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In Retrospect Rhetorically: Why Aljunied Was Won (And Lost)

It is fair to assert that the Workers’ Party has managed a respectable and effective General Elections (GE) campaign; with its victories in Aljunied and Hougang, as well as the significant mandates in other constituencies, the WP has established itself as a force to be reckoned with. Because of the unprecedented gains it has made, it is worth – in retrospect – to contemplate why the team led by Mr. Low Thia Khiang was able to make the much-heralded breakthrough in Aljunied this time round.

Rhetoric played a crucial role in the fight. Quite conservatively, it can be assumed that supporters in the contested area for the People’s Action Party (PAP) and WP respectively have had their minds set on Nomination Day. Campaigning was then imperative to sway the swing voters. The following points will categorically expound upon what I personally thought influenced decisions; though I will venture to opine that although the national sentiment was decidedly against the PAP, strategic propositions on the part of the WP secured the eventual victory for the latter.

Mr. George Yeo’s emotional appeals, personal abilities and adept usage of social media came up short against the national chorus of discontent and unhappiness.

The National Dissatisfaction And Disgruntled Voters

While Mr. Yeo simply had no control over the considerable unhappiness the on-the-ground Singaporean had towards the assortment of socio-economic issues, the WP was quick to capitalise on these frustrations. Rally after rally, interview after interview, the WP hammered home concern after concern; with rising costs of living, income inequality, the influx of foreigners, affordability of public housing and high ministerial salaries as the primary considerations. Emotionally, these were attractive talking points, and substantially gave the WP slate as a whole a chance to pursue recommendations or proposals.

WP’s comprehensive manifesto also constantly kept the party in the headlines, providing much fodder for constructive debate even before candidates were formally introduced. The PAP’s team minimal discussion of national issues might have been a calculated move given turbulent circumstances, but Mr. Yeo’s last-minute promise to spearhead internal reform may have been too little, too late.

A First World Parliament Versus Constituency Promises

The message that the PAP team consistently harped on was this: vote for us – given our experience in managing municipal affairs and walking the ground – and we will make Aljunied a better play to live for all. What this did was to secure the votes of residents genuinely concerned with upgrading and home improvements, as evidenced from the plethora of published letters arguing the need for a “world class estate” and maintenance.

On the other hand, the WP played it coy when asked about its plans for the area; though they did point to Mr. Low and Miss Sylvia Lim’s experience in the Hougang Town Council, and opportunistically alluded to the unequal grassroots advantages enjoyed by the PAP politicians. Their steady reference to their vision furthered the aforementioned national discontent; nonetheless, their last-ditch attempt to present a few sketchy broad proposals may be due to the realisation that they might be losing this specific group of voters.

The Emotional And Social Media Approaches

Pritam Singh’s eloquent and creative speeches – especially those contending Mr. Yeo’s indispensability – might have swayed swing voters.

Both team leaders, Mr. Yeo and Mr. Low, presented their cases with great sentimentality, albeit for different purposes. The former shared about his dedication and passion in servant-leadership, while the latter touched on his emotional dilemma in leaving Hougang, and taking on a group representation constituency (GRC).

On a personal note, I was more emotionally connected to Mr. Yeo’s calm and impassioned rhetorical approaches throughout the campaign, and thought Mr. Low to be more aggressive in his multitude of speeches.

Mr. Yeo did engage in social media more enthusiastically then the rest of his team and the WP team, but spontaneous online responses were generally in favour of the Opposition side. Perhaps as a result of these interactions, it seemed as if Mr. Yeo was running a one-man show, single-handedly taking on the five-member WP team.

Mr. Yeo’s (In)Dispensability

The first thing the PAP did was to highlight Mr. Yeo’s credentials and widely-acclaimed intellect; in other words, trying to convince Singaporeans of his indispensability. Along the same tangent, the team also included a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, a future Speaker of Parliament, and a future office-holder: quintessentially, a team that is ‘too big or too important to lose’

In the closing days of the campaign, Mrs. Lim Hwee Hua drew online flak for her comments on the finances of Hougang Town Council.

But this strategy could have backfired. Importantly, this  allowed the WP to do three things: one, to constantly remind voters that no individual or team is indispensable (with Mr. Pritam Singh famously using the football team analogy); second, to confidently proclaim that the WP team is more than competent to fill in these big shoes; third, to strategically oppose the GRC system, since Singapore is liable to lose a minister or office-holder wherever there is a strong Opposition presence. The last point, for me, was of exceptional importance.

