Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Punggol East By-election: Analysis & Reactions

What lies ahead in politics after Punggol East
There are implications for the PAP, WP and other parties as they gear up for GE2016 
By Han Fook Kwang, The Straits Times, 27 Jan 2013 

The Workers' Party's win in Punggol East will mean many different things to many people.

Does it signal that the opposition tide is even stronger today than during the 2011 General Election? What does it say about the ruling party's ability to hold the ground?

Here are my five takes on what the result means.

First, it reinforced the conventional wisdom that a by-election favours the opposition, perhaps even more so in this new normal. With the WP victorious now in two by-elections since GE2011, it has been even more firmly entrenched as the other party in an emerging two-party system.

The result in Punggol East shows that all the issues that surfaced in GE2011 and which caused the ruling party to lose Aljunied GRC have not gone away and might even have gained greater force, especially the desire for a stronger opposition presence in Parliament.

Neither have the hot-button issues on immigration, housing, public transport and health care been resolved to voters' satisfaction. It might be the case that whatever changes the Government makes to these policies will not satisfy voters who simply want more alternative voices.

If this is indeed the case, and the ruling party acknowledges it, then it may have to change its approach and accept that no matter what it does to these policies, it will lose some electoral ground until a new political balance is reached between the People's Action Party (PAP) and the opposition. Indeed it might have to bite this bullet sooner rather than later if, in its desire to hold the political ground, it becomes overly populist in its policies and alienates even its own supporters.

Second, the WP's climb up the totem pole will not be a straightforward one. Already in this campaign it has had to deal with unhappy voices in the opposition camp over its refusal to cooperate with the other parties. This will be a continuing theme for some years because the opposition landscape isn't settled yet, with new parties and personalities emerging.

In a first-past-the-post system like Singapore's, the norm, going by the experience elsewhere, is for a two-party system to eventually emerge. The other parties know that the window of opportunity will become smaller as the WP gains in strength. So watch out for opposition politics becoming more fractious and competitive in the years ahead. Punggol East gave a glimpse of what's in store.

Third, this by-election was a good test run for all parties of the issues that will frame GE2016 and how they may address them. The PAP has to come to terms with the reality that a campaign based on the message that it has delivered on its promise of dealing with issues like immigration and housing has not delivered the result. How will it counter the claim that its policy changes were the result of pressure from the opposition?

But the WP also needs to watch its flank, from counter-attacks from both the ruling party and other opposition parties that its performance in Parliament as an alternative voice to the Government has been found wanting.

This is a serious charge because it goes to the heart of the WP's appeal to voters that its presence in Parliament is essential to keep the Government accountable to the people. I expect it to work hard to respond to these criticisms by GE2016.

Fourth, there were no surprises in the type of candidates put forth by the parties. The ruling party's Dr Koh Poh Koon couldn't be a more typical product of the PAP school - well educated and with a successful career. WP's Ms Lee Li Lian was seen as more typically heartlander, less successful academically and someone who had to struggle harder to make it.

The PAP's loss would be of great concern to the party not so much because it was unable to retain Punggol East but with regard to its ability to attract future candidates. It must hope this result will not deter even more people from joining its ranks particularly because it seeks out mainly people with successful careers in their 30s and 40s like Dr Koh.

For the PAP, the ability to attract committed people into the party and who are able to win elections poses a far more serious challenge than any of the hot-button issues. The PAP has always claimed that it has a superior team able to anticipate and solve problems. It now has to find a team able to do that, and also win elections.

For the WP, this win will encourage better qualified people to join the party. Expect a stronger line-up of WP candidates for GE 2016 and, as important, of supporters and helpers who will work the ground for the party. The challenge for the WP leadership is managing its enlarged ranks, yet keeping a tight rein on party discipline and organisation.

Fifth, Punggol East as an electoral contest and whatever the result was a sideshow. The main show and the one that all the parties, especially the PAP and the WP, are gearing up for in a big way is GE2016.

In fact, in a perverse sort of way, winning in Punggol East might make it harder for the WP come 2016. This is because in this new normal, there is still a large number of undecided voters.

The conventional wisdom is that the PAP can count on about 30 per cent of loyal voters while another 30 per cent are hardcore opposition supporters. The remaining 30-40 per cent swing voters can go either way depending on the prevailing issues, the quality of candidates and the general mood in the country during election time. Among the swing voters, a sizeable number believe a stronger opposition presence is good for Singapore but not so strong as to displace the PAP as the Government.

Because the WP won in Punggol East, some of them might vote the other way in GE2016 for fear that the opposition tide has become so strong, the ruling party might get booted out of office. If the WP had lost, on the other hand, there might be a swing in its favour from those who fear the PAP might again become too dominant.

So winning has its downside?

Stranger things have happened in politics.

Living with voters’ existential angst
By Eugene KB Tan, Published TODAY, 29 Jan 2013

Was the Punggol East by-election result a rough but reliable reflection of Singaporeans’ assessment of how the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Workers’ Party (WP) have performed since the 2011 General Election (GE)?

Perhaps. But we should be careful not to extrapolate the results as being a barometer of national sentiment.

Nonetheless, the results are a useful snapshot of the dynamic political situation. More importantly, what does it signal next for the PAP, the WP, the Opposition in general and Singaporeans?

The PAP’s performance at the polls has been attributed to the “by-election effect” in which voters, knowing that the PAP remains in charge regardless of the outcome of the by-election, were more inclined to vote for the WP to put pressure on the Government.

But this assertion about tactical voting behaviour is simplistic. It does not give sufficient credence to the unsettled ground realities and residents’ actual sentiments, and how they impacted political and voting behaviour.

It assumes that voters will vote differently in the next GE — which must be held by Jan 9, 2017— because much more will be at stake.

True, the by-election factor and other issues would have weighed on voters’ minds — including estate amenities, the stalled Rivervale Plaza upgrading and transport connectivity — but the results may very well also reflect the deep existential angst felt by a wider swathe of Singaporeans — especially among the younger, “sandwich” middle-class demographic that was represented in Punggol East.


We are at the crossroads economically, socially and politically. The Singapore development model, which worked very well in our fledgling days, has to evolve with the changes in society.

Economic success alone is grossly insufficient to define what Singapore is and what it means to be Singaporean. The price of our success is increasingly being questioned.

The PAP urgently needs to connect more with this existential angst, anxiety and aspirations of voters who feel a growing sense of alienation. It needs to return to its roots as a grassroots party.

