By Dr Wong Wee Nam
28 January 2013
The results of the Punggol East by-election surprised everyone. People expected a very close fight. No one expected PAP, by its own standards, to be thrashed by such a wide margin. Even the professional forecasters who make a living offering odds thought that the PAP was going to win by 1000 votes.
What then went wrong?
When Michael Palmer resigned his seat, the Prime Minister saw no urgency to call for a by-election. He said that there were some national issues to be settled first. On hindsight, perhaps he should have stuck to this initial intention. Unfortunately he did not.
When the Singapore Democratic Party announced its intention to contest the by-election and made known the seriousness of this intention by going on walkabouts and house-to-house visits in impressive style, the PAP changed its mind.
With the SDP’s participation, the PAP probably thought that a 3-cornered fight would kill the opposition’s challenge and hand the PAP an easy victory. Thus, almost immediately after the SDP’s announcement, the by-election was called.
On paper, this is a great strategy — surprise the enemy, fight a battle quickly and attack when the enemy is not ready and in a state of disunity. Do not allow them time to cooperate. Sun Zi, author of The Art of War, would have been very proud of the PAP if not for some miscalculations.
The first miscalculation was to think that the opposition parties were not ready. Within 24 hours of the announcement of the by-election, the SDP, with the efficiency of an SAF recall, had already mobilized its members and supporters and started knocking on the doors. By the time it announced its pull-out, in the interest of opposition unity, it had covered almost the whole of Punggol East and saturated the voters with opposition messages.
Though the SDP did not contest in the end, it had contributed a lot to the opposition vote by giving the residents one round of opposition views. By pulling out, it had also allowed the Workers’ Party to go on an essentially one-to-one fight with the PAP. This was the PAP’s second miscalculation.
When the WP started their campaign, the ground was already softened by the SDP’s early start and by the time it finished their round of house-to-house visits, each household would have received 3 rounds of opposition calls to vote for the opposition (including the campaigns by SDA and Reform Party). With such a massive opposition call to an unhappy electorate, there is only one way the result would go. Though each party did their own thing, they collectively managed to unite the opposition supporters into one voice to send a clear message to let the government know of their unhappiness.
Fighting a war is not just a matter of surprise, speed and disarray in your opponents. It is also about having an experienced general who can lead his men into battle. It is also about the morale and preparedness of your generals and foot soldiers. In spite of the PAP’s reputation for efficiency and a well-oiled machinery, it failed on these counts.
In the past, when the PAP eyes a potential candidate, the least it would do is to let the person understudy a more seasoned MP. This did not seem to be so in the case of Dr Koh Poh Koon. He seemed unprepared and was not keen to contest when he was first asked. Having joined the PAP for only a month, there was definitely inadequate time to prepare him for any election, let alone a snap by-election.
As it turned out, his inexperience showed up glaringly. Some of the bloopers he made would not have been made by a more seasoned campaigner and that probably caused him votes. Imagine telling voters about his alleged abject poverty and then telling them not to give sympathy votes.
It is hard to think that a child of his era, when Singapore was prospering and the PAP was promising the Swiss Standard of Living, would have such deprivation as lack of chopsticks and food. It could happen only with great income disparity and without the policy of a minimum wage. Isn’t it then more logical for a person who has experienced such childhood poverty to join a party like the SDP instead of the PAP?
After all the talk about his humble background, Dr Koh then made a slip of his tongue and said that everybody in Singapore drives a car. Voters must be wondering if the potential office holder is out of touch with reality with such elitist thinking.
The PAP has the practice of parachuting well-qualified people as candidates for elections. In the past things worked out well because these people were sent in way before an election. This gave the person ample time to get to know the grassroots members and to bond with them. In this way, any misgiving of any member towards the candidate initially could be ironed out with time.
In Dr Koh’s case, he had only two weeks. This is too short a time to adjust to supporters who are still mourning the departure of their previous MP. Any newly-appointed football manager knows he needs time before he can get his team to fight for him and achieve peak performance. Thus, without the fire, it is not possible for soldiers to fight a good battle.
The PAP had called for a snap by-election because it wanted to catch the opposition parties off-guard. The parties would not have time to prepare and would fight amongst themselves. Instead, as it turned out, it was the PAP itself that needed more time.