16 May 2011

Meet Cherian George, Singapore's apostle for High Broderism

We have never been fans of Mr Cherian George. When we have actually deigned to speak about him, we have not been kind. He has never given us reason to be kind even today and we will tell you why. But you'll need to read his latest essay first.

Cherian George is Singapore's pale imitation of David S Broder and the apostle for High Broderism in the archdiocese of Singapore. For those unfamiliar with American political culture the late Broder was an American journalist who, for want of a better word, was an extremist centrist who made a career and pedestal for himself out of denouncing extremists on both ends of the political aisle.

What needs to be pointed out is that the absolute mid point between two extreme political positions is not necessarily the correct position to take, that the truth can lie closer to the left than it is to the right. Sometimes the truth has a liberal bias. And yet the Overton Window of 'acceptable opinion' has easily been gamed by arch-conservatives shifting their positions further right, with useful fools like Broder advocating a shift to the new centre while denouncing... the extremist leftists!

Now read Cherian George's article again, with the recognition of his unstated High Broderist agenda of advocating a centrist position when reality and logic does not warrant it.

Note for example how Cherian Broder complains of the rabidly anti-government to moderately anti-government stance of online chatter and blogs. He forgets that PM Lee's cabinet has committed several public policy failures over the past 5 years. We would question why Cherian expects the "right mood" for the blogosphere to be more centrist. We'd assume that even wonkish bloggers, say Mr Tan Kin Lian at theonlinecitizen, would see no choice but to critique PAP public policy. Reality does have an anti-PAP bias, people.

Note how cleverly he builds up his High Broderism to present us with a false dilemma which is as intellectually dishonest as it is an advertisement for his centrist at all cost ideology: "it is a mistake to put all our eggs in the government basket, it is surely also a mistake to put all eggs in the opposition or non-government basket."

There are so many things wrong with that statement. I'm happy to point out just two.

1. For an academic, George is surprisingly politically illiterate, conflating the PAP with the government and conflating the opposition with non-government. He forgets that the government includes the civil service talent which advised and implemented the public policy failures of the Minilee government over the years, that non-government talent extends far beyond the political opposition to the much wider civil society.

2. He conflates the singular PAP ideology and talent base with the multiplicity of that of the opposition. Putting all your eggs in a singular solution means you lose all your eggs if that solution proves wrong. Putting all your eggs in multiplicity of solutions doesn't mean you lose all your eggs... But clearly, Cherian George would love to mislead us with his imagery. Just saying.

Make no mistake about it: like the late David S Broder, Cherian George is putting himself up as the arbiter of moderate political discourse, a wise man who can put down any idea and position too radical in his eyes; even if reality, truth, and logic have a certain bias.

15 May 2011

Modelling the Singapore elections II: Are Singaporeans stupid voters?

Why do Singaporeans vote the way they do? What goes on in their heads when they cast a vote? Is the Singaporean voter a rational voter? Or did the Workers' Party and the general opposition call for a First World Parliament flounder embarrassingly, 81 to 6, because there isn't exactly a First World Electorate?

On 7 May 2011, it did turn out that there was an average 6.6% swing against the PAP, Aljunied GRC was lost, and the Workers' Party [WP] became the only opposition party in Singapore's 87-seat parliament, representing almost 40% of Singaporeans with their 6 seats.
Today, we'd like to grapple with three reactions to the results using hard numbers from this election:
1. The politically illiterate voter failed the opposition parties, handing the PAP yet another convincing mandate.
2. Because WP was the only opposition party that has won a GRC, it must have done something right.
3. The GRC system must go; it kicked out a decent minister and let in an airhead.

At first glance, the PAP national vote share of 60.1% and national average swing of 6.6% may suggest that Singaporeans are politically illiterate and as some cynics might put it - fully deserving of the authoritarian government they get.

In these five years, the average Singaporean worked harder, faster and cheaper for shrinking real wages while facing a skyrocketing cost of living in an increasingly crowded country whose infrastructure has not kept along with its immigration policy. In these past five years, Minilee's cabinet has proved itself stuffed silly with clowns who make public blunders of policy and speech and have earned the collective scorn of many. Yet when it comes down to a vote, the PAP was returned with a national average of 60.1% this year, down from 66.6% in 2006.

I present to you table 1: The swing votes of GRCs with unpopular ministers.

Things to note: In GRCs which had not been contested in 2006, I either take the average value of 66.6% as the baseline or 76.6% if the minister in charge was deemed a 'strong' minister with a great coattail then. If a ward has not been contested for more than 2 elections in a row before 2011, the minister is assumed to be a strong one.

