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

Straits Times: WP raises poser over results at Cheng San

THE Workers’ Party took issue with the PAP Government yesterday, asking if voters in Cheng San GRC were induced or intimidated into voting for the ruling party.

It would be up to an election judge to give the answer, WP chief J.B. Jeyaretnam said, adding that his party was considering what action it should take.

The unexpected result in Cheng San, he added, could be declared null and void under the law to prevent the majority of voters from voting for the candidates they wanted because of “general bribery, intimidation or other misconduct.”

Citing other provisions in the Parliamentary Elections Act, he asked if the electorate in Cheng San was “super impressed with something preventing them from making their choice without fear”.

Speaking at a post-election press conference, he analysed his party’s narrow loss in Cheng San in three phases – before the date of the General Election was announced, the nine-day campaigning period and what the WP found on Polling Day. He claimed that “everything was in the hands of the Prime Minister” before the date of the GE was announced.

Mr Goh Chok Tong, he said, approved the report on the redrawing of the electoral boundaries to give the PAP maximum advantage. Single seats which the PAP felt could fall to the opposition were put under Group Representation Constituencies.

Singaporeans were bombarded with PAP propaganda for months before the election.

During the campaigning period, air time for the WP was restricted to two television broadcasts, each lasting 3 1/2 minutes. But despite the clampdown on opposition news, he said, rallies held by the WP drew huge crowds which included many people living in Cheng San.

“It is very difficult for us to understand how they could come to our rallies and show their total agreement to what we were saying and then come Polling Day there is a change.”

Apart from what he described as poor media coverage of the opposition, he also blamed the PAP for focusing people’s attention on his Cheng San team-mate, lawyer Tang Liang Hong.

The Prime Minister, he said, also made himself “a candidate” in Cheng San GRC by declaring that the electoral battle there was a personal contest between him and Mr Tang.

Mr Jeyaretnam also spoke out against Mr Goh’s statements that those who voted for the PAP would get their upgrading programmes first and that MPs would know the voting trends in different precincts from the way the votes were counted.

He questioned whether the move was meant to revive the fear among Singaporeans which was removed by the opposition after he was elected as the MP for Anson in 1981.

He argued that Cheng San voters could have been intimidated by Mr Goh’s “win big or lose big” statement on the eve of Polling Day.

And he also complained that Mr Goh, his two deputy premiers and another PAP member, Dr S. Vasoo, who were not contesting the election, were seen at polling stations on Polling Day.

“We are considering what we should do,” he said, adding that one option was for his party to complain to the United Nations body in charge of elections.

Asked by a foreign journalist if he risked being called “sour grapes” if he kept grumbling but did not take any action on the outcome of the Cheng San contest, Mr Jeyaretnam replied that it was too early to make a firm decision as the result came out early yesterday morning.

New Paper: Winners and losers



Hopeful: Mr J B Jeyaretnam meeting his Workers’ Party supporters before the results are announced.

In: Hougang MP, Mr Low Thia Khiang, from Workers’ Party, being congratulated by his supporters.

As I have said on polling day, I have confidence in voters of Hougang. Of course, I will speak up for them, and I will serve Hougang to the best of my abilities.

Right now, I do not have any concrete plan for what to do or what policy to push. But definitely, I will perform my duty as a Member of Parliament, I will speak up on behalf of voters in Hougang.

WP’s Low Thia Khiang, who retained his Hougang seat with a higher margin

New Paper: Drama, delay and protest at Cheng San


One for all: Workers’ Party supporters urging their party on before the results were announced in Cheng San.

JUST one word, said Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, when he arrived at ITE Bishan, the main counting centre for the contentious, all-important Cheng San GRC, at 9pm last night.

Just one word, he said in jest, holding up his index finger, in response to a request from the press.

Of course he obliged with more than a word. But his preface could also have signalled that really, all it took for all that was at stake, for all that Singapore stands for, was just one word from each voter in Cheng San GRC.

Yes, or No.

Yes to everything the PAP had built and plans to build; or no, a slap in the face of reputations – the PM’s and his deputies.

In the floodlit area facing the ITE building, amid the cacophony of conflicting passions, Mohd Razali, 18, had on his cap the letter that would have been scrawled 765,332 times yesterday: X.

X marks the word. And the word from Cheng San voters was yes to the PAP, and yes to the PM.

But was it as simple as that?


Words flew, passionately among both the PAP and WP supporters. There wasn’t much else to do but speculate or pontificate, even agitate.

The almost 6,000 supporters had to grapple with the suspense. The drama came from the passion with which each group tried to shut down the other. And the uncomfortable moments when insults were hurled across barriers.

Cheng San, true to its crucial status, was the last GRC to be decided. It took about six hours before the decision was announced.


The supporters, who started streaming in at 8 pm, probably sensed a long night. Armed with drinks and tidbits, mats, radios, and mini-TVs, the two groups became comfortable, each safely within its own sea, separated by barricades 10 steps apart.

