After the results for the Punggol East by-election was known, former Minister George Yeo made a 2-word post, “Whither Singapore” on his Facebook. Within hours, there were hundreds of comments.Whither is used in poetic language. It means ‘to what place’, or ‘to what end or purpose’. I suppose George Yeo meant where Singapore politics is heading towards, given the unexpected defeat of a previously safe SMC seat by a stunning 10.8% margin to the opposition in a 4-corner fight.
When I plunged into politics 2 years ago, I never expected myself to be actively involved in a General Election and two by-elections, plus being a keen observer of a closely fought Presidential Election; all in less than 24 months. In election-deprived Singapore, we never had such election excitement since independence.
Many firsts had taken place. For the first time, a GRC was lost to the opposition. The GRC is viewed by many as the impregnable fortress of the PAP, designed to make it difficult for the opposition to take down teams that are each led by 1-2 ministers. PAP also received its lowest share of the popular votes since independence. Three months later, for the first time, a presidential candidate favoured by the ruling party was elected by less than majority votes, and with a shocking razor-thin 0.3% margin as well. Then, after losses in Aljunied GRC and in the Hougang by-election, the PAP lost for the first time since independence in a multi-corner fight to a female opposition candidate.
To put matters into perspective, the PAP still has 92% control of the 87-seat house. Singapore is hardly a multi-party government system yet. PAP’s 92% control is still a stunning success for any political party in a democratic system. Still, the progress made by the opposition after 46 years of near barrenness is remarkable.
I had used an analogy in my GE2011’s rally speech. I likened the PAP to an older horse, constantly winning races in the past, but it is now fast tiring. There’s a new and younger horse in town, swiftly improving on its speed. Which horse would you count on to win? It is harder to call now. On nomination day, many would have given the race to the old winning horse in this 4-corner fight. It turned out otherwise, and by a winning margin that not even the most optimistic opposition supporter would have guessed. Two years since I first used this analogy, the younger horse has won 3 races in a row. I guess this is why George Yeo asked, “Whither Singapore.” What’s next? What now?
There are other significant points in the Punggol East election as well. Dr Koh is the typical PAP candidate, well-educated and successful as a top surgeon. He’s the technocrat that one can expect to come through PAP’s tea parties, parachuted often at short notice into a contest. Picked for the job but not always willing initially because they are first and foremost, doing well in their career and lacking interest in politics.
PM Lee highlighted Dr Koh as an example of the success of Singapore’s system, as he came from a humble family background and succeeded through doing well in school and then in his job. PM Lee also cited WP candidate Lee Li Lian as another example of the success of the Singapore’s system: went through N levels to polytechnic and then university. I suppose that while seemingly praising Li Lian for her ‘success’, the Prime Minister was subtly trying to tell voters to compare and contrast their intellectual capabilities measured by academic achievements. This is nothing new, just done more subtly. In 1984, the PAP publicly announced the stellar O level results of Mr Mah Bow Tan against the seven credits and one pass of Mr Chiam See Tong. That ploy backfired and angered voters. Mr Chiam got into parliament and put up a respectable performance in his 27 years in parliament and became well-loved by the residents of Potong Pasir. His less than impressive O level results did not seem to harm his performance as an MP.
I like to think that Li Lian succeeded despite of Singapore’s system. In 2011, I asked a parliament question for the number of Singaporeans studying in private universities in Singapore and overseas. We were told 41,000 Singaporeans were studying for university degrees in private universities in Singapore while the government did not track the number of Singaporeans studying overseas. The number of Singaporeans studying for higher education entirely at their own expenses is about the same as those studying at government funded local autonomous universities. Li Lian is one of the many Singaporeans who did part-time work while studying for a degree, without any help from the government.
Dr Koh was a 3-week old PAP member when he was introduced as PAP’s candidate. In contrast, Li Lian joined in 2006 as a passionate volunteer and worked her way up the system, holding many posts in the party. All these while managing a demanding full-time job. Li Lian is one of the many volunteers and members of the Workers’ Party. They are not paid for the tasks they do for the party but are nevertheless willing to slog it out to make sure things work. In contrast, the PAP has full control over the grassroots structure, funded with government monies. They get well-oiled machineries to get things done. In a way, having to work with little just makes one more resourceful. It also helps WP people to connect better with the ground.
We have often been told by the PAP leaders that Singapore does not have enough for two teams. I strongly disagree with this damning analysis of the talent of our 3.29 million Singaporeans. I think we are looking for talents in the wrong places. When one is looking amongst the unwilling to serve, we will not find many. I had blogged about this previously (“Political sacrifice – Fishing for the unwilling”) and had spoken about it in my speech on the debate on ministerial salaries.
For me, one of the exciting things about the Punggol East By-Election is to see 4 of our new members since 2011 speak at the rallies. We just had our Bricks in Blue concert earlier this month. The tagline is “Building for a new generation”. Building up for the future is more than a brick and mortar building. It is building up the people for a future generation of WP. I am glad Li Lian won the By-Election. She is young and part of the new generation. So are the new people who have joined the party. And Li Lian’s climb to become an MP is proof that we can widen the fishing pond for talent. It shows that with hard work and the right heart, one can make stellar breakthroughs.
People naturally have higher expectations of WP after the Punggol East win. As I said earlier, we still need to see things in perspective. WP now has 8% of elected seats in parliament. The young horse is galloping fast, but there’s still some gap to catch up on the reigning horse. We need more people to step forward. Singaporeans themselves have to show that there’s enough quality to form Singapore’s Team B. Quality not just in qualifications and career successes, but quality of the heart too. It will take time to put people through the test of ground activities to see the quality of the heart. WP new member Associate Professor Daniel Goh summed it up nicely in his maiden rally speech:
Many of my friends and family members asked why I joined the Workers’ Party. Some were afraid for me. They asked me, “Is it really safe for you to do this?”. But I told them life is too short and too precious, don’t waste time being kiasu, kiasi and kiagui.
Some wondered about my motives. They say, “You are a professor, you got a comfortable life, if you idealistic, go join the PAP, change the system from inside.” I told them change does not come from inside or from outside, but from the correct side. This is the co-driver side where we tell the driver he is heading down the wrong side of the road!
Some laughed at me because they know I am not the slapping type. They say, “Hah, you can slap meh, you are a bookworm.” I told them, even bookworms think of their children and would stand up for them.
Whither Singapore? It is still early days. I think it will be good that Singaporeans think deeply and determine what type of political parties and politicians that they will accept in today’s political era. And the parties will need time to build themselves up to let Singaporeans judge and decide. Parties will each determine how it will draw in talent and build them up. I believe the days of a mono-coloured constituencies map of Singapore is over. We will have to deal with the realities of other parties sharing the field with the PAP. The different parties will need to figure out how they will play it out on Singapore’s political field.