Closing thoughts on the elections

Chiam and signboard

Mr Chiam See Tong from 2009: “Every Singaporean must be given the respect he deserves”. Photo by Charles Lim

Like many of you, I stayed up late to watch the announcement of the General Election 2011 results, all the way until 3am on 8th May when Potong Pasir’s narrow win by PAP was finally announced. I believe more people in Singapore watched this historic event more than several National Day Parades combined.

At the same time, I monitored my Facebook and Twitter walls as real-time updates from the mainstream media and friends came in fast and furious. People cheered the wins by the Workers’ Party in Aljunied and Hougang. People ranted that Tin Pei Ling got into Parliament while Minister George Yeo was booted out. People wrung their hands when they realized that the rest of the Opposition parties failed to win any seats at all.

And I think everyone agrees that Chiam See Tong became a national folk hero.

The outpouring of emotions continued well into this afternoon. Anger, happiness, disbelief, relief, outrage and bitterness. You name it, I read it.

Through it all, I didn’t feel the surge of emotions people were expressing. Did journalism kill my passion and my angst? Was I being too Zen about the whole elections? Or did I write my blog articles till I had nothing left to say?

Well, here’s my pragmatic take on this “watershed” elections (yes, it was a watershed event by all accounts). Where so many people are focusing on the negative outcomes (“Why did she get in? Why did they not get kicked out? Why did they lose?”) I would prefer to focus on the positive.

It was an election, never a revolution.

Some people are furious with the silent majority who gave the PAP the mandate to become the ruling party once again. They couldn’t believe that there were people who didn’t want to see change in the country.

Let’s turn the situation on its head – Did it ever occur to you that there was massive groupthink going on in the online space?

People online were screaming for a revolution, for a drastic change in the way politics were run in Singapore. But the results showed that more people voted for the incumbent than the newbies as with every elections. Sure, the PAP’s winning margin had dropped to 60.1% from 66% in 2006, but it’s still a majority. Let’s not fault voters for being pragmatic – give Singaporeans credit where it’s due.

For example, let’s talk about Bishan, where I stay.

Mr Chiam’s team lost in Bishan-Toa Payoh despite the man’s reputation and his strong team (I thought Benjamin Pwee was very impressive and it’s not because we’re both botak heads). I went to their last rally at Bishan Stadium and I could already tell from the reaction of the Bishan audience that it was difficult for the SPP to win.

The crowd was relatively muted, there to observe and to think, rather than to cheer wildly like the Workers’ Party crowd at Serangoon Stadium a few minutes’ drive away. The SPP’s main rhetoric during their last rally was to convince the fence-sitters to swing their votes towards them.

But in the end, the SPP still had a very respectable result in Bishan-TP : 43.1% of the vote, versus 56.9% for the PAP.

For a team that had never campaigned here before, why did so many people put their faith in SPP? If you ask me, SPP won over many strangers, and that’s a significant victory in itself. To win in a PAP stronghold was a longshot to begin with but the fact is SPP dared to take on a GRC with Deputy PM Wong Kan Seng in charge.

The Bishan-TP PAP team led a relatively smooth and positive campaign with no major issues or boo-boos. OK, except for this poorly-made video which led to much groans among my friends. But I have no issues with the PAP team here, and I’m not as upset over the Mas Selamat affair as other people are. I’m more concerned over housing or transport issues.

The national results, and the PAP’s declining margin, indicates that people do want change in how the country is run, but not overnight. This was no French Revolution in the making but perhaps the online audience whipped itself into a self-delusional frenzy.

And let’s face the facts – WP had really strong teams where it won. Perhaps the Opposition teams just didn’t have candidates that were strong enough, not just individually, but as a team, to convince the majority of voters.

Nicole Seah was the only recognizable figure of the NSP during the whole race, and Goh Chok Tong’s team experienced a relatively low margin of 56.7% of votes. That could go down in history as the “Tin Pei Ling effect” where an unpopular newbie nearly did in the respected Senior Minister’s team. To be honest, I didn’t even expect the NSP to get as far as 30% with their team lineup but they hit 43%.

By the way, am I upset that Ms Tin got into Parliament? Let’s just say I’d rather not be in her position where she’ll spend years, if not decades, working to dispel her current reputation, whether it is justified or not. To me, it’s not worth the salary, authority, or prestige of being an MP, to have to deal with her current situation.