The six-hour delay meant time to kill.

Strangers became acquaintances, united for a few hours by a common cause and, for WP supporters, the chance to share their grievances.

“Kiasu” was a word favoured by WP, against the PAP’s more subdued Berjaya (victory, in Malay).

Underdog was another favoured word. “We’re here to prove that underdogs can come out on top,” said one WP supporter, who declined to give his name.

And hate was another. “We hate what they’ve done. That’s why we’re here in force.”

In the PAP half, the word was confidence and the behaviour, composed.

At home, it was frustration for the TV viewers. The second last result, that for Aljunied, was announced at about 1.15 am. Then it was a long wait – about an hour – for the Cheng San result. But there was no word on what was holding up the announcement.

Then at about 1.25 am came a bureaucratic statement from the Election Department. It said: “After the first batch of ballot papers were counted in accordance with legal procedures, a Workers’ Party candidate and two counting agents lodged certain objections which delayed the otherwise smooth progress of the vote counting for Cheng San GRC.”


Protest was the word from WP secretary-general J B Jeyaretnam. It led to the long wait for the final result. “Yes, we have filed a protest,” he said when asked why there was a delay in the announcement of results.

“One particular protest. The Straits Times knows. BG Lee drove in and shook hands with the voters in the compound and he is not a candidate for Cheng San.

“And there were other ministers all around coming in every now and then.”

At 12.55 am, the first sign of a PAP victory could be seen when Mr Jeyaretnam and running mate Tang Liang Hong emerged from the counting office with heads bowed, hands behind their backs.

Was the wait over? Not, as it turned out, for at least another hour.


Finally, at 2.20 am, the word was final. “Yes” to the PAP team led by Education Minister Lee Yock Suan, by 53,553 votes; “No” to the PAP: 44,132.

And still there were more words.

Victory, proclaimed Mr Lee. Singaporean, uttered PAP candidate Zainul Abidin Rasheed, in an effort to calm the WP supporters, to remind them that WP or PAP, we are all Singaporeans.


And Mr Jeyaretnam, who had his running mates sharing at shoulder-distance the stage with the PAP team, had a word pregnant with pretence: Appearances.

“For the time being,” he said, “it would appear that the PAP has won.

“But it’s not the end of the battle because there are a number of things which we have to consider very seriously and perhaps we will present some of these things tomorrow at the press conference.”

He was anxious to get his word in. When the five PAP candidates took turns to speak, he kept asking when they were going to be done so he could speak.

Mr Tang had no word for the English-educated supporters. He spoke in Mandarin, after constantly waving to the WP supporters, who were drowning the PAP speeches with a word of their own:

“Kelong!” they chanted. “Kelong!” they chorused, well after it was all over.

But one word, which perhaps represents the democratic process at its core, came from a 22-year-old Cheng San resident:

“Majority,” said Mr Lim Kah Chye, a technician. “Majority win, what.”

New Paper: After PM stops him at Cheng San, another big question arises: Will he still get in?


Mr Tang: May become a Non-Constituency MP.

THE Workers’ Party was beaten Cheng San last night – but the man whom the PAP leaders had staked their all against, might still have a place in Parliament.

Lawyer Tang Liang Hong, 61, whom the PAP had labelled an anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist, could become a Non-Constituency MP.

The Constitution states that there will be three NCMPs should one party sweep all wards. They will be offered to the “best losers”.

As two opposition MPs have been elected, that leaves one NCMP seat. The “best loser” last night was the WP Cheng San team, which polled 45.18 per cent of the vote.

The twist, however, is this: WP chief J B Jeyaretnam appeared more upset – that his protest over the presence of ministers at polling stations earlier in the day had been quashed – than heartened at the prospect of having a WP NCMP.

Asked if he – or Mr Tang – would take the post, he replied: “At the moment, the question does not arise.”

If Mr Tang becomes an NCMP, it would appear that the PAP’s attempts to keep him out of the highest forum in the land have come to nought.

As an NCMP, he would have the right to ask questions and join in debates. He can also cast votes – except on constitutional or money matters.

The PAP had played a high-stakes game in Cheng San, with Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and his two deputies placing their reputations on the line to secure a decisive win in Cheng San.

The PAP won 54.82 per cent of the votes cast. PM Goh seemed pleased enough with the results.

Speaking at a 2.30 am press conference at Singapore Conference Hall this morning, he described the Cheng San vote as a rejection of the racial politics Mr Tang advocated.

“They have shown their continued support for a harmonious multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual society, with English as the common working language.”

Mr Tang declined to speak to reporters at the announcement centre at ITE Bishan last night.

But in a speech to supporters after the results were announced at 2.20 am, he said the WP “will raise some important questions” later today.

“This battle has not ended.”