Governance of a City-State
Fair Play In Politics

By Valerie Koh

In the Punggol East by-election held on 26 January, the People’s Action Party (PAP) lost the single-member constituency to Ms Lee Li Lian of the Workers’ Party (WP). The PAP’s vote share decreased by a stunning 10.81% while the WP’s increased by 13.49%.

What was the cause of this sharp change in support? The by-election effect is likely responsible for some of the vote swing towards the WP. However, the WP’s increase in votes also reflects its ability to articulate many of the voters’ concerns about policies and the political system. I would like to focus on those centred on the dimension of ‘fairness’ which the WP campaigned on. Voters now seem to be looking for political parties that they can trust to run the government competently, but also which understand what matters to them – ‘fairness’, the ability to understand their concerns, and being open to having greater engagement and diversity of views and arguments in the policy making process.

The by-election effect

In general elections in Singapore, there are some voters that will vote for the PAP’s candidate despite preferring the opposition candidate as they would like the PAP to form the government, perhaps because of the PAP’s demonstrated track record. In a by-election, these voters may be more likely to vote for opposition candidates as the government has already been formed and the one seat being contested would not affect that.

This was a strategy that the opposition had used to good effect in the past, such as in the 1991 General Election, when they only contested 40 out of a total of 81 parliamentary seats. This ensured that the PAP was returned to power on Nomination Day. The strategy helped the opposition win four seats in Parliament that year.

The WP’s game plan in the Punggol East by-election successfully targeted this group of voters, asking them to elect another WP Member of Parliament (MP) to act as a check on the government and to ‘make the PAP work harder’, and by raising issues related to the cost of living in Singapore. The by-election effect increased the number of votes garnered by the WP as some voters were now more prepared to listen to the arguments and issues raised by the WP. The WP’s campaign messages resonated with voters in Punggol East in good measure.

Focusing on fairness

Another important reason for the WP’s success in the by-election was its ability to appeal to voters’ sense of ‘fairness’. This represents an issue dimension that was especially salient in this by-election in the light of increasing debate over the values that should drive Singapore and its policies.

As Singapore’s demographics change and the population becomes better educated, wealthier and more likely to hold white-collar jobs, the importance of ‘fairness’ will likely increase in the future. The 2011 IPS Post-Election Survey found that support for political pluralism in Singapore increases with socio-economic status; and that the fairness of government policy was one of the issues that most influenced respondents’ votes, especially those who were aged 30-39 years, were middle income and who were professionals, managers, technicians and supervisors. The survey also found that voters valued honesty, efficiency, fairness and empathy over a candidate’s credentials, grassroots experience and party affiliation.

Carmines and Stimson (1986, 1989) argued that in order for a new issue dimension to become salient to voters they must firstly have clarity about the different positions taken by political parties on the issue, and secondly, the issue must evoke an ‘emotional response’ among voters.

By ‘fairness’ I am referring to voters’ perceptions about who each party’s policies and political strategies benefit, with the PAP’s policies being perceived by some voters as benefiting a smaller group than the WP’s policies. For example, the fairness of Singapore’s meritocratic system was raised by the opposition, along with the fairness of the PAP town councils’ decision to sell software programmes in lease-back schemes to a third party provider, Action Information Management (AIM), that had the option of terminating the contract if the composition of the town council management changed.

The WP was able to build on voters’ discontent with the effects of PAP policies by framing issues through the lens of ‘fairness’. For example, WP members questioned if contracts allowing town council service providers to terminate contracts when there was a material change in the management of the town council was fair and in the public interest. They promised to hand over WP town councils fairly if they were to lose a ward to the PAP. Incoming MPs in the WP-run town councils would be able to take over the town council as is with any software programmes intact, as they were the property of the town councils. In his rally speech, WP MP Png Eng Huat told Punggol East voters to tell the PAP that they wanted a Singapore that was ‘fairer and kinder’ to them.

These concerns resonated with voters, especially with the increasing prominence and acceptance of arguments calling for the consideration of other goals and evaluative criteria of the political system and policies besides that of economic efficiency.

Moving forward

Now more than ever, voters will be watching the various political parties to see if they support ‘fair’ policies and behave ‘fairly’. The recent AIM saga provides an opportunity for them to demonstrate this.

There has been much public unhappiness over the AIM saga, in which 14 PAP town councils had sold software programmes developed with public funds to AIM, a PAP-owned company. The contract that was then signed allowed AIM to terminate its services with these town councils if there was a material change in their management. PM Lee subsequently announced that the Ministry of National Development would conduct a review of this transaction. The review would also look at the role that town councils should play.

The AIM saga raises important questions about where the line between the public and the political should be drawn to best serve the public interest – what the role of the town councils should be, how they should be run, how transitions should be carried out if another party takes over the constituency. The structure of these local governance institutions will also affect how politics is conducted at higher levels. Will it be an adversarial, partisan environment or will it be a more conciliatory one? Voters have demonstrated that they will hold leaders accountable to the pledge to build a ‘democratic society based on justice and equality’.


Valerie Koh is a Research Assistant with the Institute of Policy Studies.

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