The PAP must go back to being a political party in form and substance. The long years of a depoliticised polity in Singapore suggest the PAP has lost much of the art and the craft of winning the hearts and minds of voters.

In this by-election, for example, the party’s rallies featured policy-style speeches — rational in signature but failing to excite or connect effectively with voters in the way the WP did. The WP also tapped deep into disaffection over lingering hot-button issues from GE 2011.

The PAP cannot just function as the alter ego of the Government. A government, primarily, has to govern and lead. It can afford to be faceless and bureaucratic.

But a political party has to be the nuts-and-bolts of walking and working the ground; it has to emote genuinely and respond to the fears, concerns and aspirations of the average Singaporean.

It has to talk with, not to, the people. It must inspire the electorate to its ideas, policies and vision.

The question for the PAP is, how.


If negative sentiments are allowed to fester, the PAP will continue to lose ground as Singaporeans are now less the homo economicus. Post-material concerns and aspirations are becoming more important to us.

We are shifting from being value-driven to being values-centred, even as material well-being remains important as a fact of life. In other words, even as the average Singaporean is deeply concerned with his “interests”, a persistent obsession with the “bottom line” to motivate people is too instrumental. The ideals of fairness and justice matter in building trust, confidence and a sense of belonging to this nation.

The slew of policy measures to deal with the hot-button issues does not seem to have adequately assuaged Singaporeans. Sure, it takes time for those measures to show their effect and true worth.

But policy tweaks will not be sufficient, given the existential angst. The limitations of our development model require a more fundamental rethink of long-standing policies.

For example, with the White Paper on Population due to be debated in Parliament next month, it will not be enough for the PAP Government to tout that it has managed and restricted the inflow of immigrants to deal with the concerns of Singaporeans about immigration.

More importantly, what is the impact of immigration on the Singaporean identity? Do we value and nurture Singaporeans at the workplace when immigration provides an off-the-shelf solution to our demographic woes, and the desire for quick success? Is the immigration policy unwittingly encouraging discrimination against Singaporeans at all levels, weakening what it means to be Singaporean?


With the big swing against it in Punggol East in a mere 20 months, will the PAP now adopt the politics of appeasement, given that the next GE has all the settings of being the watershed polls?

At the same time, one view is that no matter what policy solutions the PAP offers, voters will want a greater Opposition voice in Parliament. Can the PAP reconcile itself to the fact that Singaporeans are less enamoured today with a one-party dominant system, having internalised that good governance cannot be about all our eggs in one political basket?

The question is not whether Singapore will see more political plurality, but when that will come about. The PAP can opt to be the responsible steward of that development or it can have change forced upon it.

The other reality the PAP must live with is that while it holds 80 out of 87 (or 92 per cent) of the elected parliamentary seats, voters will continue to practise double standards in which the ruling party is held to a higher standard than the Opposition. This comes with being the only political party that has governed Singapore since 1959.

The PAP’s dominance was its strength in the halcyon days of nation-building; in the next stage of our development, dominance will have to be more nuanced. The PAP has its work cut out for it.

Eugene KB Tan is assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law. He is also a Nominated Member of Parliament. This is part of a series that looks at what’s next after the Punggol East by-election.

Why Workers' Party is talking down its victory
By Kor Kian Beng, The Straits Times, 29 Jan 2013

TO MANY supporters of the Workers' Party (WP), its performance in the Punggol East by-election was a result beyond their wildest expectations.

Its candidate Lee Li Lian, 34, a trainer in the financial industry, won the single-seat ward with 54.5 per cent of the vote and a convincing margin over her main opponent, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) rookie Koh Poh Koon.

Yet at the post-result press conference last Saturday, WP chief Low Thia Khiang had a sombre expression. The only substantive answer he gave during the 20-minute press conference was even more intriguing.

Instead of expressing joy over the big win or rubbing salt into the PAP's wounds when asked about the by-election's significance to the WP's future growth, Mr Low replied that the party would assist "whenever we can" alongside the Government in improving policies and Singaporeans' lives.

Clearly, there is something about the by-election outcome that has startled the WP chief, and he has good reasons to be.

First, are Punggol East voters putting a lot of hope in the WP?

Party leaders and insiders told The Straits Times that they were surprised by the polling outcome as they thought they would at most win by a slim margin, instead of the eventual 10.8 percentage point margin over Dr Koh.

Even Mr Low himself admitted as much to reporters at the press conference, saying: "We did not expect such a good result."

If even the WP - known for its indefatigable legwork and close reading of the ground during elections - did not foresee such an outcome, which was also beyond the predictions of many others, one is tempted to ask whether this was as close as possible to a freak election result that Singaporeans should be concerned about.

Of course, voters cast ballots based on a myriad of reasons, ranging from their belief in a political party's cause to their preference in a particular candidate, and to their trust in the candidate's ability to improve their lives either on the local or national level.

But this time round, one of the key factors cited for the WP's big win in Punggol East is the lingering dissatisfaction among Singaporeans towards the PAP over bread-and-butter issues like the cost of living and immigration.

In short, it would appear that the WP has benefited from a protest vote against the PAP.

What do voters want from the WP in return though? To be a check, a stronger and firmer voice against the issues that matter to them.

But these protest voters likely backed the WP as they see it as the next-best thing around, even though the opposition party has been criticised for not living up to expectations over its performance in Parliament since the 2011 General Election.

Mr Low must in his heart know that such support can be ephemeral in nature and could vanish any time, when the WP fails to live up to expectations or if the PAP delivers, or changes so radically.

Second, the polls outcome has burnished the WP's image of a party on the rise with higher chances of winning at future polls.

But such hopes could trigger higher expectations of the WP and invite more criticism too, if it fails to meet them. This possible scenario explains why, during a thank-you parade on Sunday morning, Mr Low tried hard to moderate expectations by saying the by-election result was not indicative of trends at future polls.

Third, the WP's internal dynamics and current state of unity could also come under challenge as its latest win would surely attract more potential candidates.

But unlike existing WP members who had joined Mr Low early in his efforts to transform the WP into a political force today, those who join later are more likely to be lured by the rising prospects of success and the allure of being associated with a winning side.

As it is, some former candidates are murmuring over whether they would get to contest future elections given the influx of new faces since 2011.

Mr Low is thus a man burdened by a mountain of expectations that he knows his party may not yet be able to deliver.

Amid these concerns, what is the WP to do?