(Persistent) groundwork and strong candidates have been advocated by Alex Au, who puts forth the theory that WP won its victory because it had these two principles where it won.

GRC, minister, portfolio PAP % (2011) PAP % (2006) % swing Party contesting Groundwork Strong candidates
George Yeo (MFA)
45.3 56.1 10.8 WP X X
Marine Parade
Goh Chok Tong (SM)
56.7 76.6 19.9 NSP X X
Holland-Bukit Timah
Vivian Balakrishnan (MCYS)
60.1 76.6* 16.5 SDP
Moulmein Kallang
Yaacob Ibrahim (Environment)
58.6 69.2 10.6 WP

Bishan Toa-Payoh
Wong Kan Seng (National security)
56.9 76.6* 19.7 SPP
East Coast
Raymond Lim (Transport)
Lim Swee Say (NTUC)
54.8 63.9 9.1 WP X
Khaw Boon Wan (Health)
63.9 76.7 12.8 SDP

Mah Bow Tan (Housing)
57.2 68.5 11.3 NSP

General Observations

The list, as you will realise, is a rogue's gallery, a veritable who's who of the clown show in Minilee's cabinet. Where policy failures have been evident, these are the ministers responsible, and the GRC wards they head.

George Yeo and Mr Goh Chok Tong have been included in the list for comparative purposes - being the biggest losers of this election who are not clowns.

While the vote swing against the PAP has been remarkably consistent in most other wards, an analysis of these battleground wards may teach us a few lessons that other bloggers haven't gleamed yet.

1. Singaporean voters do punish unpopular ministers and policy failures. Note that the swing vote in these wards are in excess of the 6.6% national average.

2. The vote swing is independent of variables such as the opposition party contesting, whether it has done persistent groundwork either in the election or in the years before the election, or whether it fielded strong candidates.

3. Contrary to expectations, Singaporeans did not punish the PAP for its policy failures in cost of living issues (Mah, Yaacob, and the two Lims got off quite well compared to their clown cohort) - but very much for failures of performance, with Vivian Balakrishnan, Wong Kan Seng, and Khaw Boon Wan in a distant third suffering the largest drop in vote shares.

4. Note that Gan Kim Yong, the Minister for Manpower, and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the Minister for Finance who failed Econs 101, outperformed the national average vote due to the opposition sending in their own clown shows.

4. What is the percentage of voters in Holland-Bukit Timah and Bishan-Toa Payoh who believe in the principle of accountability, that ministers should bite the bullet and resign for embarrassing blunders and incompetence? The answer is: not enough. The answer is also: 9.9% and 13.1% respectively.

5. In general though, the answer in other battleground wards range from 3-5% - which does show that although Singaporeans are mad enough about policy failure and the general steering of the nation by the PAP, they are unwilling to send a strong enough signal to the ruling party. Are Singaporean voters politically illiterate then?

Answering the 3 responses to the election

We now have enough hard numbers to answer all 3 responses

A. "The politically illiterate voter failed the opposition parties, handing the PAP yet another convincing mandate.

While the swing votes suggest there are Singaporeans who behave like rational voters in other democracies, the PAP victories in these wards still show that either i. there are more than enough politically illiterate Singaporeans
ii. understanding that Aljunied would fall, voters felt the PAP should lose a GRC, just not theirs, or
iii. The opposition did not push hard enough on the unpopular ministers.

B. "WP was the only opposition party that has won a GRC, it must have done something right."

The pattern of swing votes show that Singaporean voters in this election did not reward classic retail politics; they voted not for the brand of the opposition, the calibre of team it sent, or even whether that team put in the groundwork.

Instead, they show that Singaporean voters were participating in an election where there is in effect just one party on the ballot - voting for or against the PAP.

C. "The GRC system must go; it kicked out a decent minister and let in an airhead."

Aljunied was won because it was a low-lying fruit on the branch, easily flipping because of the national vote swing. We posit from the table that if the unpopular ministers had been running in single seat wards, Wong Kan Seng and Vivian Balakrishnan could have been wiped out if it had not been for the goodwill generated by their backbencher colleagues, who played their part as grassroots fix-it men.
The GRC system will be kept because it has proven that in good times, popular ministers lend their coattails to green, untested, unready candidates while in bad times, unpopular ministers are bolstered by their decent backbencher colleagues.

Bonus stage: Explaining Aljunied

Aljunied was polled by the PAP (or its hired agents) to be a respectably decent ward fronted by a not-unpopular, non-clown minister. In its projections - published by The Straits Times, Aljunied was expected to be lost by a narrow margin.