Other Possible Factors

– Voting secrecy and considerations, to allay possible fears or insecurities.
– Controversy over the management or administrative abilities of the Hougang Town Council.
– PAP ‘s Mr. Eric Low’s ‘observations’ of Hougang as a slum.
– PAP salvos against Mr. Chen Show Mao, and the WP concept of a ‘First World Parliament’.
– Various analogies of the driver, insurance policies and the spare tyre.
– Impressive rhetorical abilities and eloquence of Mr. Pritam and Miss Lim.
– Dissimilar statements made by senior PAP ministers on the importance, significance and campaign strategies in or of the Aljunied constituency.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


14 thoughts on “In Retrospect Rhetorically: Why Aljunied Was Won (And Lost)

  1. I think recruiting Chen Show Mao and the presence of Low Thia Khiang accounted for the extra 4% gain in Aljunied relative to the 6% average gain by the opposition nationwide. People didn’t want to see Low out of Parliament, and Chen had the perfect profile to attract swing voters who are concerned about ‘quality’ candidates in the opposition. There are many Singaporeans who are dissatisfied but, before this year, voted PAP because of supposedly poor candidates in the opposition. I’m told that at the rallies, everyone would fall silent when he (or Low) spoke. This was not so for other candidates. Coverage of Chen in the media (mainstream or not) was also largely fawning.

    Posted by twasher | May 9, 2011, 8:47 am
    • The point about attracting ‘quality’ candidates might have played its role, but I feel that the plethora of commentaries and letters in the print media questioning his purposes might have discouraged voters in Aljunied. These pieces did not make him any less impressive, but could have made him seem less endearing.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | May 9, 2011, 9:15 am
      • Well, as an Aljunied voter, nobody I talked to was affected by the print media’s questioning. My parents and all their upper middle class, highly educated friends in Aljunied voted WP for the first time largely because of Chen. And as I said, the reaction to Chen at the rallies suggests that the discrediting didn’t work. But all this is of course purely anecdotal.

        I think the WP would have captured blue-collar workers regardless of the presence of Chen, but he was crucial for white-collar Chinese voters who have always valued paper qualifications.

        Posted by twasher | May 9, 2011, 7:58 pm
      • Interesting insights, thanks.

        Jin Yao

        Posted by guanyinmiao | May 9, 2011, 8:01 pm
  2. Interesting analysis. And while many immediately point to GRC causing the loss of George Yeo, but if Aljunied was an SMC, and Low took on George (and say if Sylvia takes on Zainal in Eunos SMC, CSM takes on Lim Hwee Hua in Serangoon SMC, etc), it’s quite likely that the results wouldn’t change. I’m inclined to think that GRC is not the problem, the negative pent-up sentiments towards the ruling party is the fundamental problem, aided by the WP’s strategic play as you’ve written.

    I think Low insisting that he would not take up the NCMP seat if they had lost Aljunied played a decisive role, because as opposed to PAP’s proverbial island-wide threat of ‘dangling carrots’, say if Aljunied has already had a good dose of upgrading done the last 5 years credit to George Yeo then there is essentially no carrot left to dangle! And if ‘alternative voice’ is a huge cry this GE then losing Low weighs in heavier than losing Yeo whose role as a foreign minister is much less appreciated by an ordinary citizen. Pritam’s football analogy didn’t help either, and had in fact trivialised the role of a country’s foreign minister.

    I hope this does not cause disillusionment to other ministers, to realise that doing your job well is not enough if the political brand you are under doesn’t go down well with the people during a GE, further, the cry for more alternative voices is an endless one, until of course an alternative party actually takes over the incumbents!

    It is point-worthy to note that Aljunied has never been a sweet ground for PAP historically even before the presence of WP, it has always been the most divisive GRC. It would be interesting to look into the reasons for that. When George Yeo won Aljunied in 1988, he was a fresh face in PAP if I didn’t recall wrongly, but the oppositions then were far less credible, even so, it had gone down the wire.

    Posted by fivetwosix | May 9, 2011, 1:43 pm
    • I see if I can reply paragraph by paragraph 😉

      – I’m inclined to believe that the GRC system benefits whoever has the momentum and collective strength: for the PAP, the collective strength has been maintained by having ministers helm the GRC teams, and allowing lesser-known newcomers (albeit with the purported talents and abilities) to enter Parliament and gain experience slowly. For Aljunied, most of the time it felt as if Mr. Yeo was running a one-man show against the WP slate. In the general picture, GRC is not the problem per se; the WP has pointed out how its been used for gerrymandering and ushering in less-able and last-minute candidates.

      – That is an interesting point about the NCMP seat, and Mr. Low’s personal influence. Furthering your exposition, we could also say the PAP team lost because they were overly concerned with “improving on-the-ground amenities and features” instead of discussing national issues and the alternative voice (which Mr. Yeo did, towards the end of the campaign).

      – That’s quite intriguing: will take a look if I have the time 🙂

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | May 9, 2011, 3:46 pm
    • Part of the reason Aljunied has not been sweet ground is probably because it contains the former Eunos GRC. Eunos was eliminated after the WP nearly won it twice — in 1988 (Francis Seow featured here) and 1991. It’s likely that the PAP’s poor performance in Eunos is due to the high population of Malays there. It’s likely that this is still significant enough to affect Aljunied.

      Another reason is that the demographics in parts of Aljunied GRC that are essentially part of what we would normally call (geographically) Hougang are essentially the same as the demographics in Hougang GRC. So for whatever reason Hougang GRC is sweet ground for the WP, this effect probably transfers over to those bits of Aljunied.