First, of course, is Mr Low's attempt to temper and talk down what the WP can deliver.

Second, the party has to be more strategic and careful with the wards it chooses to contest next. If the WP is not ready to form the next government as of now, it is unlikely to be able to do so by 2016.

But given the current state of voter sentiment towards the PAP, and all things being equal, the last thing the WP wants is to accidentally trigger "freak" election results, which could seriously jeopardise Singapore's stability.

Third, the WP has to do its part in educating its supporters and voters at large so as to foster a more mature and discerning electorate. It means the WP should not just play to the voters' fears of a dominant PAP but also continue to be frank with its own limitations and constraints.

When to do so and how far it should go will be a judgment call, as such rhetoric could lower the party's chances of winning future polls in the short term.

But long-term political stability should be the top priority on Mr Low's mind.

By-election win not sign of trend for GE: Low
Workers' Party chief plays down big vote swing in Punggol East victory
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2013

EVEN as Punggol East residents woke up yesterday to the start of life in an opposition ward, Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang cautioned against reading too much into last Saturday's by-election result.

The sizeable vote swing from the People's Action Party (PAP) should not be seen as a harbinger of things to come in Singapore's political scene, according to the man whose party has enjoyed growing support since the 2011 polls.

"You can't take the by-election result as one that is going to be the trend in the future," he told reporters before joining his party colleagues on a thank-you parade around Punggol East with MP-elect Lee Li Lian, who won with 54.5 per cent of the vote.

"It is a by-election, it is not a general election."

Mr Low, an MP for Aljunied GRC, said voters were not worried that they may "accidentally throw out" the government of the day even if they vote for the opposition.

Raising the same theme, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said at a community event that by-elections are prone to "big swings". He added that last Saturday's results will not affect the PAP handling of national issues.

The ruling party's by-election handicap was also cited by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last Saturday after the result was announced.

Yesterday, Mr Low sought to inject a further dose of reality, bringing up a point that he had made throughout the campaign.

His party, he stressed, is not ready to form an alternative government and come up with a full set of policies.

Rather, at this stage of its development, it will point out problems in existing policies and offer policy suggestions.

"I think we have a competent Government... we need to allow time for the Government to work, and I hope, eventually, the policies will take effect on the ground, people's lives will be improved and we have a better Singapore."

He added that while the WP will keep the Government on its toes, "it's also not productive to politicise everything".

The WP's team in Parliament now totals nine, with the addition of Ms Lee after her 10.8 percentage point win over the PAP's Dr Koh Poh Koon. Her victory is the WP's third in as many years, after it captured Aljunied GRC in 2011, and extended its two-decades-long hold on Hougang in a by-election last year.

Observers have attributed the win to lingering unhappiness with national issues such as the rising cost of living, transport woes and stubbornly high housing prices - themes the WP tried to keep front and centre in voters' minds during the hustings.

Yesterday, in a poll of 50 Punggol East residents, such big-picture issues emerged as the top reason they plumped for the WP.

Administrative and procurement officer Catherine Lim, 40, spoke for many when she said: "The cost of living is very high. Many are trying to use the result to send feedback to the Government."

Meanwhile, the soul-searching has begun within the ruling party.

PAP MPs yesterday said that with the rising desire for more opposition and criticism that the ruling party is losing its connection with Singaporeans, re-establishing rapport with voters has become even more crucial ahead of the 2016 General Election.

Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said: "This is a reminder we need to hunker down, and work as hard as we can to get things right. As a party committed to Singapore, we have to make decisions for the long-term future of the country, but ensure we do whatever we can to help the most vulnerable.

"Hard work, common touch, gentle heart - we cannot not have more of those for the years ahead."

Give Govt time to work on policies: WP chief
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2013 

THE Government is competent and needs time to turn its policies around, said Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang yesterday, after masterminding a decisive victory over the ruling party in the Punggol East by-election.

He pledged not to "politicise everything", even though the opposition party will check and keep the authorities on their toes.

"We need to allow time for the Government to work... and I think it's only responsible for the Workers' Party to try to work with the Government and hope that things will improve and change," he said, after WP candidate Lee Li Lian's larger-than-expected 54.5 per cent victory.

He hopes the People's Action Party (PAP) will reciprocate.

"Hopefully the PAP will see the same thing and not... spend time to fix Workers' Party. I think it's unproductive," he said, making a reference to a comment by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the 2006 General Election campaign that if there were "10, 15 or 20 opposition members", he would have to spend his time thinking of a way to "fix them".

Despite the victory and additional parliamentary voice, he said the message to voters has been "very clear" that the WP is not yet ready to form an alternative government.

"I will honestly tell people that we are not there yet. Yes, we can do more, we can do better, but we have limited resources," he said in response to a question on managing rising expectations.

Rather, the WP will point out problems in policies and offer suggestions, such as for alleviating the cost-of-living pressures.

"We... will play our role, entrusted by the people, to make sure that the Government does its work," he said, before the party's six MPs and new MP-elect set off on a four-hour thank-you parade across the north-east ward.

They stood on top of a truck and were followed by a convoy of nearly 10 cars, which snaked through the roads and blocks they had walked over the campaign.

They were greeted by cheers, waves and, even on one occasion, the gesture of a slap, in reference to the "Punggol East slap" the WP had urged voters to give the PAP.

The supporters were not just Punggol East residents, but also followers from neighbouring Hougang and even as far as Jurong, decked out in the light blue party colours and brandishing flags.

One of them was Madam Alice Chin, 50, a Punggol East resident who had voted for the WP. "I feel that they have the people in their hearts."

Key trends on the ground
THE Government and commentators have overstated the "by-election effect" on the People's Action Party's stunning defeat in Punggol East ("PAP leaders expected contest to be difficult"; Sunday). While there is some truth to the view that voters were choosing an MP and not the Government, it would be wrong for the ruling party to ignore some key emerging trends on the ground.

First, the opposition parties, especially the Workers' Party, are able to attract more qualified candidates who can go head to head with many PAP MPs. A few of these candidates appear to have ministerial potential as well.

Second, more Singaporeans are willing to explore alternative socio-political-economic agendas.

Third, opposition party activists and supporters appear hungrier and more vociferous in pursuing their various causes, compared to backers of the ruling party. They have a bigger point to make, and less to lose.

Lastly, the tide has been turning for the WP, and it has achieved some more "firsts", including busting the myth that a three- or four-cornered fight would hand victory to the incumbent.