We suggest the following as factors that made Aljunied resemble the clown wards more:

1. Clown mentor Papalee's interference, threatening Aljunied voters with everything short of sending in the tanks to punish them if Aljunied flips to WP.

Like it or not, the electorate is getting replaced by younger voters who do not take kindly to this barbaric and backward form of electioneering.

2. Clown mentor Papalee's antagonism of Malay voters in Singapore prior to the elections.

Like it or not, Aljunied precinct is a largely Malay precinct in Aljunied GRC. For that matter, so is the east of Singapore island in general, which explains Alex Au's musings here.

We should also note that the offer to promote Zainal Abidin Rasheed to Speaker of Parliament - a largely ceremonial and toothless role in Singapore - was a clumsy and hamfisted bribe to the Malay electorate, who have sought for years to gain access to the PAP leadership so their community issues can be heard and considered seriously in policy making. That Zainul has since announced his retirement from politics altogether suggests that the Malay community's feedback to him was not entirely pleasant.

3. Lim Hwee Hua's attack on Low Thia Khiang's handling of Hougang Town Council's finances was spun - rightly or wrongly - as a smear campaign. What could have been the equivalent of an October surprise was defanged and turned back onto the PAP, with PR consequences.

Bonus stage 2: Explaining Marine Parade

To be honest, I like Mr Goh Chok Tong. In a cabinet of clowns let by a mentor who just can't shut his mouth, Mr Goh has provided the political savvy needed to navigate a changing Singaporean electorate. Soon enough, I will write a tribute post on him but that will have to wait.

Mr Goh's 19.9% vote swing is the worst result in this year's elections. To be frank, Mr Goh brought this on his head with his dogged defense of Ms Tin Pei Ling. The obviously unqualified and unsuitable political candidate had a negative coattail of her own that clearly tripped up Mr Goh.

09 May 2011

Modelling the Singapore elections I: A call for electoral law reform

Why do Singaporeans vote the way they do? What goes on in their heads when they cast a vote? Is the Singaporean voter a rational voter? Or did the Workers' Party and the general opposition call for a First World Parliament flounder embarrassingly, 81 to 6, because there isn't exactly a First World Electorate?

Despite being a parliamentary democracy based on regular, free, and fair elections, the psychology of the Singaporean voter has remained a black box for decades, preventing the scientific modelling of voter behaviour and trends. This is in part due to laws which prohibit the publishing of polls conducted during the elections period.

If information is a resource, this law prevents the monetisation of particular voting knowledge and hence excludes the participation of major polling organisations. In other words, there is no incentive for a polling organisation to conduct regular snapshots of the electorate.

If this information does not flow freely, the overall intelligence of the electorate is suppressed. In other words, the absence of regular, published, scientific polls reinforces the political illiteracy of an electorate; no one knows for sure - aside from parties who can afford their internal polls - what are the important issues, how the ground stands against various parties. No one knows for certain which demographics are truly in play, what the voter psychodemographics are, the issues pertinent to each demographic, and how to reach out to them.

Embarrassingly enough, Minilee and Goh Chok Tong had to admit that they didn't know what the young voter was thinking and that they didn't know the extent of the anger in the electorate until the election period was under way. From this, we can surmise that even the People's Action Party either does not possess adequate  resources to accurately poll the electorate or the polling organisation it hires privately was frankly incompetent.

Taken together, this legal arrangement reinforces the political apathy and illiteracy of the average voter. Without access to knowledge on which national issues are at play, the average voter is atomised and individualised. This privileges election strategies that cater to the voter as a narrow-minded, selfish individual who responds to bribes such as housing upgrading, "grow and share packages", and so on.

The Straits Times and other mainstream media by default are the only entities in Singapore that can get away with conducting informal, unscientific polls and pass them off as credible studies during the elections period. These have very little credibility to academics and statisticians, while having the maximum sway over the average reader due to the pretensions to credibility of these studies.

The electorate, the ruling party, and the opposition parties need access to regular, published polling data so every side can make informed decisions in an election.
I therefore call on our legislators in parliament to end the ban on the publication of polling during the election period in Singapore, and hope you too can join me in this call.

07 May 2011

One final question for GE2011

As a voter, I will ask myself this as I enter the polling booth in a few hours' time.

Has my life improved in the past five years? Or do I count myself among the swathes of Singaporeans who had to work harder, faster, cheaper  - while facing rising costs? Did the PAP's idea of their successful five years coincide with how my life went?

Do I see my life improving in the next five years under the incumbents? Do I see myself working even harder, faster, and cheaper in the next five years thanks to what the PAP considers as the right policies for Singapore?

That is all.