A WP Victory In East Coast May Change Singapore’s Political Landscape
In the biggest surprise of Nomination Day, the People’s Action Party (PAP) decided to field Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat to lead its team in East Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC), against a Workers’ Party (WP) team led by Ms Nicole Seah.
This immediately created much hype around the battle in this constituency, due to the “Nicole Seah effect” and how Mr Heng, said to be Singapore’s next prime minister, was moved from Tampines GRC.
In the past, fielding a heavyweight minister like the DPM in a GRC would essentially mean a win for the PAP.
This time round, some didn’t see it that way. Some saw it as a sign that the ruling party was concerned that its slate in East Coast GRC wasn’t strong enough to combat the star power of Ms Seah.
In effect, some thought that the fact that someone like Mr Heng was shifted from his original GRC to take on the WP’s golden girl was a sign of respect for her influence in Singapore’s political landscape.
Many would even call this a David and Goliath battle — the PAP is obviously the Goliath here, but even though the WP is David, it could take down the giant. Exactly like what happened in the story.
This begs the question, what if the PAP loses East Coast GRC?
Nicole Seah was shining star of a watershed election
Firstly, one may wonder why Nicole Seah is such a big deal anyway. The 33-year-old has run in only one previous election, and was overseas during the most recent one.
She wasn’t called the golden girl of the 2011 General Election (GE) for nothing, though. As part of the National Solidarity Party’s team contesting Marine Parade GRC, she was the youngest candidate in that election, being just 24 years old.
However, her maturity, confidence, oratorical ability, and straightforward yet sincere manner won over voters not just in Marine Parade, but the whole of Singapore.
It arguably prompted a seismic shift in thinking too: Young people can have the substance and leadership ability to run for political office too, and perhaps politics shouldn’t just be dominated by the veterans.
For younger voters, Ms Seah gave them someone to identify with. For older voters, it changed their mind about younger people and perhaps even changed their minds about the opposition. Perhaps the opposition can attract candidates of calibre after all.
It also helped that her opposite number in Marine Parade was Ms Tin Pei Ling, who is actually 3 years older than her but decried as a bit of a lightweight.
While Ms Seah eventually lost to a team led by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, her team managed to win 43.35% of the vote, leaving Mr Goh’s team with just 56.65% – his lowest-ever winning margin.
Nicole Seah’s fate is intertwined with the WP’s
It’s no coincidence also that Nicole Seah’s emergence in GE2011 coincided with the hustings being a watershed one for Singapore politics, with an opposition party winning a GRC for the first time — a momentous feat.
Ms Seah may not have been part of the WP then, but she may have helped them win in a way, by showing Singaporeans that opposition politicians are worth voting for.
The WP may remember that, and if she were to help WP win again this time round, they may repay her with a greater leadership role in the party.
Just like how the PAP has various key personalities, Ms Seah might be the face of the WP in time to come, just like Mr Low Thia Khiang.
A change in PAP leadership?
How about the PAP, then? How would a loss in East Coast affect them?
In all likelihood, the PAP will still form the government, so it may be tempting to say that not much would change.
In terms of Parliament, 5 seats will be gone just like that, and there will be 5 more opposition MPs — still a minority, and still not enough seats to significantly influence any vote.
However, Mr Heng’s loss will be more keenly felt, and his departure might leave a leadership vacuum that must be quickly filled.
While capable old heads like Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam will be able to take over the finance portfolio with ease, the biggest hurdle would be the uncertainty of the 4G succession plans.
4G succession plans will have to be changed
As the prime minister-in-waiting, Mr Heng is supposed to be leader of the 4G leaders, and if he loses his seat, a replacement must be found that is deemed by PM Lee, his colleagues and the public to be capable enough of taking over the top job.
PAP Second Assistant Secretary-General Chan Chun Sing will theoretically be next-in-line for the position, but it remains to be seen how that will be received by the public, especially after the debacle involving a leaked recording.
If that doesn’t pan out, promising up-and-comers like Education Minister Ong Ye Kung and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong may see their roles in the party boosted.
Mr Heng’s departure, however, may also intensify the public clamour for a popular choice to take over — Mr Tharman. And the PAP may have to shoulder some criticism if the public doesn’t get its wish.
Another possibility is that PM Lee, 68, will delay his succession plans till the next election, till he can get Mr Heng into Parliament again – by which time he will be in his mid-70s.
Image of invulnerability may take a hit
Besides succession plans, the loss of East Coast GRC, coming after the loss of Aljunied GRC in GE2011 and its retention by the WP in GE2015, may also be damaging for the PAP in that it loses its aura of invulnerability.
This is especially so if the party’s campaign in East Coast GRC is bungled — it already got off to an inauspicious start when Mr Heng’s bumbling speech was widely ridiculed, and made him seem like he was shoehorned into the GRC at the last minute without a semblance of a plan.
MP Jessica Tan’s upside-down mask behind him made the scene take on the air of a farce. Then, his mic was unceremoniously switched off, and he had to make way for the WP team — which some said was like a sign of worse things to come.
After all, the voters in East Coast GRC don’t know him, they presumably haven’t seen him around as much in the last 5 years. Will they question the sincerity of his last-minute candidacy? Will they believe he’s there to serve the residents, rather than because of a political game?
However, in terms of the political landscape, East Coast GRC’s fall may signal new hope for those who would prefer robust Parliamentary debate akin to those of developed Western democracies.
Even if Hougang and Aljunied are also retained by the WP, though, the presence of 11 opposition MPs in Parliament isn’t even close to the opposition strength of other global democracies, and shouldn’t be big enough to hamper any policies being pushed through by the PAP.
What it might do, however, is provide an even greater legitimacy to the Workers’ Party in the eyes of the electorate, and ensure that future elections are more closely fought.
Mr Heng will be fine anyhow
How about Mr Heng? What will happen to him if he loses East Coast GRC?
His story will continue, with one of the following scenarios:
- He is elected back into Parliament during the next GE – or perhaps via a by-election – and his story as a 4G leader continues, albeit with a 5-year pause.
- He takes on other areas of responsibility in the PAP, and continues leading behind the scenes.
- He leaves politics forever, and goes back to the civil service or to a well-regarded job in the private sector, like former foreign minister George Yeo.
Essentially, as a former minister, Mr Heng will be okay, and the same will go for the other 4 candidates in his team.
Another turning point for Singapore politics?
In GE2011, the PAP faced its toughest election since it came to power. It led to PM Lee apologising to Singaporeans during a rally, which was unheard of at the time.
The watershed election saw the PAP garner a relatively low 60.14% of the vote. It was the PAP’s lowest vote share in an election since independence, and some could have expected it to represent a turning point in Singapore politics, where the Government moved from a top-down approach to one where it works more closely with Singaporeans.
However, in the subsequent GE2015, the PAP won 69.86% of the vote, and we seemingly went back to the established order.
This time round, the battle in East Coast GRC has a chance to shake things up again.
If the designated next leader of Singapore were to lose his seat, and in a GRC to boot, it would give the PAP a wake-up call – Singaporeans, at least those in East Coast GRC, have no qualms in voting out the PM designate, and aren’t going to accept the natural order of things.
Thus, it might lead to a more consultative approach being taken by the Government – where the views of Singaporeans are more important. This will lead to a very different Singapore.
Will it happen? All of Singapore’s eyes are on East Coast GRC.
By Jeremy Lee and Choi Tze Chun.