All these, on top of the local issues in Punggol East, proved too much for the PAP to overcome.

There is no shame in the party's loss in the context of Singapore's changing political dynamics. And there is certainly no loss of face for the party to express disappointment in defeat.

The WP has now won large swathes of support in north-east Singapore.

This is a wake-up call for the Government to rise to the WP's challenge and, more importantly, take the shifting sentiments on the ground seriously.

I welcome WP chief Low Thia Khiang's statement that his party is willing to help and cooperate with the PAP to move Singapore forward.

Its leadership has stated repeatedly in the past that the WP is not ready to form the government.

But as we know, in life, and especially in politics, the lines between words and deeds can often be blurred in the pursuit of power.

Singapore will be finished if parliamentarians on both sides of the fence become "yes-men" to the electorate and indulge in populist politicking to win votes.

A tiny city-state with no natural resources or huge geo-strategic buffers can ill afford to take this dangerous path that continues to paralyse many so-called democracies such as the United States.

Democracy can work only if there is responsible citizenship on the part of all - the Government, the opposition, the media and, above all, the people.
Toh Cheng Seong
ST Forum, 29 Jan 2013

It's the politics that PAP must work on to win support
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2013

IT'S soul-searching time for the People's Action Party (PAP) after last Saturday's loss to the Workers' Party (WP) in the Punggol East by-election, by a larger margin than most expected.

WP's Lee Li Lian improved on her previous showing of 41 per cent, getting 54.5 per cent of the votes. Her opponent, Dr Koh Poh Koon who was defending the PAP seat, got 43.7 per cent, down from predecessor Michael Palmer's 54.5 per cent just 21 months ago in the May 2011 General Election.

For the PAP, the key issue to grapple with is how to win elections in future. For this campaign, it had discarded old tools: it had party leaders out campaigning, but no negative word was said about the WP candidate or to voters, and none of the knuckle-duster tactics from the past.

It tried a relatively new approach: timing the announcement of billion-dollar improvements to transport, health care and parenthood incentives during the campaign.

The result of this play-nice, subtle campaign? A 10.8 percentage point vote swing against it, which is lower than the average swing of 15.3 percentage points when seats were won by the opposition in past elections.

Of course, Punggol East was a by-election, not a general election. But the PAP would do well to take its result seriously.

For one thing, the demographic profile of Punggol East voters in Sengkang town reflects the future: young, middle class, who believe having an opposition serves their interests.

By General Election 2016, more new towns will rise, as the Housing Board is ramping up supply of Build-to-Order flats in new estates. Many young families will move into new estates in far-flung areas, including Sengkang and Punggol, in the northeastern part of Singapore which the WP wants awash in its party blue.

The same issues of poor public transport links and lack of amenities like childcare centres, wet markets and coffee shops, may crop up there. The ground may be ripe for the WP's picking.

Two, while Punggol East is a by-election, the WP can in fact engineer a by-election effect in General Election 2016 quite easily: by contesting a minority of seats.

Singapore voters are discriminating of opposition candidates. They sent a very clear message by rejecting the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance, which together got a dismal 1.8 per cent of votes. The Singapore Democratic Party and National Solidarity Party may get double-digit percentage of votes, but did not come close to grabbing a seat in the last few elections.

So long as the WP does not contest over 50 per cent of seats, voters may calculate that the PAP stands a good chance of forming the government, and may then be willing to plump for the WP wherever it contests. General Election 2016 will then be like a by-election, magnified.

Rather than console itself that the Punggol East result reflected the by-election effect, the PAP needs to do some honest self-scrutiny on why its most sincere efforts to be more responsive to citizens' needs has not been enough. Instead, the two by-elections since General Election 2011 have eroded the PAP's vote share.

Fair-minded Singaporeans can see that the PAP is working hard to solve the overcrowding problem caused by too-rapid immigration, by building more rail networks and homes.

It is widening the social safety net to help middle-income families take care of their aged sick and children. It wants to reduce stress in the education system. It has even started a national conversation.

It tries so hard. And still its vote share trends down.

So what can it do about this?

The PAP is changing its policies, and its heavy-handed way of engaging in partisan battles. But it can do more with the politics, especially in the way it relates to people.

As a governing party, some still perceive it as aloof and arrogant. WP chief Low Thia Khiang's caustic analysis of a PAP that had lost its way to become a money-minded machine struck a chord at rallies, winning cheers.

Indeed, its self-cultivated aura of superiority looks unconvincing when several of the Government's top administrators and no less than the Speaker are caught with their pants down - literally.

Singaporeans may in fact prefer a MP they can connect with to someone they are supposed to look up to, who may then prove to have feet of clay. After all, Punggol East voters chose Ms Lee, who struggled through the N levels, polytechnic and university to make a career in training, over Dr Koh, a surgeon.

Politics is about the art of relating to people. For a political party, it is about how party leaders, MPs, activists, the government in power, relate to people. In this respect, the PAP has much to undo.

It won the hearts and minds of previous generations of Singaporeans with its political fervour, and then its clean, efficient administration that brought prosperity.

But in the last 20 years, it has not kept pace enough with a changing electorate. More educated voters were less inclined to back its policy proposals unquestioningly, and less tolerant of what they see as unfair tactics to win support, like tying votes to HDB upgrading, or its bullying of opponents.

And so the important process of bonding with a new generation born in the 1960s and 1970s, has been stymied. Today, this middle-aged group with children, assets and stakes in Singapore, who should be the stalwarts of the political establishment and solid PAP voters, are lukewarm towards the party at best, and angrily critical in many cases.

Meanwhile, a new generation of 20-somethings is growing up, whose mental model is entirely global, who compare Singapore not to the spartan 1960s and 1970s to give thanks for what it is today, but compare it unfavourably to the free-wheeling, glittering cities they visit.

I say all these not to pillory the PAP when it is down. For those - and I believe it remains the majority - who want the PAP to remain in government, it has been sad to see the slow, steady erosion of political support and trust over the years.

The going will be very tough for the PAP now that voters have whet their appetite for more opposition. But unless it is prepared to face up to voters' unhappiness, the PAP risks repeating its mistakes in failing to connect with the electorate. That would be a disaster, not just for itself, but ultimately for Singapore.

Defeat spurs soul-searching in PAP
Party insiders look at reasons for loss, and why they failed to see it coming
By Rachel Chang And Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2013

A DAY after their defeat in Punggol East, the People's Action Party (PAP) camp is looking for answers.

