WP victory in Punggol East by-election: aberration or watershed?

WP's victory parade in Punggol East

WP’s victory parade in Punggol East

In the recent Punggol East by-election, Singapore’s governing party, the People Action’s Party (PAP), was soundly defeated by the opposition Worker’s Party (WP) in what was seen as a ‘safe’ seat. The winning margin at just over 10% was greater than most Singaporeans (including the victorious opposition) had expected. Here are some reflections on what lies ahead after the Punggol East shock:

1. No Parachutes

The ruling party introduced the inexperienced Dr Koh Poh Koon as the PAP candidate. One of the calculations was that since Punggol East has a high proportion of upper-middle class residents, Dr Koh — an academically capable and successful candidate — might resonate better with the voters compared to the less academically qualified WP candidate, Ms Lee Li Lian.

However, not many people appreciate parachute candidates who come out of nowhere to run for a seat. In the United States, the Republican Party’s parachute candidate, Alan Keyes, lost badly in the Illinois Senate 2004 election to a more grassroots-friendly candidate, none other than the future President Barack Obama himself.

As much as Dr Koh  has the credentials and the capability of becoming a very good MP, his inexperience and sudden entry into politics did not sit well with those who voted for the heartland-like and less politically astute and media-savvy Worker’s Party candidate (an observation derived from Ms Lee’s performance at her victory press conference that was a stark contrast to Dr Koh’s more measured concession speech). It appears the PAP miscalculated badly in this aspect.

2. It’s not the downfall of PAP, yet

Many netizens and some analysts who are more aligned to the opposition camp have been hailing the Punggol East defeat as a sign of the PAP’s downfall. They are sorely mistaken. There remains a sizable proportion of Singaporeans who still strongly support the PAP. Punggol East is a localized election and does not represent a national trend. Punggol East should be seen as an anomaly, like all by-elections. The PAP still possesses capable and good MPs and Ministers who have worked the ground far better and have a great reputation locally and internationally, such as the Prime Minister himself. Punggol East was a unique situation and while it was a national barometer of sorts, the PAP still holds enough local support among Singaporeans in the other constituencies. With an opposition camp that has openly admitted to being neither fully matured nor fully competent as an alternative government (yet), the PAP is here to stay for a while longer, at least.

3. Opposition unity is dead… or is it?

In a speech the Straits Times acknowledges as a politically significant landmark event, Low Thia Khiang, leader of the Worker’s Party, says it is. Thus, we can expect more opposition divisions, especially during negotiations on how to field opposition candidates in the next General Election now that the rising Worker’s Party has been gaining considerable political muscle, while candidates such as Kenneth Jeyaratnam of the Reform party (RP), and Desmond Lim of the Singapore Democratic alliance (SDA) have proven that even combined, their poll results were embarrassingly dismal. The more sensible opposition parties would probably avoid getting themselves into such a mess, and therefore we shouldn’t expect too many three or four-cornered fights at the next GE.

4. Dynastic claims don’t work all the time

This is pretty much indicated by Kenneth Jeyaratnam’s failure to invoke his father’s legacy. As much as pro-opposition voters might have once adored the father, no one really could support the son, whose heavy English accent alienated practically all but the most Anglophile and pro-colonial of Punggol East voters.

5. Not all is rosy for the WP

The WP might have won this by-election, but it has a lot of work to do.  Although the WP now represents Punggol East in Parliament, common sentiment is that the PAP lost Punggol East rather than that the WP won it. The WP has not made much of an impact in its parliamentary performances to date, a fact cited by many political observers. As such, Singaporeans are expecting the WP to go on the offensive over the recent White Paper on Population and also the upcoming Budget to see if their new opposition representatives can prove themselves capable of making a difference. The time for campaign talk is over — after all, it’s easy to make campaign promises that sound sweeter than the other guy’s. Singaporeans now want to know if the WP can walk the walk as well.

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