and one that has the reputation of playing the role of an opposing voice within the ruling party) in the form of Dr Tan Cheng Bock.  I do not think that all of the 25% would have been persuaded by an outright opposition candidate.  Perhaps, we could take it that between a third to half of these voters would be open to voting for a credible opposition candidate if they were sure that PAP's rule was not going to be terminated. 

These voters would be prepared to vote in an opposition candidate to voice their concerns without the potential 'threat' that PAP would go out of power.  This is the potential voter base that can be persuaded to vote for the opposition in a by-election.  By working on the assumption that the nationwide voter behaviour is more or less similar, we can conservatively estimate this category of voters to be about 10% in Punggol East (making allowance for potential variation from the norm in that ward.)  There is, to my mind, a realistic possibility of a more than 5% swing against the PAP.  If the issues are pitched in the right way and if recent failures are highlighted appropriately and frequently, there are enough votes up for grabs in Punggol East to turn the seat 'blue'. 

In a previous blog post, I estimated a vote swing of about 2% to 3% without factoring in the by-election effect.  I am revising this now after taking into account the above factors.

On the assumption that it is a multi-cornered fight

There will be an inevitable split of the opposition vote.  Voters do not disuss amongst themselves, collaborate or guide each other in voting.  Whatever opposition votes that may be up for grabs would inevitably be split.  This is where the PAP probably stands to gain. 

Firstly, opposition disunity may put off some of the potentially persuadable voters.  If we work on the assumption of 10% being persuadable, there is bound to be a significant proportion of those voters being put off by a multi-cornered battle in the constituency.  On the assumption that half of them swing over to the opposition, it is still difficult to predict whether they would all head in the direction of the same opposition party. 

The two strongest contenders would be WP and SDP.  Each have their relative merits and, of course, much will depend on the candidates that they field.  (WP has arguably a better branding and SDP has  more charismatic and vocal candidates.) Out of a potential 51% that might vote for the opposition in the by-election, there is bound to be a split in the votes.  That would hand the seat back to the PAP.  If there is an overall swing of 10% to the opposition, a split in the opposition vote may narrowly hand the seat to an opposition candidate.  This candidate is more likely to be the WP candidate.  The result could be 46% for WP, 9% for SDP (and others) and 45% for PAP. 

A three-conered or multi-cornered fight could theoretically end in a WP victory.  Considering the way that most people seem to think, there seems to be an entitlement mentality about contesting this by-election.  Many people seem to think of Punggol East as WP turf.  I wouldn't be surprised (given the impossibility of collusion) voters planning to vote for the opposition would err on the side of caution and vote for the WP.  In fact, the other opposition parties might not even garner more than 2% to 3% of the vote.  Against this logic, the only reason why an opposition voter in Punggol East would vote for a non-WP candidate would be because the alternative candidate is a charismatic individual holding the promise of being a genuine vocal element in Parliament (e.g. Vincent Wijeysingha). 

It is quite probable that between WP's strong branding and SDP's potentially charismatic candidate, the votes could be split in such a way that the PAP still wins the seat with about 45% of the votes. 

My preference

Personally, I'd like to see another seat fall into the hands of the opposition.  By-elections represent the golden opportunity to reduce PAP's almost total dominance of Parliament.  My knee-jerk reaction to the possibility of a by-election in Punggol was to feel that the opposition should cooperate to ensure a straight fight instead of a multi-cornered fight.  Like many, I too felt instinctively that the other opposition parties should yield to the WP as they contested Punggol East in the GE. 

But, the more I think about it, the more i realise that there is no inherent logic behind the argument that somehow that constituency has become WP's turf.  Ideally, the opposition parties should come to an agreement as to the fielding of a single opposition candidate.  This candidate should be one that is intelligent, articulate and passionate.  This candidate should be one that is vocal enough to ask the tough questions. 

If the ideal situation cannot be accomplished, then there is no real loss in a multi-cornered fight.  Perhaps, this is the best opportunity that we have for a free contest of ideas to be staged for voters and for opposition parties to test the level of support that they have in such a multi-cornered fight.  We are transitioning from a one-party state.  WP has managed to build itself into the largest opposition party.  SDP is arguably a close competitor even though it does not hold on to any Parliamentary seat.  It is clear that SDP attracts a particular type of audience.  WP is seen in some circles as PAP-lite.  The other politcal parties may take offence at the fact that I have not even mentioned them.  But, let's be realistic about the perception at the national level.  It is SDP and WP that have a realistic chance of picking up the larger share of opposition votes. 

In a multi-cornered fight that eventually delivers the seat to the PAP, there is nothing that would be lost.  Many lessons could be learned about voter preferences.  So, if there is going to be a multi-cornered fight in Punggol East, I'd say, "Bring it on!"

(I wouldn't be surprised if part of the PM's calculation in terms of the timing of the by-election would have involved the fact that very little time should be given to the opposition parties to work out a deal.  By announcing the by-election within 3 weeks of the vacancy of the seat, he has caught the opposition flat-footed.  If the by-election were to be called after the Budget, the opposition parties would have had enough time to do their posturing and walkabouts and eventually work out some kind of collaboration.  With the 16th of Jan being Nomination Day, any likelihood of an opposition agreement to ensure a straight fight is remote.)