Party insiders admitted yesterday the margin of the Workers' Party (WP) win - 10.8 percentage points - took them by surprise.

The unexpected defeat triggered much soul-searching among party insiders - not just on the reasons for the loss, but also on why they had failed to see it coming.

The final count of last Saturday's votes showed the PAP candidate, Dr Koh Poh Koon, had lost in every single one of the 10 polling stations. The swing against the ruling party was broad-based.

PAP leaders have largely attributed the loss to the by-election effect, which makes residents more willing to vote in an opposition MP as a PAP Government is in place. But yesterday, several MPs and activists said lingering dissatisfaction over national issues such as housing prices and public transport also played a big role. The rising cost of living appeared to weigh on voters' minds as well.

Still, the PAP had started out fairly confident, said sources.

The first reason was the traditional political wisdom that a multi-cornered fight benefits the incumbent. The PAP camp, said sources, expected the Singapore Democratic Alliance and the Reform Party to take 5 to 10 per cent of the vote from the WP. In the end, they collectively polled less than 2 per cent.

The PAP camp also believed that former speaker Michael Palmer's resignation over an extra-marital affair would not greatly harm their level of support. Similar circumstances had triggered the Hougang by-election and not hurt the WP, they reasoned.

But branch chairman Victor Lye of Bedok Reservoir-Punggol in Aljunied GRC said the local team of activists often suffers from a "hopeful bias", as was the case in Aljunied in 2011. "When we are the ones in it, we are always optimistic," he said.

This, said sources, contributed to an overly positive interpretation of ground intelligence. For example, on the night of the WP's final rally in Punggol East last Wednesday, the PAP camp sent out 400 activists to blanket the blocks around the rally site, and were told to report back on residents' reception.

"Everyone said that the people they met were very supportive," said one MP, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"But of course only the PAP supporters were at home, the rest were at the rally."

The campaign was headed by Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing, and caretaker MP and Minister of State Teo Ser Luck. They took pains to avoid the missteps of other close contests.

They kept the campaign local and the spotlight on Dr Koh.

In past losses like Aljunied GRC in 2011 and Hougang last May, PAP "big guns" were perceived to have hurt the candidates by making statements that angered some voters.

As the campaign wore on, the party brass were anxious to stump for Dr Koh and show that the PAP was fully behind the candidate.

But when they showed up on the trail in the second half of the nine-day campaign, it dovetailed neatly with the WP's message that the presence of opposition makes the PAP work harder, lamented one MP.

The three men at the helm of the PAP's campaign in Punggol East were also relatively inexperienced, noted insiders.

Both Mr Chan and Mr Teo are relatively untested electorally: The former entered politics in a walkover in Tanjong Pagar in 2011, while the latter went through two easy contests against opposition minnows in Pasir Ris-Punggol.

Dr Koh himself was a political greenhorn. As a top surgeon and beneficiary of the meritocratic system, he was a perfect candidate in the party leadership's eyes. But voters seemed to connect better with the WP's Ms Lee Li Lian because she came off as "one of them", said one activist.

PAP MP Zaqy Mohamad said: "You can be a high-flier, but who you need in this day is someone who can connect with the ground."

Despite these factors, MPs said yesterday they thought the local campaign had been "smooth, targeted and solid" overall. But sentiment on the ground over national issues was against the PAP.

No regrets about wading into tough battle: Koh
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 28 Jan 2013

FRIENDS who tried to talk him out of standing on the People's Action Party (PAP) ticket because they feared he would lose have been proven right, but Dr Koh Poh Koon said yesterday that he has no regrets about wading into the battle in Punggol East.

The 40-year-old told The Straits Times: "I knew it would be tough but I still walked into it anyway because I believe in the cause... I believe that it's important to have change from within."

His stance remains unchanged, he added, and that is to try his best with "a clear conscience".

The colorectal surgeon had said no at first when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong asked him to stand as the PAP's candidate in the Punggol East by-election, but he changed his mind because he felt that to walk away would be to turn his back on society.

He was introduced as the PAP candidate on Jan10, two days after the Writ of Election was issued, and had two weeks to work the ground.

In the four-cornered race, the political greenhorn took 43.7 per cent of the votes against Workers' Party candidate Lee Li Lian's 54.5 per cent.

"For a rookie, having been on the ground for two weeks, it wasn't too bad," he told reporters yesterday, when asked for his take on the results.

He also praised his activists and volunteers, saying they were a strong, local team who had done their best. One lesson he learnt: "The important thing is to have a good strong team and to continue to be sincere with residents."

His immediate task is to ensure that after this loss, the activists and volunteers have a clear sense of direction as they continue to serve Punggol East residents, he said.

When asked about his political future and whether he would continue to work in Punggol East, he said: "Obviously, after this, we need to sit down and look at the results and think deeper. So I will await for what the PM has decided before seeing where else I can contribute."

Shortly after the poll results were announced last Saturday night, Mr Lee said that he intended to field Dr Koh in future elections.

Yesterday morning, the PAP team, including Minister of State (Trade and Industry) Teo Ser Luck, toured the ward in an open-top bus, waving to supporters and thanking them.

At one point, they ran into the WP's thank-you procession and applauded the newly elected MP.

Asked later how he felt as he saw people waving back, Dr Koh said in Mandarin: "Of course, I feel a bit disappointed that I will not be able to implement the more concrete plans and fulfil the promises that I had for them.

"The residents have made their choice. I hope their MP can make a better contribution."

I’ll be back for GE, vows Desmond Lim
TODAY, 27 Jan 2013

The Singapore Democratic Alliance’s (SDA) candidate in the Punggol East by-election, Mr Desmond Lim Bak Chuan, said yesterday he would be back to contest the next General Election (GE), even after he performed worse than his previous showing and lost his election deposit for the second straight time.

Mr Lim, 45, garnered only 168 votes, or 0.5 per cent of the vote, forfeiting his S$14,500 deposit.

When he contested in Punggol East during the 2011 General Election, Mr Lim received 1,387 votes, or 4.45 per cent of the vote.

Mr Lim was the only candidate who did not hold a rally onsite, choosing instead to carry out a series of online rallies.

Speaking to reporters below his Pasir Ris condo after conceding defeat last night, Mr Lim said: “As you know, I’m not a fly-by-night politician, and I’m not a person who will run away from defeat.”

