Do you need to spend so much?

Whenever I think of Singapore elections, I’m reminded of a talk that I attended that was given by Kamal Nath, who was India’s transport minister at the time. The host had said something about India’s elections being very messy and Mr. Nath proceeded to go on about how he found it strange that his Singapore counterparts faced an election that involved going up and down a lift.

Mr. Nath is not be the only outsider to be baffled by all the interest in our elections. As I’ve said in my last few postings that we must be the only democracy (yes, we are a democracy) on the planet where the governing party fights to try and whitewash parliament and the opposition parties fight to be…opposition. In other democracies, an election is inevitably about fighting to be government. I don’t think its wrong to suggest that we must be the only place around where the opposition celebrates when it wins four seats in an election and the ruling party mourns when it has 84 out of a possible 94 seats. I can imagine every other world leader look at our prime minister with a sense of sarcastic commiseration of “Boo-Hoo, you lost another four seats,” in the same way my school matron looked at me and told me, “Boo-Hoo, you found ONE zit on your face.”

Having said all of that, its probably a good thing from a survival point of view that our ruling party goes into an over drive correction type of mode whenever its losses a few seats. It’s a sign that it is at least listening to the electorate and does not take the electorate for granted (though most of us would argue that we would rather the government not wait till the election to listen) and if one were to analyse the election results, one can argue that the ruling party has a reason to worry.

The first argument, which I’ve used previously, was summed up by the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who munches on Pork on a Ramadan Day, when he said, “Once you go blue, there’s no going back.” Our main opposition party, the Workers’ Party have proven to be exceedingly good at holding onto the seats that they’ve won and that’s despite the ruling party doing everything in the book to make their life miserable. Once a constituency is lost, it’s pretty much lost.

The second point that should give the ruling party some concern comes from a table published in the Straits Times, our national daily, which compared how much the ruling party spent in each constituency and how much the opposition spent. The table can be seen below:

It goes without saying that the ruling party outspent the opposition by an average margin of two to one and had by most standards a pretty thumping win. Like it or not, elections around the world are increasingly about money. The candidate with the most money has the ability to spend on ads, events and so on. The most prominent example of this are the American elections, where aspiring presidential candidates need to raise funds on a consistent basis in order to stay in the race. While its less pronounced in other parts of the world, money talks at election time.

Having said that, Singapore isn’t any part of the world. The ruling party is for the foreseeable future in no danger of being unseated. As such, the power of patronage remains solely in the hands of the ruling party. It is the only party in a position to offer things.

So, the first key question that one should ask is why does the ruling party need to spend twice what its underfunded opponents in order to convince people to vote for them? In any other democracy, the candidate needs to work hard to persuade you to give out your vote because, well they may lose and by extension not be able to give out what they promised. In Singapore it’s different. The guy promising you a lift upgrading has the ability to grant it. In case you think your MP won’t have the clout to get you things, the ruling party will send you someone with the clout – look at how the Prime Minister-In-Waiting was sent to East Coast Group Representative Constituency (GRC) just before the election and this was a place where they scrapped through.

The second point can be found in Senkang GRC, which fell to the Workers Party. The ruling party fielded a minister, who also happened to be the head of the labour movement. In this constituency, the ruling party outspent the opposition by nearly three to one instead of the average two to one. Yet, they lost.

The ruling party has every advantage conceivable. They are the only party with actual resources to make things happen. They have a track record of some competence (even if the pandemic did expose some major lapses).

Let’s put it crudely, we all like people who can do things for us. We all like people to throw money at us. Logic has it that when the only guy in the room comes in throwing money at people and still gets rejected, it’s probably because people don’t trust that guy or they suspect something is off behind that generosity.

Is the ruling party suffering from the laws of diminishing returns? Whatever it is, the ruling party needs to do some soul searching about its relationship with the voters, who could still reject them despite the fact that they could outspend and offer things the other side couldn’t.


Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.





7 Responses to “Do you need to spend so much?”

  • "Bought" votes but still fail:

    PAP used the pandemic as a “cover” (i.e., “excuse”) to use reserves to “buy” votes but it still lost support from voters and also lost another GRC. All PAP candidates lost support except for 2.

    GD Star Rating
  • What about Ivan Lim?:

    PAP said it would “come back” to the Ivan Lim saga after the elections. It is now almost two months since the elections on July 10. Still waiting.

    I am waiting for PAP to come back to the saga so I can attack it some more.

    Whatever it comes back with it will be clear that the PAP selection process is not “thorough and rigorous” as claimed by Lawrence Wong. That is why it is taking so long to re-open the issue.

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  • opposition dude:

    When it comes to $$$ PAP spends it like nobody’s business because the $$$ isn’t theirs. It’s taxpayers’. Who hasn’t read about PAP blowing big sums from time to time? $1 billion Bishan Park remember? Jewel at Changi Airport? Tuas megaport and T5 remember those as well?

    The reason why PAP lost at Sengkang is because their candidates didn’t appeal to Sengkang voters whereas WP’s did. PAP sent a couple of uncles to Sengkang who do not have young children at childcare so how would they know the pains and anxieties of raising small kids? As usual, some big name labour leader under PAP’s banner good enough liao is the same old thinking that they have got. Good they lost because the 4G are utterly garbage anyway.

    And as for the way elections are conducted, this is Singapore. We don’t have WP strong enough to form a government yet unlike other countries so of course expectations for both opposition and PAP are very different compared to other countries. The PAP may not be in danger of losing power now but hey, nothing lasts forever. Once they get over the disappointment of another GRC lost (and they have btw) it will be back to the same old PAP you just love to hate.

    Old habits die hard you know. And you can’t teach old dogs new tricks too.

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  • Billy ma:

    Is that all PAP spending account for the GE?

    Is something missing?

    How about the expenditure from PA?
    how about those expenses on PAP town councils & their staff?

    What about those spending using the civil servant for PAP activities?

    The account for PAP is definitely mistabulated.

    A lot of PAP $$$ is missing.

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  • Harder Truths:

    A communist government owns everything including the people. it does not need to spend much money as the corruption is already within the system. They get by with promises and threats.

    The ones higher up the food chain know they will benefit. This also includes the FT converts. Every public sector worker and many private sector contractor who think they need the government to survive will vote for them. The remainder are scared since their balls drop when they hear threats.

    Since locals are not willing to look after themselves, they become redundant and be phased out by FT. In a few years from this $G will regress another backward colony – except it will boast of every nationality and no identity.

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  • MadeInSgSnake-oil:

    we can talk till the cows come home but if the majority still happy, stomach full, got good jobs etc….
    so 39% we have to wait long long till their situation changes for the worse, then we get a different GE outcome.
    until then just sit in a corner and suck thumbs.

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  • Soccerbetting2:

    As stated above “Jalan Besar – $288,977″(Josephine Teo LM) and “PV-$23,354″.Wow,the people voice big fat lazy pig Lim Tean just spend $23,354 and did very well to gather
    34.63% opposition vote at Jalan Besar. A lot of people must have like lazy pig Lim Tean “after work video” and so give him so high support votes consider how little he spend. And nowadays lazy pig Lim Tean no more producing his daily “after work video”, so how to win next GE against Josephine Teo LM?

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