GE2020: WP's gains in northeast Singapore due to long-term resident engagement – analysts

Supporters of the Workers' Party cheering at Hougang Avenue 5 in the early hours of 11 July, 2020 after the results of the general election were announced. The party won 10 seats in the House in its strongest showing to-date. (PHOTO: Don Wong for Yahoo News Singapore)
Supporters of the Workers' Party cheering at Hougang Avenue 5 in the early hours of 11 July, 2020 after the results of the general election were announced. The party won 10 seats in the House in its strongest showing to-date. (PHOTO: Don Wong for Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE —The strong showing by the Workers’ Party’s (WP) in Singapore’s northeast region at the recent General Election (GE) can be attributed to its long-term engagement with residents, familiarity with the ground, as well as the slow consolidation of its influence in the area, say analysts.

With the momentum it has built, the WP could gain more ground in neighbouring constituencies over time, notwithstanding the redrawing of electoral boundaries to account for changes in population size over time, political observers told Yahoo News Singapore. This is because the boundaries of opposition-held wards are unlikely to see major changes, due to concerns of unfairness being raised by the opposition, they said.

Still, national issues and the consistent messages that the party sends out will continue to play a key role in its continued success or decline in future, the analysts said in response to queries seeking to understand the WP’s appeal in the region.

Indeed, WP chief Pritam Singh signalled his awareness of the need to continue working the ground at a press conference in the early hours of Saturday morning shortly after the results of the GE were announced. “I think there's a lot of work to do. And I think we've got to work hard, we've got to keep our feet grounded and this is something that I'll be repeating to all the winning candidates,” he said.

At the press conference, he also expressed awareness that the WP’s messages resonated with voters. “I think over time the public also have become au fait with our brand of politics and that's probably what I'm most satisfied about.”

The next day, the opposition party leader reiterated the need to have boots on the ground, saying, “we have to work very, very hard, and you have to appreciate that the PAP (People’s Action Party) will try its hardest to take back Sengkang. It will try its hardest to take back Aljunied, it will try its hardest to take back Hougang. And that means we've got to work even harder to make sure that we reach out and serve the people, honestly and sincerely.”

The WP garnered 10 seats in the House out of the 21 it contested, including winning the newly created four-member Sengkang group representation constituency (GRC). It now has just over 10 per cent of constituency seats in Parliament.

The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has 83 Members of Parliament after garnering 61.24 per cent of votes. The loss of 10 seats to the opposition was its biggest since Singapore’s independence.

Two non-constituency seats went to the Progress Singapore Party’s team from West Coast GRC as the best performing losers.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday offered Singh the official designation as Leader of the Opposition, which would come with “appropriate staff support and resources to perform these duties”, although he did not elaborate.

(MAP: Results of the Singapore General Election 2020/Wikimedia Commons)
(MAP: Results of the Singapore General Election 2020/Wikimedia Commons)

Slow consolidation of influence

National University of Singapore (NUS) political scientist Chong Ja Ian said that the WP has been hard working and putting in place a maturing party machinery in northeastern Singapore. Whether it had won or lost in the constituencies that it contested in past GEs, it is committed to investing long-term in these wards.

“The result is a degree of familiarity and comfort with the WP among residents. They know WP is there and will be there for them if need be...This approach seems to have paid off in this election, along with their clearer, more positive messaging, and more approachable candidates,” said Assoc Prof Chong.

Likewise, SIM Global Education political scientist Felix Tan said the WP has been slowly consolidating its influence in the northeastern part of Singapore throughout the years.

Dr Tan also noted the strength of the WP’s brand and its consistent messages. The opposition has never set an overly ambitious target of replacing the ruling PAP. Similarly, its leadership style is a sharp contrast to that in the other political parties and especially the PAP.

“Whether it was under (former WP chief) Low Thia Khiang or under Pritam Singh, what has been important is that they do not shy away from providing clear directions and standing up for the party and the teams contesting in each of the constituencies.”

Political scientist Reuben Wong from NUS noted that the WP has been active on the ground in the northeastern part of Singapore centring on Hougang via Low for almost 30 years. “Through its network of party activists and volunteers, it has built a considerable level of familiarity and trust, first with residents of Hougang, then Aljunied GRC, and expanding from that base to nearby areas (Punggol and Sengkang).”

Elaborating on the importance of personalities within the WP, NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser said, “I think it started out with Low Thia Khiang with his ability to connect with the residents in Hougang, many of whom are Teochew speaking. (He) must have come across as personable, relatable, authentic and down-to-earth.”

Assoc Prof Tan attributed the WP’s successful expansion into Aljunied GRC in 2011 to Low. He added, “In GE2020, although he remained a strong presence, Pritam Singh has become a worthy successor in his own right. The WP has also been able to recruit credible candidates, some of whom became recognisable names and faces.”

Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan said the WP’s GE2020 performance has undergirded its appeal as the leading opposition party that is credible and responsible. He said, “The WP is not seen as a party that will rock the boat unnecessarily but instead ensures that the boat is steered well. This ‘co-driver’ metaphor, used in the 2011 general election, helps to assure voters that voting (for) WP will not result in a systemic shock where the PAP still dominates many facets of life.”

Possible expansion of territory

The political observers said they would not be surprised if the WP were to win in neighbouring constituencies over time. They noted that the WP has been working the ground in constituencies for years way before GE2011.

“Gauging from the WP’s trajectory and latest vote share in East Coast and Marine Parade, one could, assuming all things being equal, extrapolate that the WP does have momentum,” said NUS’ Assoc Prof Tan.

Likewise, SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan said WP’s approach to selecting constituencies to contest in has been to look at wards contiguous to those where it has an established presence. “This seamless approach to spreading its wings has been very helpful in its widening its sphere of political influence.”

Meanwhile, SIM’s Dr Tan noted that as the opposition political parties in Singapore are not monolithic, each tends to represent specific segments of society. Whether the WP contests in more constituencies depends on whether it can attract more competent candidates to come forward to represent a more diverse range of residents and concerns.

He cautioned it is early days as to whether the WP can gain more traction for its policies. “Singaporeans are pragmatic and sometimes very fickle so there will always be this worry whether the WP's success in this election is purely an anomaly. That was seen in WP's fortunes in Aljunied during the 2011 and 2015 elections.”

The WP narrowly held on to Aljunied GRC in GE2015 by about by about 2,600 votes, or about a 1.9 per cent margin. This was down from 12,500 votes, or about a 9 per cent margin, in GE2011 – the first time ever that a GRC was in the hands of the opposition.

Nonetheless, SMU’s Asssoc Prof Tan said the WP’s huge success during the GE through its moderate approach to issues of concern and relatable candidates augur well for the party.

“The reminder of an ‘opposition wipe-out’ resonated well with voters given their reputational cachet. They continue to remain highly relevant to and despite of Singapore's one-party dominant system. This niche that they occupy will be theirs to exploit for the next two to three general elections.”

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