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.)


chang! said...

My head say a SDP MP would made for more robust debate in Parliament. My heart say a WP MP would best serve the residents there. In a FPTP electoral system, two parties often dominate. So SDP, please do some research, you are swimming upstream. Go with the flow.

Anonymous said...


Can you please check whether the article in yesterday's (10 January) Straits Times on page A9 about a survey contravenes Section 78C of the Parliamentary Elections Act.

Subra said...

Yes Anon 10.45, I noticed that issue that was brought up by a netizen.

Section 78C does prohibit any surveys from being done once the Writ of Election has been issued.

—(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.

"Election Survey" is also defined:

"(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"

Off hand, I can't think of how it could be argued that it is not an offence to conduct a survey after the Writ of Elections has been issued.

Anonymous said...


This has been picked by other social media and I think it will take the Straits Times down a peg or two. There will be a response from SPH or the Elections Dept.

It is atrocious journalism. A survey of 50 people! Quite apart from the breach of the law.

Eric said...

I personally would like to see Vincent in Parliament. He would give the Ministers a VERY hard time during question time. I doubt our new Speaker can do much to suppress him without looking like she is trying to help the dominant party avoid some questions. The WP blokes like Gerald Giam try to sound difficult but fail in most cases.
I hardly see Lina Chiam asking anything. She is a wasted seat and it would do the people a great dis-service to vote in a lame duck opposition MP.

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