If you’re still not happy with her, let me ask you – why don’t you try for the PAP or be in her shoes? Do you have the guts for politics or grassroots work? It’s always easy to criticize, but not so easy to empathize. I say this even though I prefer Ms Seah’s performance (note, “performance”, since I don’t know her in person) in this elections.

Everyone is human, everyone has feelings. Even political candidates. And the Marine Parade voters voiced their opinion of the candidates with their votes.

Look at the data, not the rhetoric

Joining Microsoft has taught me to respect the importance and sanctity of data. Data is objective, data is not emotional. The SG Elections website contains all the winning margins of every party, and you can cross-check it with previous years (taking into account change of electoral boundaries).

This was no vague newspaper straw poll or research project with questionable sampling – take a good, hard look at the data and you’d realize that although the Opposition only won two wards, they had a very decent number of votes in many other wards. This is remarkable given that we hardly hear from these guys until elections time. And worrying for the incumbent too.

Yes, Potong Pasir went to the PAP by just 114 votes, causing much grief among SPP and Opposition supporters. But the balanced observer should also focus on the fact that Sitoh Yih Pin has not given up trying, and that perhaps there are people in the estate who want change for the estate as well.

There are two sides to every story and change is the only constant.

Social media changed the landscape for the better

Let’s count the ways this elections were different, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and dozens (no, not thousands) of bloggers.

The PAP said sorry and admitted it had been perceived as arrogant. I never thought I would see the day, but it happened. It sent shockwaves throughout the island and the media had a field day. Although it was not said explicitly, the PAP was obviously affected by the wave of online discontent, not merely the size of the turnout at opposition rallies. And just a few weeks ago, the PAP was dismissing Internet chatter as “online noise”, so they learned a painful lesson there.

Was it a good move given that the Opposition pounced on the PM’s apology to give their own arguments more firepower? I don’t know, but it was better for civil society – the PAP finally acknowledged its shortcomings in a very public and honest manner.

The first step to change is acknowledgement, and it’s not up to us to speculate whether words will translate into action – the PAP is a smart lot, and will want to improve its results in 2016. It needs to arrest and reverse its declining popularity, and it has five years to do so.

The mainstream media provided more balanced coverage and upped the ante. SPH and Mediacorp still appeared pro-PAP on most days with Opposition coverage buried deep inside the papers, but this was still much better than the past.

And on this point, it’s often said that the Gahmen focuses all its attention on what The Straits Times publishes because it’s “the paper of record”. Unfortunately, you can’t find the archive of ST stories online due to its paywall.

The Today newspaper has become the actual paper of record when people do their online searches now, as its archive of stories is open to all. This is something for the folks at SPH to chew on – if you aren’t making much money from selling old stories (they aren’t), you might as well open it up like Today or TIME magazine.

Politicians became better at social media and opened up to the young audience. George Yeo’s video to young voters was a turning point for the PAP’s campaign, displaying great sincerity, humility and earnestness to win over his voters in his team’s darkest hour (at their campaign’s halfway mark when all rhetoric against the WP seemed to have flopped).

Oh yes, there was a blogger who decided to support him and the PAP using posts that included vulgar language. We’re adults here casting votes with our brains and with civility, so give your candidates and voters more respect than that.

There were other sincere videos by other PAP teams but they received little viewership. Mr Yeo’s video will remain in many minds long after this elections.

Today newspaper and Razor TV posted many videos of rally speeches, largely unedited, to allow one to escape traffic jams and judge candidates in the comfort of their own homes. The candidates took advantage of this big public service by reposting those videos on their Facebook walls.

In closing

You know, it’s been a really monumental elections to watch. Everyone’s packing up shop now that the results are out, and finally our Facebook walls can go back to the usual postings of vacation photos or new materialistic pursuits.

You can choose to remain upset about the results, but for me, I’ll remember that on the night of the elections, I saw a young crescent moon in the sky.

Personally, the elections have made me more aware that I need to do more for the disadvantaged people around me. It has made me see that change is possible, whether it is with the contrite ruling party or more credible Opposition. It has also shown me that we are in a age of heroes who can be gracious under fire, and determined despite illness and age.

Mr George Yeo and Mr Chiam See Tong, thank you for showing Singapore a better way.

One Reply to “Closing thoughts on the elections”

  1. Thanks for sharing. I know it’s what next that is more impt than what happened. Will we remain the same complaining bunch? Will Sporeans be more active and start joining the different parties? Will candidates fulfill what they have promised?

    Then again, humans are one forgetful bunch of people.

    Till then, the Presidential Elections due 31 Aug 2011.

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