Insight: Understanding voting patterns in Singapore

In every democracy, voters make their choices based on a range of national issues, their personal concerns and local factors. However, there are often good predictors of how voters make their choices; social class, demographics and area of residence are often cited as accurate ways of judging how people vote.

In Singapore, making this determination is a more challenging exercise. The government has never lost a General Election, and while it sank to its worst performance since independence in the 2011 General Election; with 60% of the vote, it still commands massive support that cuts across all sorts of ethnic and demographic dividing lines. Nevertheless, that 2011 result-and the subsequent resurgence of the PAP in 2015-does tell us quite a bit about how Singaporeans make up their minds before elections.

Occupational Class Does Affect Voting

Across most western democracies, it has become clear that those with higher educational qualifications, particularly if they belong to the service class and live in urban areas, are more favourably disposed to left-wing parties. Is this the case in Singapore?

The chart above shows the result of a survey in 2015, where Singaporean voters were asked to rate the credibility of each party. The results were subsequently placed on a five-point scale, where five represents highly credible and zero represents no credibility. As you can see, service class voters, most of whom are middle-class, tend to have better views of the Worker’s Party and the SDP compared to the working-class’s views of the two opposition parties. Conversely, the service-class tends to see the PAP as rather less credible compared to the way working class voters rate it. 

Interestingly, this divide was actually somewhat smaller compared to the same divide in 2011. Indeed, the PAP’s strong performance in GE 2015 was reflected by a much sharper turnaround in its fortunes among service-class voters.

This invites an interesting question. Why is it that the middle classes, who are arguably championed in the post-Independence meritocratic political literature, less favourable to the PAP?

It could be because when times are good, middle class voters aren’t as concerned about the economy as working class voters. Instead, they tend to be more concerned about pluralism, diversity and change. Therefore, they are more attracted to the opposition. In both 2006 and 2011-two elections that featured significant slides in PAP support among middle class voters-the economy generally performed well.

By contrast, 2015 saw fairly miserable economic growth as part of a wider slowdown in Asian economies. Similarly, 2001 saw a “flight to safety” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Both elections saw surges in PAP support. This shift in voting can be partly attributed to a change in priorities of middle-class voters; stability, rather than political pluralism, ruled the day.

Nevertheless, as the above chart still indicates, middle-class voters remain less interested in the PAP compared to other social groups.

Voters Differentiate Between Opposition Parties

Another fairly clear trend picked up in 2015 was that voters tended to distinguish between the opposition parties. To paint each and every party with one brushstroke would be more than a bit reckless; the Worker’s Party has existed since the 1950s, whereas People’s Voice was only founded in 2018. 

In 2011, many new opposition parties enjoyed considerable success. Although the Worker’s Party was the only party that gained parliamentary seats, some parties got over 35% of the vote. In the case of the SPP, it enjoyed 41.42% of the vote in seats it contested; that is more than 4% higher than the SDP, which was a much better-established party.

However, in 2015, part of the reason for the PAP’s spectacular performance was because in constituencies where they faced a generally successful “new” party (i.e. one that was recently created and first contested seats in 2011 or 2006), their support rose the most. Conversely, those “new” parties saw their support plummet. On average, the less-established, newer parties (National Solidarity Party, Reform Party, Singapore People’s Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance) saw their vote shares drop by 10.6% compared to 2011. 

By contrast, the vote shares of the enduring parties of Singaporean opposition politics-the WP and SDP-fell, on average, by a smaller 6.18%. So, the swing against the newer opposition parties in 2015 was almost double that against the older ones.

All of which brings us to my central point. Voters are generally critical of new opposition parties and tend to stick with the better-known ones. This fits in with my previous claim that middle-class voters searched for caution in 2015 when times turned sour. Newer opposition parties are much bigger wildcards than more entrenched opposition parties. Not all opposition parties are made equal, and the flight for safety disproportionately damages the newer ones.

Twin Trends and Today’s Choice

What does all of this tell us about the upcoming general election? It would be ridiculous to pre-empt the result, and that is certainly not what I intend to do here. What I will say is that these trends will make the upcoming election quite an interesting one to watch.

Five years is an incredibly long time in the world of politics, and some of the parties may have worked on trying to enhance their Name ID. While they may not necessarily gain seats, the extent to which they can improve on their vote share from the 2015 election-or defend their vote share if there is a crisis PAP surge-will determine the extent to which they have succeeded in that endeavour. 

That, in my view, will be an important trend to watch. If the newer opposition parties do better, it signals that a multi-party opposition is here to stay. However, if they continue to decline, it may mean that the WP and SDP’s dominance of opposition politics before 2011 could resume.

And, of course, there is this election’s much-anticipated wildcard. The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) neither falls into the category of being a “known” entity or a “new” one. On face value, it was founded in 2018 and so should be considered a novelty. But with the leadership of Tan Cheng Bock, who not only won from Ayer Rajah multiple times during his membership of the PAP but also nearly clinched the Presidency in 2011; the PSP may be both a new political party and a known entity in one go.

The combination of the fairly-newly-registered PSP and the COVID-19 pandemic already made this election more complex. A key question is whether these changes in circumstance will upend the two voting patterns. That question will only be answered on 10 July.

— Priyankar Kandarpa

Top image: Chua Chin Hon.

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