Sunday Times: What went wrong for the opposition in GE ’97?

Cover Story

THE electoral tide that had been going in the opposition’s favour since 1984 turned against it at the recent polls. Collectively, the parties secured only 35 per cent of the votes, lower than the 39 per cent they scored in 1991.

The largest among them, the Singapore Democratic Party, received its worse-ever thrashing despite carving a high profile in recent years.

The Workers’ Party managed to retain its lone Hougang seat and clinch a Non-Constituency MP seat by giving the PAP its fiercest fight in Cheng San GRC.

Despite a slate of credible candidates, the National Solidarity Party performed worse than before. Its image of being mild and non-controversial was no vote-getter.

The first major challenge the opposition faces is to find a counter to the PAP’s strategy of tying votes to upgrading, touted as its coup de grace in the recent elections.


Spirit of Anson no match for PAP firepower

Mr Jeyaretnam … thought ground was sweet in Cheng San.

THE Workers’ Party, which was overshadowed by the Singapore Democratic Party in the last Parliamentary term, is now back at the top of the opposition league.

It was the highest scorer among the five opposition parties in the polls chalking 37.6 per cent of the valid votes cast compared to the overall opposition score of 35 per cent.

By comparison, the SDP had 33.1 per cent while the National Solidarity Party obtained 30.1 per cent.

The Jan 2 results were, no doubt, boosted by the party’s top-scoring opposition incumbent, Mr Low Thia Khiang, who was re-elected as MP for Hougang.

His victory margin of 58 per cent, an increase of 5.2 percentage points from 1991, defied an across-the-board swing to the PAP.

His party’s share of the votes was also lifted by its 45.2 per cent score in the hotly-contested Cheng San GRC which allowed its chief, Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam, to be a Non-Constituency MP.

However, the WP’s GRC teams in Pasir Ris and West Coast, did not fare so well, taking only about 29 per cent of the valid votes.

So what factors were at play behind the WP’s fluctuating fortunes in the recent elections?

Still trying to come to terms with its defeat in Cheng San, the party is asking if the PAP won because it induced or intimidated people into voting for it.

It has not done a thorough analysis of the outcome, but there is no doubt that it was banking on winning the hearts and minds of the mainly Chinese electorate in Cheng San.

Mr Jeyaretnam, a 71-year-old lawyer, went to battle convinced that there was public sympathy for his long and costly struggle to stand up to the PAP. He was “the man from Anson” who broke the PAP’s monopoly in Parliament when he won the single seat in 1981.

And he had with him Mr Tang Liang Hong, a 61-year-old lawyer, who spoke fluent Malay, English and Mandarin, to counter the PAP’s allegations that he was a Chinese chauvinist.

In his rally speeches, Mr Tang sought to reach out to the “silent majority” of non-English-speakers who felt they were left out of the mainstream of society.

Mr Huang Seow Kwang, the third team member, is a 35-year-old engineer and Colombo Plan scholar, who was supposed to represent the younger votes.

Dr Tan Bin Seng, the fourth member, is a medical practitioner and WP chairman. A seasoned campaigner and fluent Mandarin speaker, he won 47 per cent of the votes in Changi in 1991.

The only non-graduate was Mr Abdul Rahim Osman, a materials controller.

It seemed that Mr Jeyaretnam was so pleased with the reception to his team that he declared during a walkabout that the spirit of Anson was in the air in Cheng San and other parts of Singapore.

But if there was such a spirit, it was not enough to beat the overwhelming firepower directed at Mr Tang by the Prime Minister and the other top PAP leaders to stop him from entering Parliament.

Their criticisms that he was a dangerous man who could upset race relations here forced many Chinese, Malay and Indian voters to weigh the pros and cons of voting for him.

“The reception we had from the Chinese voters towards the end of our campaign was cooler after the PAP top guns stepped up their attacks,” a WP member said.

“We could sense that some of the Chinese, Malay and Indian voters might change their minds and vote for the PAP’s team.”

Feedback from WP campaign workers also suggested that the electorate was swayed by the PAP’s stand that the stakes were too high for them to sacrifice attractive upgrading and infrastructure programmes just to have more opposition voices in Parliament.

In Hougang, however, voters were prepared to give up these goodies to keep Mr Low. His better-than-expected victory was attributed to his strong rapport with residents over the last five years and his relentless work on the ground.

He was also viewed favourably as a Parliamentarian who asked pointed questions and got the answers he wanted without indulging in acrimonious debates.

In Pasir Ris and West Coast, the contest for the WP was lost even before it began. The party’s candidates there were mainly old party hands.

They wanted to test whether they could snatch 40 per cent of the votes from their opponents led by two of the PAP’s younger minister.

“Halfway through our campaign, we knew we could not meet our target,” a WP candidate confessed. “The tide for the PAP was too strong, but we tried our best to get as many votes as we could.” – AHMAD OSMAN

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