Monday, May 09, 2011

Reasons behind Aljunied swing

ANYONE expecting a heart-racing photo-finish in Aljunied GRC was in for a surprise. Not 100, not 1,000 but 12,433 votes made the difference in Aljunied GRC.

The Workers' Party (WP) did not just sweep to a historic victory by capturing a GRC; it did so with a substantial 54.7 per cent of the votes - way above the razor-thin margin of 48-52 that many had predicted.

So marked was the difference in height of the two piles of ballot slips at the counting centres that plans by the People's Action Party (PAP) team to congregate at Deyi Secondary, the principal counting centre, for a recount were scrapped by 10.30pm on Saturday - just two hours after the process started.

And so, the long night of recounts - which would have been possible where there was a gap of 2 per cent - never came.

Instead, at 11pm, Madam Cynthia Phua, eyes rimmed red, confirmed to The Straits Times that the PAP had lost - and by about 10 percentage points.

Sources revealed that the lowest scoring division was Mrs Lim Hwee Hua's Serangoon, which garnered about 40 per cent of the votes.

Next up was Madam Phua's Paya Lebar division. This was followed by Mr George Yeo's Bedok Reservoir-Punggol division and Mr Ong Ye Kung's Kaki Bukit division. And then came Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed's Eunos division.

All scored below 50 per cent, with Mr Zainul scrapping under with between 1,000 and 2,000 votes, The Straits Times understands.

Of the 143,148 voters, 72,165 (54.7 per cent) plumped for the WP while 59,732 (45.3 per cent) chose the PAP.

The numbers are almost similar to those in 2006 - except that the parties are switched about.

In that election, 58,593 (43.9 per cent) voted for the WP while 74,843 (56.1 per cent) went for the PAP.

What led to such a drastic swing? What did the WP do right, and what did the PAP do wrong?

First, and the most important: the WP went for broke with a solid slate of candidates
Mr Low Thia Khiang left his sanctuary of Hougang - a move that earned grudging respect from even PAP supporters - to lead a team of candidates with establishment-worthy credentials and credibility.

Despite her protestations that Non-Constituency MPs do not have the same rights as elected MPs, party chairman Sylvia Lim did manage to use the platform the past five years judiciously to raise her public profile, with speeches that were both prudent in the choice of issues raised and hard-hitting when gunning for political points.

Then there is high-flying corporate lawyer and former Rhodes scholar Chen Show Mao, who not only captured minds, but also hearts with the disclosure that he had voluntarily served national service when he was not yet a citizen.

Less prominent were Mr Pritam Singh, a postgraduate law student who later impressed many with his rousing rally speeches, and Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, a family counsellor, a still-unknown entity but likely to try his best to make life tougher for the Malay PAP members in the House.

Together, they formed the 'A' team of not just the Workers' Party, but the 'A' team of the opposition, period.

Meanwhile, the team also had some 'depth' in the GRC, having worked the ground since the last general election.

Second: the spectre of not having any elected opposition MPs
Together with Mr Low, Singapore's second veteran opposition politician Chiam See Tong left his stronghold as well to lead a GRC team - in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.

This meant that there was a very real concern that neither his team nor his replacement in Potong Pasir, Mrs Lina Chiam, might win.

Meanwhile, while other opposition parties fielded far more qualified slates compared with previous elections, the odds of them winning were still relatively low.

Thus, the residents of Aljunied GRC were indeed, in a manner of speaking, given the national 'burden' of ensuring that there is an opposition presence in Parliament.

Third: WP as a 'loudspeaker'
A tide of frustration with the PAP helped propel many into the arms of the WP.

While it was not a mere accidental beneficiary of this simmering resentment, its message of being a co-driver to the PAP and slapping the driver when necessary resonated with many who do feel that a wake-up call is due.

This appears to resonate, in particular, with the middle-class voters of Serangoon, angling for more alternative voices in the system.

Fourth: the PAP team's campaign strategy
From the beginning, the PAP team strove to focus on their local track record and plans for the residents - as encapsulated in Kuay Teow Hot and Nice, believing that this was what would float their boat.

But the WP, which seems to have read the ground more accurately, simply refused to engage at this level, only yielding to pressure on the penultimate day of the campaign to provide the sketchy outlines of a plan.

The PAP's efforts then were tantamount to that of a very well-armoured fighter throwing powerful punches in a fight that no one was watching or paying much attention to.

Instead, the residents had already absconded to a show on a different level - one that focused on the need for an opposition to keep the PAP in check.

It was a WP strategy that worked in 2006 - and clearly worked in 2011.

The PAP came to this rather belated recognition on the final day of the campaign, when Mr Yeo, in a heartfelt pledge, promised to be the voice of reform within the ruling party.

But it was clearly too late.

Fifth: a regretful comment
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's warning that Aljunied GRC voters would repent for the next five years if they opt for the WP might have the ring of conviction (and a hard truth) about it.

But the unintended inference - that those who vote for the opposition are thus sinners and would live to regret it - soured the ground.

Sixth: geography and history.
In the end, there are just some things that do not change, and geography and old ties that bind seem to be among them.

Besides Serangoon, the lowest scoring divisions were those that were closest to Hougang.

One reason is the so-called spillover effect when Aljunied GRC voters are influenced by their family and friends across the border.

These are also areas that historically were hostile to the ruling party, such as when they were part of the old Cheng San GRC. Old hurts - whether over forced resettlement from kampungs or the PAP's knuckle-duster treatment of former WP candidate Tang Liang Hong - still fester.

At 2am yesterday, the results were finally officially out.

Over at Hougang Stadium, WP supporters in pale blue broke out in jubilant cheers.

At Bedok Stadium, the supporters in white broke out in tears. An elderly woman in a tudung wiped her wet face with her left hand, a half-eaten curry puff in her right palm.

When the laughter stops and the tears are stemmed, the work to understand what happened will begin.

Additional reporting by Teo Wan Gek