He added: “I’ve already done my best. It’s been a fast but hard-ending race and I will say that I expected the risk and challenges before I entered this contest. However, it was important for SDA to contest to keep the political flame alive.

“We will work harder, fight harder for the next coming GE, and I would like to thank the Punggol East residents nonetheless.”

Mr Lim contested under the SDA banner in the Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in 2001, when his team garnered 25.5 per cent of valid votes; and in the Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC in 2006, where the team secured 31.3 per cent of the vote.

After polls closed at 8pm yesterday, Mr Lim headed to North Vista Secondary School, one of two counting centres. He left briefly for Rivervale Primary School, the second counting centre, before he returned to North Vista at around 9.45pm.

Mr Lim left Punggol East for his home a short while later, requesting for privacy to be with his family.

Speaking to reporters, he recounted meeting an 85-year-old resident who suffered from a cataract during the nine-day campaign period.

“I promised him, whether I win or lose, that I will help him raise medical funds,” Mr Lim said.

He went on to say that he has “contacted a foundation” as well as “highlighted it” to Dr Koh Poh Koon, the People’s Action Party candidate, when they met yesterday morning.

“Dr Koh, (with) his network, was also keen to look into it. However, I also appeal to the elected MP to join in this movement to help this resident to recover his eyesight,” Mr Lim said.

Four-cornered fight a blessing in disguise for WP
By Eugene KB Tan, Published TODAY, 27 Jan 2013

It is a famous victory for the Workers’ Party (WP) and its candidate Lee Li Lian, and confirms the WP’s growing standing and stature not only as Singapore’s leading Opposition party but also its dominance of Opposition politics. It will catalyse Singapore’s rapidly changing political landscape, moving resolutely away from a “new normal” to a “more normal” state of affairs.

Despite a crowded race with four candidates, which included the Secretary-Generals of the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance and a potential office holder in Dr Koh Poh Koon of the People’s Action Party (PAP), the WP stamped its class, authority and power.

What accounts for the WP’s stunning win, given that the by-election was one for the PAP to lose? Punggol East was not a secure seat for the PAP.

In the General Election (GE) in 2011, Punggol East was ranked a lowly ninth out of 12 in terms of victory margin for the PAP, only ahead of the marginal seats of Potong Pasir and Joo Chiat, and Hougang, where it had not won since 1991.

For the WP, the by-election effect worked its magic this time — voters felt that they had nothing much to lose by throwing their support behind a strong, credible alternative given that the outcome of this by-election will not affect the PAP’s control of the Government.

There was the added seductive charm of tactical voting that the WP advertised for: That Punggol East will have the best of both worlds with a WP Member of Parliament (MP) and a PAP grassroots adviser working for them in Punggol East.

Further, unsettled ground sentiments over hot-button issues such as housing prices, transport woes, immigration, cost of living and the income divide meant that the addition of another WP MP could press the PAP Government to do more and even faster in order to stanch declining popular support for the ruling party.

Another key reason for the WP’s success was its ability to get swing voters on its side, and to have voters who wanted an Opposition MP to cast their ballots in favour of the WP.

This enabled the WP to gain a massive swing of votes from 41 per cent in GE 2011 to 54.5 per cent yesterday — all in a mere 20 months.

The WP’s margin of victory meant that it also won over many voters who had voted for the PAP in May 2011.

That the by-election was a four-cornered contest was a blessing in disguise for the WP. It resolutely concentrated voters, particularly those who wanted to vote for the Opposition.

The WP’s cachet meant that such voters decided to pool their support behind Ms Lee.

So it is no surprise that Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam and Mr Desmond Lim lost their electoral deposits and incurred significant damage to their political reputations.

With this victory, the WP will be able to catalyse its plans to be an even bigger player in the next GE.

It will boost the WP’s recruitment and fund-raising efforts. They are well-positioned to make further inroads in the next GE, although they will have to manage the other Opposition parties which are naturally concerned about being overwhelmed by the WP juggernaut.

We can also expect the PAP to respond robustly, but it will have lots of soul searching to do in the meantime.

The challenge of great expectations: Road ahead for the Workers’ Party
By Eugene KB Tan, Published TODAY, 1 Feb 2013

The Workers’ Party’s (WP’s) political stock is rapidly rising.

In the last 21 months, it has notched resounding electoral successes in the May 2011 General Election (GE), winning six elected seats (including five in Aljunied GRC, a first for any Opposition party); in the Hougang by-election in May last year; and most recently in Punggol East. With nine Members of Parliament (MPs), including two non-constituency MPs, the WP has the largest Opposition presence in the House since 1968.

The WP has established itself as the leading Opposition party, and a dominant one at that. It is seen as the vanguard of political change as we tread across the “new normal” to a “more normal” state of political affairs.

Naturally, growing expectations of the WP run the risk of ballooning to runaway expectations. Its supporters and critics alike expect the WP to punch above its weight in Parliament, even as the party was criticised during the Punggol East hustings for not doing enough.

However, voters felt otherwise, satisfied with the WP’s tactical position as a check-and-balance against the People’s Action Party (PAP) Government.


In many ways, the WP has been able to capitalise on the fading lustre of one-party dominance, as well as on a growing demand for a healthy Opposition parliamentary presence as an enabler of good governance and to make the Government more responsive.

But now, flush with success, the WP has wasted no time in deftly managing growing expectations. Always tactically shrewd, the WP has indicated more than once that it is not ready to form an alternative government.

Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang said last Sunday that Singaporeans needed to give the incumbent Government time to work out the issues, and that the WP is prepared to cooperate where policies do benefit Singaporeans.

He also said that the results of the Punggol East by-election should not be seen as a trend for the future. WP Chairman Sylvia Lim chimed in on Monday that the party has to guard against being too embroiled in “partisan politics” and one-upmanship.

What can we make of these statements? They are pre-emptive and under-promising in nature. They will help the WP to temper expectations, buy time to sustainably grow the party, and to shift the focus back to the PAP.

They also certainly seek to emphasise WP’s moderate brand of politics, that it is not out to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The WP is asserting that it engages in a “change amid continuity” politics, that it does not oppose for opposition’s sake.

This message will help assure those who are concerned with whether Singapore is ready for a non-PAP government. It also reaches out to non-WP supporters, especially those who prefer evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, political change.


The WP is astute to recognise that Singapore is deeply imprinted with the PAP institutional template, and that the WP would not help its or Singapore’s cause if it were to take over the reins of government when it is not ready. It also is acutely aware that, as the leading Opposition party, it needs to ramp up its policymaking expertise.

