Taken from Berita, Autumn 2012

In May 2012, one year after the watershed eleventh general elections, Singapore held its first by-election in nineteen years in the single-member constituency of Hougang. The contest was in the opposition heartland held by the Worker’s Party (WP) since 1991. The catalyst was the unprecedented February 15th expulsion of Yaw Shin Leong, the Member of Parliament elected in 2011, on the grounds of moral infidelity. The WP did not feel he was upfront in his alleged extramarital affairs. After waiting over three months to hold the by-election, the ruling party—People’s Action Party (PAP)—slated its previous candidate, Desmond Choo, and in return the WP fielded party loyalist and businessman, Png Eng Huat. The WP won handily, picking up 62.1% of the vote, 2.7% less than in 2011. For all its efforts in the campaign, however, the PAP only managed to win an additional one hundred and forty-five votes.

What does this election tell us about Singaporean politics? Are there lessons that shed light on underlying trends? Were there developments that will shape politics in the future? Three months have passed since this by-election, but the resilient debate over the scope of change in Singaporean politics persists. Did this election reflect a break from the past, or was it a continuation of current trends? Evaluating the Hougang by-election suggests that neither side had moved substantially from conditions last year, where a larger number of voters opposed the incumbent party. In fact, the Hougang by-election was more about continuity than change. It is post-Hougang, however, that has become the test for the leading political parties in Singapore, as they face the hard reality that an unwillingness to respond to the evolution of more competitive politics in Singapore will result in less promising electoral fortunes.

The ‘Local’ and ‘National’: ‘Special’ Hougang

From the onset, Hougang was described as ‘special.’ And to a certain degree this label is correct. The constituency was among the first to contemporarily buck the trend in the heyday of PAP dominance in politics. For four elections they had put WP’s leader Low Thia Khiang into parliament. In a fifth in 2011 they voted in Low’s chosen successor when he moved out to contest in Aljunied. Hougang has paid a price, with less investment in infrastructure, comparatively poorer services, notably transportation, and limited economic development. Consistently, Hougang had been left out of HDB upgrading, which took its toll on the constituency’s older residents who did not have lifts on many of the floors.

The WP harnesses this history in its campaign, capitalizing on what it called the ‘Hougang spirit.’ This constituency is comprised of eighty-three percent Chinese voters, mostly working class, disproportionally older voters. The campaigns adopted the variety of Chinese dialects to carefully appeal to older voters and positioned Hougang voters as national vanguards in standing up to the PAP in the face of personal sacrifice. On many levels the WP relied on Hougang’s distinctiveness for its victory.

Yet, on another level, Hougang was illustrative of a national phenomenon in Singapore – the core opposition support among a share of older Chinese residents who had long opposed PAP rule for a variety of issues, from the adoption of Mandarin to the weakening of the labor movement. The large share of older Chinese from the working class made Hougang more representative of this anti-PAP cohort that has its roots in the first decades of PAP governance, and, while dying off, still forms a share of the core opposition to the incumbent party.

It is this melding of local with national that makes the Hougang by-election important. Like all by-elections, it was also a bell weather of national trends. The PAP attempted to ratchet down expectations and acknowledge this was a ‘safe’ constituency for the WP, as it began its campaigning centering on local conditions. As much as possible, they hoped to minimize the repeat of national grouses that had resonated in 2011. Timing and underlying conditions were not in their favor. The campaign became a sounding board for frustrations – train service, high cost of living, rising housing costs and more. The by-election was also overshadowed by the tragic accident of a Ferrari driven car by Chinese national Ma Chi, whose recklessness had led to the death of a taxi driver and Japanese passenger in the week before the campaign. This emotively brought to the fore concerns with immigration, inequality, and excesses of the elite. In public rallies, as crowds swelled into the multiple thousands, the WP broached these issues directly, bringing national issues into the campaign. The distinction between local and national in a small place like Singapore was always moot.

Repertoires of the Past: Character, Carrots and Criticism

This became even clearer as the campaign evolved, when national leaders began to play more prominent roles in setting the agenda and tone of the campaign.  When the campaign started PAP candidate Desmond Choo consciously aimed to differentiate himself from the PAP. He was touted as his own man, an independent voice for residents. This pattern of PAP candidates distancing themselves from their party set in last year in the presidential polls when it became clear that the PAP brand was not as strong as it once was. Choo’s goal was to woo the middle ground; the small number of swing voters who he hoped will secure him a larger share of the vote. At thirty-four, Choo was showcased to appeal to the young, with campaign posters featuring his boyish looks. The other group that was targeted was women, with the local media describing Choo as an ‘auntie killer’. His affability and helpfulness were featured prominently.

Yet, days into the campaign, the momentum of the campaign moved away from Choo’s character to the opponent, Png. Initially he was described as ‘opportunistic’ in his business dealings and later it emerged that he had been in the list of possible contenders for the WP’s Non-Elected Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) position as a result of its strong performance in vote share. It was alleged that Png was not the ‘best candidate’ as another person was chosen from within the WP. Png’s response suggesting that he was not on the list was in fact contended to be incorrect after the revelations from internal party documents (forwarded by the informant ‘Secret Squirrel’). This led to a more concerted PAP attack on Png’s integrity, led by senior leaders in the party. This character assassination repeats practices in past campaigns, and arguably backfired this time round. Rather than win the middle ground, the old style attack mode consolidated support for the WP, with voters more angry with the attack rather than the allegation of misrepresentation of events in the party selection process.

