The lesson of Anson and WP’s political impact on the PAP government
The year was 1981. Against impossible odds, Harbans Singh of the United People’s Front threw his hat into the Anson by-election ring, together with WP’s Joshua Bin Jeyaretnam (JBJ) and the PAP candidate, with Chiam See Tong’s SDP withdrawing only on Nomination Day itself. Though Harbans Singh ultimately lost, his party UPF soon became a household name and a force to be reckoned with in Singapore’s political landscape, opening the doors and ushering in multi-party parliamentary democracy in Singapore for the next three decades.
Unfortunately this never happened. History remembers Harbans Singh as a potential vote-spoiler, whose vote share of 1% consigned both the party and its leader to oblivion. Ask most Singaporeans today why JBJ’s legacy was significant and they’ll say he was the first opposition candidate to win a parliamentary seat since Singapore’s independence. Few remember that JBJ did so despite a three-cornered fight, and even fewer (if at all) remember the party and the candidate which nearly caused JBJ to lose.
This is why the 1981 election offers a valuable lesson to those who think voting for third-party opposition candidates advances the cause of multi-party democracy in Singapore: History remembers only those who won. Had JBJ lost and the PAP won, in all likelihood a certain Kenneth Jeyaretnam now running for office would be a total political unknown in Singapore.
Political impact of WP’s mere presence in parliament
There’s much to criticise about WP’s record to date in parliament. Since the 2011 GE, the party which promised a First World Parliament never proposed a single Bill or even tabled a full parliamentary motion on issues it takes a clear stand on: Depoliticising the People’s Association and grassroots organisations, repealing and replacing the ISA with a specific anti-terror bill and nationalising public transport.
But yet, something remarkable happened in the PAP government. The PAP changed. Perhaps not so much, but still in ways which just a year before would be seen as unlikely. Mah Bow Tan, Raymond Lim and Wong Kan Seng (minister-in-charge of population policy) all stepped down from Cabinet, due to unpopularity arising from mishandling their ministerial portfolios. PM Lee commissioned an independent ministerial salary review which recommended cuts to ministerial salaries. WP was slammed by the PAP, most notably by Teo Chee Hean for recommending a benchmark pegged to private sector salary, though curiously it was never revealed what suggestions (if at all) the PAP made to the ministerial salary committee.
Diehard opposition supporters will point out that other parties, notably the SDP, NSP, RP have been screaming about ministerial salaries for decades. Why give WP the credit when they have long shouted the same from the rooftops? For the simple reason that it never happened nor was there any indication that it would happen until after the PAP lost a GRC and two ministers.
Let’s take a few more examples. When Orchard Road flooded in 2010, PAP ministers arrogantly and dismissively said it was impossible to expect a flood-free Singapore. None other than Singapore’s founding father, then MM Lee Kuan Yew even said Singapore had to choose between losing roads and building canals:
“Some things are beyond (being perfect); it’s an act of God unless you want to lose half the roads and have canals.” This was what Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was reported to have said on 21 July this year, when giving his views on the number of floodings which had occurred in Singapore.
“Whatever we do when we get extraordinary rains like we had recently,” MM Lee said, “no amount of engineering can prevent flooding.”
Yet when a smaller flooding episode occurred just a month after GE2011, newly shuffled MEWR minister Vivian Balakrishnan was quick to show up on site, earning praises from netizens for his prompt response. Gone was the arrogant “Don’t expect the government to be perfect” attitude. Vivian later distanced himself from water agency PUB when it began to downplay instances of flooding as “ponding”, a remarkable change of attitude from his predecessor Yaacob Ibrahim who infamously quoted PUB staff in similarly downplaying unusually heavy rainfalls in late 2009 as a “one-in-50-year event”. Additionally the government later convened an independent expert panel in assessing Singapore’s drainage design and and flood mitigation measures.
When SMRT trains started experiencing repeated delays and stoppages in late 2011, the PAP government convened a Committee of Inquiry to investigate the issue. SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa, who infamously said people could choose to board the trains whether or not it was crowded, stepped down.
Could all of these have happened if WP lost Aljunied GRC in 2011? It seems unlikely. Had the PAP prevailed in Aljunied, the only opposition representation left in parliament would have been Hougang’s Yaw, who was later expelled from WP for allegedly covering up an extra-marital affair. The PAP, I imagine, would have been gleefully trying their best to win back the last opposition-seat in all of Singapore in the ensuing by-election.
To conclude, the 1981 Anson by-election teaches us that only winners matter, and what happened since GE2011 proves that the PAP government only changes when it loses votes.