However, the WP needs to go beyond merely criticising policy flaws and raising parliamentary questions. The PAP MPs and Nominated MPs already do that.

Not only must the WP go beyond manifesto-type policy prescriptions, it must also provide alternative policies that are not only viable but also real alternatives that are visionary, exciting and inspiring.

For example, it needs to craft policies that can not only deal with individual hot-button issues such as housing prices, transport woes, immigration, cost of — but also manage them in a holistic manner such that policy success in one area does not have the unintended consequence of creating problems in another.

Notwithstanding the policymaking limitations that Opposition parties typically face, the WP must be policy innovators — and not confine itself to being policy technicians tinkering at the edges.

It is easy to resist policy work, given that the WP is primarily assessed on its constituency work which it has been very diligent about — even to the extent of channelling the bulk of party resources to the Aljunied GRC at the expense of constituencies where it did not win in the 2011 by-election. The WP is determined to show that it can run town councils as well as the PAP.


The WP will certainly seek to ride on its electoral successes and boost its fund-raising efforts and to improve its recruitment of rank-and-file members from whom many of its electoral candidates are chosen.

It will have to manage its selection process carefully even as it receives a groundswell of interest. Part of its success and appeal is due to the party’s discipline, cohesion, and uncompromising “no one is larger than the party” approach.

The WP’s success is configured on it being a part of the Opposition, yet sufficiently apart from the other Opposition parties to distinctly differentiate itself.

With uncharacteristic frankness in explaining why the WP had gone its own way, Mr Low was not hopeful on opposition unity given the differences in ideologies and personalities in the “complex” opposition camp.

Nevertheless, the WP will improve its electoral prospects if it is able to cooperate with the other Opposition parties, primarily to avoid multi-cornered contests and to boost confidence in the Opposition. The WP may well be the first among equals but there is no guarantee it will always triumph if the opposition votes are split.


The WP is in an enviable position going into the next GE. It is enjoying an extended political honeymoon but the electorate will, sooner or later, expect the party to challenge the PAP in a serious way.

Expectations are high, and if this is a false political dawn for the WP, we can expect voters to turn against it with a vengeance. Such was the case for the Singapore Democratic Party when it won three seats in the 1991 GE but lost two of them in 1997.

Looking at the next GE, the WP would likely contest in no more than 40 per cent of the seats, primarily focusing on the eastern and north-eastern parts of the island in a geographically contiguous strategy. Not only will this strategy assure the ground somewhat, it can also help the WP continue to gain political ground without prematurely removing the PAP from power.

In the meantime, the WP will have to develop its unique operating system, one that will enable it to seriously challenge the PAP on the basis of the substance of policy ideas and wisdom.

In short, the WP has to win votes in its own right — rather than gain votes that are cast against the PAP.

The writer is assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law, and a Nominated Member of Parliament.

Parties fight to be 'on your side'
Voters will judge who they most trust to speak for them and realise their dreams
By Warren Fernandez, The Sunday Times, 3 Feb 2013

Stunning. Shocking. A tipping point. And even the beginning of the end of the ruling party.

Such sweeping conclusions flowed freely after the larger- than-expected swing to the Workers' Party (WP) in the Punggol East by-election last Saturday.

Even WP chief Low Thia Khiang seemed taken aback and moved quickly to dial down expectations. Sounding sober and sensible, he pronounced that the Government was "competent" and needed time to show results - hardly the kind of statement you might expect from an opposition chief fresh from a big election victory.

Now that we have had a week for the heat of the hustings to cool, allow me to offer five thoughts on the by-election and what it might mean for politics going forward.

- The writing was on the wall for the PAP. After all, one of its MPs, whom it had elevated to the high office of Speaker, had made an ignominious exit. After years of holding itself to a higher standard of virtue and integrity - and trumpeting this somewhat too loudly and too often - the People's Action Party (PAP) found itself in an invidious position, with one of its political stars falling from the firmament.

Under the circumstances, the party should have expected a drubbing when it faced voters at the polls.

After all, little else was at stake in a by-election. And the ward had been won with just 54.5 per cent of the vote in 2011, which could be overturned given the small size of the constituency.

Despite these drawbacks, some in the PAP camp took heart from the fact that the WP had not suffered much of a setback when its man in Hougang had also resigned under similar circumstances. The parallel, however, was a weak one, since Hougang is a WP stronghold and its voters fiercely loyal to Mr Low.

A four-cornered fight also lulled the PAP camp into believing that the opposition vote might be split, giving them an edge. This gave rise to what one PAP activist called a "hopeful bias" in the party's reading of ground sentiments. It led them to conclude that the seat could be won, albeit narrowly. This set the party up for a fall. It points to the critical importance of political players keeping it real when they go into an electoral battle.

- There's no winning without a fight. During the hustings, the PAP's new face chose to go it alone. Even when the leader of his party, the Prime Minister no less, turned up to show his support, Dr Koh Poh Koon decided to campaign on his own, in what seemed like a strange way to demonstrate his independence.

It contrasted starkly with the WP's show of unity and force, with its full slate of MPs and NCMPs working the ground and pounding on doors.

No doubt, the PAP strategists were seeking to avoid mistakes of the past, when senior leaders joined the campaign but ended up riling voters with off-the-cuff remarks. Voters have also been put off by heavy-handed campaigning.

Yet, no political party can hope to win if it goes into battle in such a hold-your-firepower fashion, shying away from deploying its big guns to greatest effect.

At election time, voters want to be wooed. They want to see candidates taking them seriously, and slogging to make their best pitch for their ballots.

- Politics may be local, but all elections are national. Another misleading sideshow was the vacuous debate over whether the contest was about local or national issues. Every election is about both. Given Singapore's small size, national issues often have a local impact.

Indeed, most residents reporters spoke to revealed that their top concern was a national - and perennial - issue, namely the high cost of living, including for housing, transport and health care.

These worries played out locally, with residents unhappy about the shortage, and cost, of childcare, as well as hawker and market fare, all of which stemmed from national policies to allocate such amenities. This sets the framework within which the local MP, whatever his party, has to operate and do his best.

Against this backdrop, the charge by the WP chief that the PAP had lost its way and no longer cared about the concerns of Singaporeans struck a chord.