The character assassinations reflected a new age of scandal in Singapore politics. In the last year underage s-x, infidelity, abuse of power, s-xual favors, and corruption have become part of the political fabric. The first six months of the year were indeed a period of scandal as the underside of power came to the fore. This extended into the Hougang campaign through Yaw Shin Leong, and later in the attack on Png. The aim was to show that the WP was not ‘wise’ in its choice of candidates for the constituency, to suggest that WP lacked moral integrity. This issue did have traction for Yaw, as the evidence on infidelity was overwhelming. It was, however, not the infidelity that was at issue – as this crosses political divisions. Rather, it was the failure to come clean, apologize and face the public. To parallel Png’s candidacy with Yaw’s was a miscalculation, especially in a climate when public revelations suggested that all was not kosher within one’s own camp.

It was not only character that was the repeated refrain in the campaign. Both sides relied on their traditional campaign messages. The PAP used development carrots – a new market and building upgrades. The tied these financial rewards to a projection of economic success.

The WP used ‘first world parliament’ and bread-and-butter issues of the cost of housing, health care, rising prices, and displacement through immigration. The only new element was a more concerted focus on the quality of services, notably the MRT delays. This issue, however, had considerable national play and was already old. These messages were predictable, and, in many ways, preaching to the already converted. The decisive factor for the middle ground proved to be the negative campaigning on the part of the PAP, which failed to win over new supporters.

Post-Hougang PAP Challenges

Much of this story of Hougang is widely known.  The campaign replicated established political narratives in Singapore politics. It is in the wake of the Hougang that politics have begun to change, or at least appear to. The impact of Hougang will be the aftereffects, not the contest itself.

Hougang brought home the reality of the difficulties of winning back support for the PAP. With all the resources at their disposal, the gains were minimal. It is thus not a surprise that since the by-election, there has been an open effort at public engagement. The National Rally Day Speech in August attempted to showcase a more future-oriented, caring, party, honing on the theme of ‘Hope, Heart and Home.’ A National Conversation in which the PAP has begun to discuss openly the path to move the country forward followed. Many see this exercise as political maneuvering, and clearly this would not even be on the cards without the loss of electoral support in the past two years. How much of this will lead to genuine reform remains unknown, particularly the controversial policies involving immigration and the intractable problem of inequality. It is too early to assess.

In this move toward engagement the PAP will grapple with three deep-seated challenges. First of all there is a tension between elitism and representation. The mode of the PAP has been to appoint the “best and brightest” to be above society and insulated in their policy-making. Yet, political pressures in Singapore are forcing the PAP to become more representative, to connect and understand the changing society they are leading. Since the 1960s the PAP has moved further away from representing their society, and it will be difficult to move out of the mindset of elitism towards a leveling with ordinary people.

Part of this transformation involves regeneration. The PAP cannot move forward without bringing new ideas into its ranks. This happened in 1991, when the PAP brought in leaders from academia and civil society. This helped the PAP recharge. Since then, however, the PAP has practiced mirror selection, choosing candidates based on personal connections and loyalty, those that reflect themselves rather than the society as a whole.  Hougang brought the issue of finding new talent and strengthening the fourth generation of leaders to the fore. It is not, however, just about talent. Regeneration involves accepting difference, allowing dissent and appreciating dialogue not just for the process but for its substance.

Even harder for the PAP is the challenge of moving its mindset from the past to the present. The tie to the familiar, the established modes of campaigning, was evident in Hougang. There is a deep nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ when politicians could go about their work in insulation and expect accolades. Singaporeans have found their voice in politics and are speaking out. While there is pride in where Singapore is, there is also considerable anger. The vitriol in cyberspace has left its imprint, fostering a defensiveness and ‘with us or against us’ mentality. The elections over the last year have shown that there is a deep distrust of the PAP in a large share of Singaporean society.  Addressing this trust deficit with repeated practices of old only hardens positions.  Each time the PAP adopts ‘old politics’ it is harder for the party to convince the electorate it is changing.

Worker’s Party’s Choices Ahead

The WP too has to adjust to the new post-Hougang reality. With its dominant position in the opposition, it now will face the brunt of PAP political arsenal. The state-linked media reporting during the by-election – so criticized after the polls by the WP’s leadership – will be par for the course as the WP has moved into the opposition frontline. The level of scrutiny it will receive on its own affairs – even revealed from inside sources – is only to increase. In this more competitive climate, the WP has three major choices ahead.

The first is to move toward a more openness. Questions have been raised about candidate selection and cadre membership. The WP under Low has adopted a conservative approach, vetting members and carefully preparing speeches, to win over the middle ground. This approach had its roots in the experience the party and its leadership faced under J.B. Jeyaretnam, who was bankrupted. Will this be a viable approach for the future, in the more open context with the prominence of social media?

The WP – as all political leaders are today – will be asked to respond more spontaneously, rather than after discussion and reflection.  The element of openness links to the challenge the PAP faces as well, that of maintaining diversity. Cadre parties are inherently exclusive, especially those in the opposition. Openness involves outreach to sections of the population not adequately reached through existing networks.

The second choice involves its messaging. The image that the WP uses is of a co-driver. It is For the WP the task ahead is not just to draw attention to problems, to slap the driver awake, but to navigate the path ahead. Problem recognition is the easy part of opposition politics, but if the WP is to win more than the frustrated and angry it has to move more into an agenda-setting role in parliament and propose more policy options for problem-solution.

The final issue is one of inter-opposition accommodation. The opposition support in the elections over the last year was not just won by the WP, but a range of parties. There are different approaches within the opposition toward campaigning and issues. The WP will have to decide whether it will be accommodate others, or have a “winner take all” approach replicating the PAP. The successes of the opposition in 2011 – and even in Hougang – were partly a product of the opposition collaborating rather than fighting itself. The scope and nature of inter-opposition accommodation remains very much on the cards ahead.

Hougang’s by-election was historic not for the results or even its campaign. It was historic because it brought to the fore whether the leading political parties in Singapore are willing to move away from the past towards a different political future.