      Posted by twasher | May 9, 2011, 8:04 pm
      • Oh, how could I forget — Aljunied also contains part of Cheng San GRC, which caused so much grief to the PAP in 1997.

        Posted by twasher | May 9, 2011, 8:27 pm
  3. I think the fact that there were too many chefs in George Yeo’s kitchen which sent his campaign spiralling downwards. Instead of leaving him alone to plot his strategy, what started out as helpful support became fatal interference from the 3 Ms boomeranged on him badly. No one could ever forget or forgive that “repent” comment by he-who-must-not-be-named. This shows just badly out of touch he-who-must-not-be-named is with the reality of today’s political environment. Within the GRC, the substandard performance of Lim Hwee Hua and Cynthia Phua became irrecoverable. I mean, LHH scored only 40% in Serangoon Gardens! The building of the foreign worker hostel despite her residents’ protests was her Archiles heel, and it became fatal.

    Posted by This is Anfield | May 9, 2011, 4:37 pm
    • That makes good sense; Mr. Yeo’s popularity and intellect alone were not sufficient to make up for the factors that were against his team.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | May 9, 2011, 5:13 pm
    • Actually, I would question whether the comments from the Lees were meant to be supportive. I think it is possible that they saw Yeo as a political rival and were not unhappy to see him leave. This idea was suggested by a friend of mine, and speculative, but I do think the following incidents in the Aljunied case have some hidden significance:

      1) In the past, the PAP leaders would be extremely vocal and visible in defending whatever PAP candidate was most at threat. This time the defence was really anaemic, particularly from the Lees.

      2) LTK moving into Aljunied should not have been surprising. Yet George Yeo looked shell-shocked on nomination day when he made his speech. This leads me to suspect that he had been misled by certain members of his party into thinking that he would be ‘safe’. It’s possible that these members had done this maliciously.

      3) When LHL talked about Aljunied he put more emphasis on supporting Ong Ye Kung than on supporting Yeo. LKY said right out that it would not be that big of a deal to lose Aljunied. Compared to what the PAP has done in the past for threatened GRCs like Cheng San, this was almost like an act of abandonment on the Lee’s part.

      4) Goh Chok Tong was the only one to vociferously defend Yeo, but the fact that he was saddled with Tin Pei Ling suggests that he too is being sidelined.

      5) Late in the campaign, when Yeo realised that he was going to lose, he came right out and said the PAP had to change. This is a very strange thing to say to voters in an election campaign. It seemed more like a plea to his own party than to voters.

      If this hypothesis is right, then in the future we should expect Yeo and Goh to quickly fade from prominence in the PAP.

      Posted by twasher | May 9, 2011, 8:20 pm
      • This is a very interesting conspiracy theory, twasher! Let’s see if there are alternative perspective to look at the clever points you have raised!

        1. Agree on the lack of defense from the Lees, and when MM said it was ok to lose Aljunied I thought it was more of a reverse psychology tactic, but he did that with the “repent” statement, which then became one step forward two step backwards. Don’t know about political rival but you may be right about how George is indeed quite “different” from the usual white-on-whites in his political approach, he definitely is the most net-savvy and well-connected, a departure from the rest of the party, and thus seen as a threat.

        2. Interesting. I’ve attributed the shell-shockness to WP going for broke, putting 3 of their golden eggs into one basket, or 4 if we consider Pritam as well. Don’t think anyone saw that coming! At best maybe 2 heavyweights, but to showhand in Aljunied is a strong statement of how much WP desired Aljunied instead of just getting 5 members into parliament, which they should be able to do so if they put their ‘A’ team in East Coast and ‘B’ team in Aljunied.

        3. I didn’t actually noticed that! Mm it could also be an effort to divert any unwanted attention from Yeo, to minimise the potential image damage Yeo could have if all attention was strewn on him the way it did for some other candidates haha a preventive measure? 😉

        4. I don’t think the incumbents expected such a vociferous outcry against TPL, so that may be a backtrack speculation at best. The Marine Parade GRC definitely looked like the ‘safest’ GRC to stuff the newbies in (TPL and Chuan Jin) with the heavy-weight in GTC taking helm. And of course, Nicole Seah’s presence that has served to conveniently juxtapose TPL was not foreseen as well!

        5. That statement was strange indeed! And also gives away the feeling like, so it means the PM is going to make Yeo a deputy after this GE in order for that change to come to pass? If that was not discussed with the PM, by him saying that sounds very threatening to the Lees indeed, in line with your first point which suggested this may have been the ‘behind-the-scene’ tension within the party all these while.

        I trust that Yeo will be completely off the party, and lose all political prominence with the party, whether is it because of this conspiracy theory coming to pass, or just the fact that it’s a statement to the other ministers that the consequences are high and heavy to lose your GRC. Great thought-provoking discussion nonetheless!

        Posted by fivetwosix | May 9, 2011, 11:23 pm


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  2. Pingback: in retrospect rhetorically why aljunied was won and lost - Malay Site | 2011 - May 11, 2011

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