His solution: send more opposition MPs to Parliament to make the PAP pay attention and "work harder". In a by-election, with little to lose, that must have seemed like a no-brainer to many.

- Voters want "someone like me". Mr Low's broadside called for an answer. Recognising this, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spent much of his rally speech the following night seeking to assure Singaporeans that the PAP under his charge had not changed, and that his party has always been "on the side of Singaporeans". This made a difference, or the swing to the WP might well have been larger.

Voters plumped for the WP's "daughter of Punggol" Lee Li Lian instead of the PAP's "son of Punggol made good" because she connected better, and seemed to be more "on their side". While Dr Koh had impressive credentials and was touted as a future political office holder, voters were not swayed. When it came to picking their MP, they preferred "someone like me". Parties will have to take note of this and find candidates who can pull in the votes.

- Politics constrains policies. The past weeks make clear that, as a society, we now seem to be in a curious place politically. Most people - including the WP's Mr Low, if you take what he says at face value - still want the PAP in power for now, since an abrupt change in government could put Singapore's hard-won prosperity at risk.

But many are clearly angry with the ruling party, because they feel it has taken them for granted. They want it to do more - or "work harder" - to deliver on its promise of giving Singaporeans good, affordable, reliable and ever-improving public services, from housing to transport and health care.

That's quite a tall order, not least since many voters want First World standards, but at Third World prices. But, like it or not, political players will have to accept that years of success have raised expectations.

Truth be told, though, the PAP's challenge runs deeper. The party has long stood for social equality for people of all races and backgrounds. In its own mind, it is the party that fought for meritocracy, independence from foreign control, and rallied the people to build today's Singapore so that they would be beholden to no one.

Yet, ironically, it has allowed itself to become cast as aloof and elitist, disconnected from the average man's concerns. It has its work cut out to shake off this pernicious perception.

No doubt, PAP leaders will prefer to focus on getting policies right and delivering results. They are right to do so. But, alas, their ability to do that will also depend in no small part on the political battle shaping up between their party and the WP.

This contest turns on three key questions: Who speaks for the common man in Singapore? Who can best give voice to his hopes and desires? And, who will he trust most to help realise those dreams?

Whoever wins that battle, wins it all.

S'pore the real winner in Punggol East by-election
By Han Fook Kwang, The Sunday Times, 3 Feb 2013

The Punggol East by-election result was a vote for a smooth and stable transition towards greater multi- party democracy in Singapore.

There, I've said it, and the sky didn't fall on me.

But seriously, while quite a great deal has been said about what the result means for the various political parties, not enough is being said about what it means for the country.

So let me count the reasons it was good for Singapore.

First, for those who believe that it is inevitable that politics here will become more competitive and pluralistic, the hope must be that the journey will be a smooth one.

This is new territory for the country and there is no guarantee that it will not be difficult, even unstable and disruptive. Political battles can turn ugly, the wrong people may be elected, and confidence in the country's future seriously damaged.

The early signs though have been encouraging.

This by-election was conducted in as civilised a manner as could be expected in any democracy and the campaigns by the various parties were devoid of the nastiness that often happens elsewhere and sometimes here as well.

Score one for a civil transition.

Second, for those who worry that the political contests will become too divisive for the country's good, Punggol East should provide some comfort.

The victorious Workers' Party (WP) has shown from both its performance the last two years following the 2011 General Election and this by-election that it isn't a party out to upend the status quo.

In fact, the criticism from some quarters is that it has been too nice to the People's Action Party (PAP), with critics lambasting it for not being assertive enough during parliamentary debates, and some even characterising it as PAP-lite.

And what did its secretary-general Low Thia Khiang say the day after its stunning victory?

He cautioned against reading too much into the large swing against the ruling party, adding that his party wasn't ready to form the next government.

"I think we have a competent Government... we need to allow time for the Government to work and I hope, eventually, the policies will take effect on the ground, people's lives will be improved and we have a better Singapore."

Gracious words indeed, though there have been many interpretations of why he made those comments. But they didn't sound like the words of someone who wanted to rub salt into the PAP's wounds.

Of course, Mr Low is a wily politician, and it may be the case that he believes taking this moderate position will yield greater political capital for the party come the next election.

But taking his remarks at face value, his position augurs well for the future if indeed the WP becomes the other party in an eventual two-party system.

In a small city-state like Singapore with no great variations across the country, the two main contending parties vying for the votes of the middle ground are unlikely to differ very much in policies and approach unless they have very different views about what will appeal to voters.

There is hence greater likelihood for the positions of the PAP and the WP to converge rather than diverge wildly on the major issues.

Score two then for a non-divisive transition?

One caveat though - these are early days yet in the WP's ascendancy and while it may seem gracious in victory now, there's no telling how it will change as the political competition intensifies and its numbers grow. It may yet become a different party in due course.

Also, at some point in this transition, the WP must offer itself as an alternative government with a complete set of policies to rival the PAP's. It cannot keep saying it's not ready. Then we might see its true colours.

Third, the hiding that the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance received from voters, managing less than 2 per cent of the votes between them, shows how mature and discerning the electorate is.

They did not waste their votes on these two because they could tell that neither the parties nor their candidates were worthy and up to the competition.

This is one of the best signs for Singapore's transition towards a more pluralistic democracy.

A sophisticated and demanding electorate lessens the risk of it being taken in by smooth-talking politicians with empty promises and who can lead the country to ruin.

There are too many examples elsewhere of this happening to gullible voters for Singaporeans to be smug that it will not happen here.

Punggol East residents showed how seriously they took their votes.

Score three for a maturing electorate which will help ensure a successful transition.

Fourth, a large part of how this transition will turn out depends on how the PAP responds to the setbacks it suffers.

Punggol East was another wake-up call for the ruling party that it needs to make significant changes to hold the political ground against a rising tide of opposition support.

It said it would after GE 2011, but the changes may not have been far-reaching enough.

To be fair, this won't be easy for the PAP, not when it has been in power for 50 years and developed the instincts and habits that go with being so dominant for so long.

To expect it to change quickly and to produce the accompanying results is unrealistic.

I was glad, therefore, to hear Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong say on Monday that one major area the party needs to relook is the type of candidates it fields for elections.

This is a critical area of change for the PAP, more important I believe than any change to policy.

Get the right people in its leadership and the right policies will follow.

If Punggol East results in the PAP undertaking a fundamental rethink of the people it inducts, both to serve as MPs and in the Cabinet, it would be a positive development for Singapore.

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