What. A. Night.
The Workers' Party has now cemented its position as the second party in a two-party system, albeit one that remains heavily skewed in favour of the People's Action Party. The WP will be celebrating its groundbreaking win in Aljunied GRC, and rightly so. The strong results of even its lesser-known candidates demonstrate the power of the WP brand -- indeed, a study by an Australian polling firm shows the WP brand to be as strong as the PAP's.
What does it mean for the PAP though? How will the PAP respond?
First and foremost, the PAP lost because it had lost touch with the ground. It had clearly under-estimated the extent of antipathy towards it by a large margin. Was this because of a failure in the intelligence from its grassroots organisation (aka the People's Association, even though it is a statutory board), or did the leadership simply ignore or overlook the grassroots intelligence? Those of us on the outside will never know.
But what we do know, is that it was the PAP's arrogance that had led to its downfall. The themes of government accountability and arrogance played so strongly with the electorate, that the Prime Minister was compelled to apologise for the errors of his Government late in the campaign. But it was clearly too little, too late for disenchanted voters. Worse, only the PM and George Yeo actually noted the problems with the party; it was almost as if all of the other ministers remained, in Minister Lim Swee Say's words, "deaf frogs" to the criticisms from the electorate.
I remember that the PM's "apology" speech at Boat Quay was reported in two parts, on the front page and on an inside page. The portion of the report on the inside page was dwarfed by a big article on Minister Mah Bow Tan, quoting him as intending to raise the $8000 income ceiling on HDB flats in response to feedback. Two things struck me: firstly, even though PM had acknowledged the failure to anticipate and prevent spiralling housing prices as a mistake, there was not a single squeak of sorry from Mr Mah; and secondly, the feedback on the income ceiling was not new at all, so why was the Minister considering the change only now?
So the real question is whether the PAP has truly accepted and internalised the lessons from this election and the messages from the voters. My own sense is that the middle ground, that big chunk of voters in the middle who decide the fate of elections, largely approves of the PAP as the governing party, but had grown to dislike the PAP and its style. And that is something that is entirely within the party's control.
I for one think the PM got it right, when he said that the PAP government was not perfect, and will make mistakes, but must acknowledge and admit mistakes, apologise, and then rectify the problem and try to prevent a recurrence. The problem though, is that the PAP hadn't done that at all in the past 5 years, in particular in terms of admitting and apologising for errors.
The PM was spot on when he said that the PAP needed to re-connect emotionally with voters. If the PAP wants to arrest this slide in its popularity, then it needs to be authentic and sincere in engaging with the people.
But the early signs on election night were not positive. The two ministers facing the most personal criticism over the past few years have been Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng and Minister Mah Bow Tan. Both led their teams to a 57% vote share, below the ~60% national average for the PAP. DPM Wong described it as "strong support" from Bishan voters, while Minister Mah called the 10-point swing against him since 2006 a "strong mandate". Few would agree with those claims, which ring hollow and false. If they truly believe their words, then the lessons from GE2011 would appear to have been lost on them, in which case the Opposition can expect even more gains in the next elections.