Singapore's blogosphere must certainly be buzzing with news of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) loss in the Punggol East by-election. The Workers' Party (WP) victory is significant in several ways. However, first one must decide if the result is primarily a victory for the WP or a defeat for the PAP. The distinction is a fine but important one.
Were Punggol East voters expressing discontent against the PAP and was the WP the only alternative available? Or do Singaporeans' voters genuinely believe the WP fielded the better candidate? The answer is a combination of both factors.
The electorate is tired of being taken for granted by the political elite and the PAP is finding it difficult to reinvent itself in line with the aspirations of a changed citizenry. Take the AIM controversy – voters smelt a rat. There may not be any criminal or legal wrongdoing on the part of AIM but in the court of public opinion the PAP fights an uphill battle to justify its behaviour. The AIM transaction may have been acceptable to voters several elections ago but not today.
The 'New Singapore' demands greater transparency.
Even if the Punggol vote was a protest vote against the PAP, the WP gains much from the results of the Punggol East by-election. WP has established itself as Singapore's only opposition party of note. Over time, other parties will most likely fade away as opposition supporters consolidate around the WP.
Success breeds success and the taste of victory is infectious. The WP's triumph in Punggol East is a positive booster shot for WP supporters. The resolve of parliamentarians, party workers, donors and supporters alike will harden. Moreover, the WP will likely find it easier to attract talent. Supporting the opposition is no longer a lost cause – a significant perception change from just a few years ago.
To its credit, the WP has played its cards reasonably well during the last few years. Understanding its limitations as a minnow in Singapore's political arena, the WP has acted responsibly to date. It has not bitten off more than it can chew.
The Punggol East by-election is one more step in the maturing of Singapore's politics. Just as the PAP is fumbling around to teach itself how to live with a parliamentary opposition, the WP is discovering the intricacies of operating within a parliamentary democracy - a process of 'self-discovery' for Singapore at the national level.
The PAP may not be in danger of losing its parliamentary majority at the next general elections. However, the seeds of a two party parliamentary system in Singapore have been planted. It only remains to be seen if these seeds will grow into a healthy plant. We will only know the answer to that question once Singapore goes through a few more general election cycles.