Last weekend's by-election in Singapore has inflicted the fourth electoral blow in a row to the ruling People's Action Party.
The PAP had already lost six seats to the opposition in the general elections of May 2011, collected only just over one-third of the vote in the presidential election of August 2011 (still enough to win against a divided opposition), and then failed to win back an opposition seat in a by-election in late 2012. The loss of the Single Member Constituency of Punggol East is a particularly cruel blow because it is a new constituency created only two years ago, and according to the former PAP MP for the constituency, this was done precisely because the PAP regarded it as safe territory.
What went so wrong that the PAP could only win 43.7% of the vote last Saturday? The electorate abuts other opposition electorates, but this was not enough to make a dent in 2011, when the PAP won the seat handsomely with 54.5% (coincidentally, exactly the same percentage won by Lee Li Lian of the Workers' Party on Saturday against the PAP and two other opposition candidates).
The problem for the PAP goes far beyond mere voter anger over a dozen different issues that affect everyday lives. That would be enough of a problem, but given time this can be corrected (and I have little doubt that despite this string of setbacks, the PAP is still not in any danger of actually losing government in the next couple of elections).
The deeper problem is that people are now listening to a different narrative.
Even when the Government is putting its own narrative, ordinary people hear a different one. In this election, the PAP's candidate, Dr Koh Poh Koon, a surgeon who trained in the US and the UK on government scholarships and who now has a thriving private practice, used the usual line that he had never been active in politics and had not even been a member of the PAP until three weeks prior to being announced as the candidate, but he had done well out of Singapore and felt 'duty-bound to stand and be counted'.
In the past this tune played well, but this time people heard something along the lines of: 'I have won in the Singapore system and I want to protect what I have got.' The message from the Workers' Party's Lee Li Lian was that she has been active in politics for seven years, she is not happy with the state of Singapore and she wants to bring about change.
The PAP candidate is a wealthy member of the elite. The Workers' Party candidate started with a polytechnic diploma in business which she upgraded to a degree in sales and marketing from Curtin University of Technology in Perth. She is now a personnel trainer in a private company, confirming a strong and new pattern of opposition candidates being drawn from the Chinese business community, and making her an ordinary person. Until recently, the 'elite' narrative would have won hands-down, but no longer.
The Government tried during 2012 to trash the Workers' Party's record as a manager of the opposition-held Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, only to find the PAP exposed as the new owner of the software company that rents the computer software systems to town councils, software that was originally developed with government money and which has been placed in PAP hands after all other interested parties withdrew their tenders for one reason or another.
The next problem for the PAP is that, having lost control of the narrative when talking to constituents, it now also risks losing control of the narrative when addressing the elite on which it depends for candidates and future ministers. How is it going to attract high quality candidates if it cannot guarantee an easy ride into parliament? Who is it going to find to run against the Workers' Party in seats that the PAP has already lost?
No doubt it will find someone to stand, but if all it can promise is the risk of public scrutiny and defeat, it is not going to attract its usual collection of generals, permanent secretaries and senior executives from government-linked companies. Where is the next crop of competent ministers going to come from? The new pattern risks becoming a vicious circle that will further weaken the Government.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong can count his lucky stars that he faces no challenges from within cabinet, but must now be under no illusions that it is only his control over the levers of institutional power that is keeping political oblivion at arm's length. Unless he is grossly negligent, this should be more than enough for him to coast into the next decade still in power, but this is surely not much of a comfort.
The short-term risk for Singapore now is that the Government will lapse into old authoritarian habits, and bring back the 'knuckle-duster' politics of which Lee's father, Lee Kuan Yew, used to speak so fondly. There are firm signs that this has begun happening, with some renewed use of libel actions and politically driven prosecutions to try to suppress dissident voices, and a marked increase in the frequency with which foreign observers, solicitors and commentators are being turned away at Changi Airport.
The problem for the PAP is that even these measures are unlikely to be enough to restore its mystique as an efficient, professional outfit, worthy of unquestioning trust. Those days are gone, probably for good.
Photo by Flickr user Balaji Dutt.