Punggol East By-Election: The Other Side of the Equation

by singaporearmchaircritic

So much has been said about the impending Punggol East Single Member Constituency (SMC) by-election. While most concede that PAP is likely to win in a multi-cornered fight, opinions are split on whether the decision of opposition parties other than the Workers’ Party (WP) to run in the election is justified (see for instance this and this).

In contrast to the multitudinous write-ups focusing on the opposition parties, few analyses center on the electorate of the Punggol East SMC. The first to do so is our dear Straits Times, which, in its eagerness to ass-kiss the PAP, has landed itself in hot soup by publishing a report with the headline “ST poll: More rooting for PAP” and breaching the Parliamentary Elections Act (see 78C).

ST editor Warren Fernandez then tried to wriggle his way out of the mess by claiming that the ST poll is neither “full-scale” nor “scientific.” Good try Warren. But hey, the methodology of the poll is beside the question. As long as the survey asks about voter preference as the ST poll clearly did, it is an “election survey” as defined in the Elections Act. Calling it a “straw poll” will not absolve ST of its blame.

After the ST blunder, The Online Citizen, Yahoo News and Today each spoke with Punggol East residents about the issues that concern them. Today reports, “Almost half of the Punggol East residents who were interviewed (48) said that municipal issues will be key in the by-election…In comparison, one in five felt that national issues – such as cost of living and the argument for alternative voices in Parliament – were more important, while one in four said it will be a mix of both.”

The overwhelming impression is that local or municipal issues top the list of the residents’ concerns. But is it really so? In the absence of a randomly-sampled election survey, what do we know about the Punggol East voter and his/her preferences?

The Punggol East Electorate

Well, we do have some information on the profile of the Punggol East residents and a post-election survey 2011 (sample size 2,000) conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) that sheds light on some prominent national trends.

Juxtaposing the two, we can see that the demographics of Punggol East work to the advantage of the opposition parties.

In Punggol East, we have an electorate that is younger and better-off. Only 24% of the residents are above 50 years old, 5% lower than the national average of 29%. This means that 76% of the residents are below 50 years old.

The average Punggol East resident is also better-off, as reflected by the housing type in the SMC. Sixty percent of the residents live in 5-room flats, executive flats and private housing. The remaining 40% reside in 4-room flats (source). There are no three-room flats in the SMC.

Since housing type and affordability are tied to occupation and income level, we may also infer that the residents in Punggol East are of a higher socio-economic status. Going by the IPS classification, we may infer that Punggol East residents are predominantly of the “service class” (senior executives, professionals, technicians and supervisors), and of the “intermediate class” (clerical and service workers) instead of the “working class” (operators, semi-skilled and unskilled workers).

Now based on its poll mentioned earlier, ST asserts that “The edge that the ruling party appears to hold [in the Punggol East SMC] may be a reflection of the incumbency advantage it has always held in a middle class, traditionally PAP-leading ward.”

Even if we give credence to the ST poll, it is an overstatement to claim that PAP always has an edge in a middle class ward. There are a few reasons why I say so, based on the nation-wide trends unveiled in the IPS survey of around 2,000 respondents.

IPS Survey Findings and Implications

1. The higher the socio-economic status, the more “pluralist” the voter (simply speaking, a pluralist believes that there should be no monopoly of political power) (pp. 44, 49).

2. WP is most credible in the eyes of the service class and the most highly educated whereas PAP is most credible with respondents beyond 40 years old and the working class (p. 36).

3. The high cost of living increasingly bugs the service class; the foreigner and immigration issue is especially important to the younger and better-off (pp. 56, 58).

4. Internet has become more important as a communication channel for the younger and higher socio-economic group (p. 57).

5. On candidates’ characteristics, “credentials, grassroots experience and party” are less important than “honesty, efficiency, fairness and empathy” in 2006 and 2011 (p. 22).

Considering that Punggol East residents are younger and of a higher socio-economic status, we may infer that they are more pluralist and more likely to find WP credible. There is also a greater chance that the voting preference of Punggol East residents will be shaped by the Internet. That residents, despite their higher socio-economic status, are unhappy about the rising cost of living and the foreigner influx, is also advantageous to the opposition parties. Ditto the declining influence of a candidate’s credentials on voters’ choice.

Swing Voters


Source: IPS survey, p.50

As we can see from the table above, swing voters make up the bulk of the voters classified by housing type. They also constitute the bulk of voters classified by occupation class. Therefore the voting outcome largely hinges upon the swing voters and ultimately how the candidates court their votes.

In GE 2011, PAP candidate Palmer, WP candidate Lee Li Lian and SDA candidate Desmond Lim garnered 54.5% , 41% and 4.5% share of votes respectively (source).

Given the demographics of the Punggol East SMC, the percentage of hardcore PAP supporters is likely to be lower than the national average. Going one step further and taking into consideration the national and local issues, we may conjecture that PAP’s vote share is unlikely to be higher than 54% in this by-election.

The burning questions are thus: How much lower will PAP vote share go? And to which opposition candidate will the former PAP votes be channeled? Are the 41% that voted for Lee Li Lian in GE 2011 hardcore WP supporters?

Now with SDP, the second most credible contender of the opposition camp, out of the race, will opposition supporters channel their votes to WP, leaving other opposition party candidates high and dry?

And how will the most prominent national versus local issues play off against each other? Namely, Punggol East being a young estate, are neighborhood facilities more important for the voter? Or will the relentless rise in cost of living (property prices, COE prices, stagnant wages) push voters towards the opposition camp?