Lawrence Wong’s Address to Activists

18 Jul 2020 8 min read

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I would like to start by thanking all of you, for your hard work and many contributions throughout the campaign. The PAP received a clear mandate in this election.

61.2% is a solid majority of those who support and want a PAP government, although it is lower than we had hoped for. Naturally we are disappointed about losing one more GRC. The Sengkang team gave it their all, but the desire for more opposition was too strong.

Our hearts also go out to our teams in Aljunied and Hougang. They have worked hard over many years to serve the residents and win back the ground. But these are hard grounds where we are the opposition, and it takes real commitment, courage and resilience to fight there.

So I thank everyone for your gallant efforts in this election.

Overall, it is quite clear that voters wanted the PAP in charge. The opposition explicitly reassured voters that they were not aiming to replace the PAP. The opposition also did not seriously engage on the key issues with workable alternative solutions.

Instead, they chipped away at unhappiness over different aspects of policies which have impacted voters. And we were up against a major trend that has been there for many years. That is the desire to have more opposition in Parliament to check the PAP, to have more diversity of views and debate on policy alternatives.

The Party will do a thorough review of GE2020. But I wanted to share with all our activists this afternoon, some of our preliminary thoughts and to set the results in context.

First, let’s touch on our expectations going into GE2020. What is the best that the PAP could have done as we were entering the General Election?

In fact, in the run-up to GE2020, PM had highlighted on several occasions, that this was not going to be an easy election, because of the pain and anxiety that Singaporeans are experiencing during this crisis. PM said it will be “tough”; he said this isn’t a “feel good” GE.

Neither PM nor anyone in the Central Executive Committee expected a repeat of 2015. But many pundits and commentators thought we could get above 70%.  And the Opposition capitalised on this and claimed that they feared a “wipeout”. But we should remember only twice in the last 9 GEs, has the PAP received anywhere close to 70% or beyond. Once in 2015 — 69.9% that was our SG50 and the year of MM’s passing; and the second in 2001 (after Sept 11 attacks) — 75.3%.

These two GEs were outliers. In 7 out of 9 GEs since 1984, the PAP has won between 60% and 66% of total votes. Indeed, in 4 out of these 9 races, we got 63% or less. So this year’s 61.2% is the 3rd worst outcome over 9 GEs across 36 years – it is at the low end of the expected range of 60-65%.  It’s not a very good result but it is within the range of expectations.  We’ve been here before. 

The expectation that the PAP should have had a result at the top end this time, I think has coloured the outcome as a setback.

Second, how should we interpret the results of GE2020?  

A reasonable expectation would have been to achieve an outcome of 64-65%, that means somewhere between the outcomes of the 2011 and 2015 GEs.

We came in at the low 60s. Not 65%. That is about 4 percentage points less than we might have hoped for. That’s roughly 100,000 votes lost.

Why did the PAP fail to win these 100,000 votes? I will share some of our initial thinking.

First, we must give credit where it is due: the Worker’s Party ran a good campaign that spoke to the desire amongst many for checks and balances. Their call to give the PAP Government “no blank cheque” I think, resonated with many people who wanted more opposition voices in Parliament.

Second, we saw the emergence of a new party, PSP, with strong appeal in some parts of Singapore, cutting into our strongholds in the West in particular.

Third, this was a digital campaign and we did not do so well in this arena. We tried our best and we produced a lot of good content online.  But not all of this connected with netizens, especially on newer platforms like Instagram and Telegram where the platforms require different sort of content from a platform like Facebook. And as with a normal campaign, the negative messages carry further reach than positive messages, and this is further accentuated on the Internet.

A related point then, is how we performed with younger voters who access most of their information online.  In fact, much of the commentary has focused on the young and there have been suggestions that they have abandoned the PAP nationally.  But let’s again, see this in perspective.

In many constituencies across Singapore with young voters, we received good support, for example in Punggol West, we won 61% of the votes.

There are some facts to bear in mind: First time voters – in the age of 21 to 24 – are less than 10% of the electorate. In total, the 20s and 30s age group constitute roughly one-third of the electorate. But those who are 40 and above are close to 70% of the electorate.

So the swing against the PAP was not concentrated solely amongst the young and it was not just about unhappiness about the PAP’s style of campaigning, or how we talk about race, or POFMA .

In particular, there was a fall in support amongst those in the 40s and 50s, and perhaps even in the early 60s. This was due primarily to the economic pain they have suffered.  Loss of income, difficulties faced by contractors and sub-contractors of whom they are many, businesses that have been disrupted, jobs that are lost or forced to downsize due to lower-paying occupations – all of these hurt the PAP’s support. This is quite understandable. Although we have made great efforts to lessen the pain and impact, there has been severe disruption to jobs and families.

We also saw a fall in support amongst several private landed and private condominium dwellers, which could be related to the economic issues I just highlighted. In 2015 this segment had swung towards the PAP, but this time, the support was not as strong, perhaps because they felt not sufficiently supported during this crisis.  

I have shared reasons why PAP didn’t do as well as we had hoped for. But we should also recognise that this was a clear mandate, and that voters want a PAP government. The outcome could also have been worse, especially given the difficulties that people were facing on the ground.  Also, we also need to ask ourselves: why did PAP manage to retain 61%?

In fact, the PAP has never gone below 60% all these years.  And that is because the base kept faith with PAP, knowing that the PAP kept faith with its base.

What is this base? They are the working class, the middle-class, the heartlands of Singapore.

The PAP must continue to keep faith with our base. Our policies must always tilt in favour of the less fortunate and vulnerable. This is in the PAP’s roots and DNA.  We must never waver in our commitment to social justice – to preserve social mobility for all Singaporeans, and to build a more fair and just society.

Finally, how do we move forward from here?

It would be difficult to get near 70% as we did in 2015. This is because the desire for an opposition is strong. Even those who prefer the PAP as government would vote tactically for the opposition where it is credible. But we can aim to get at least the upper end of the 60-65% range. So the question is: what must we do to get back another 4% in the next GE?

There will be many suggestions through the course of our thorough review. But there are two things I would like to highlight.

First, we must do a better job appealing to the young. We must work hard to understand and connect with the young voters. They have different aspirations, hopes and expectations, the issues they care about are different from the older generation and older Singaporeans, and they also look at existing issues differently.

So we need to build trust and a new social compact with younger Singaporeans. We also need to mobilise the young people, so that they will do something not just for themselves, but for others needing help. In fact, quite a few of our MPs, especially the new ones, are young Singaporeans themselves, who have come up the hard way, and feel passionately about helping others to succeed.

We will need to get more young people like them to identify with the PAP – as a party that provides hope and a path to the future – and build our bonds with a new generation of voters.

Second, equally crucially, we have to address the economic pain of a substantial segment of those in their 40s and 50s. This is the sandwiched group who are looking after elderly parents, and also have young children to care for. We recognised this was an issue and this group faced difficulties even before the Covid crisis hit us but since then, I think the challenges have been exacerbated.

Many of the schemes and programmes in the four Budgets this year were aimed at this group. Unfortunately, no amount of help will be enough in a crisis of this magnitude. So we will continue to review and update our policies, and we will do whatever we can to address their anxieties and pain during this difficult period.

In every general elections, we tell candidates and activists – there are no safe seats, and we must fight for every vote. We are reminded of this yet again in GE2020. Dynamics in every election is volatile and completely unpredictable. Sentiments can shift very quickly in 9 days, and across the entire island.

Sometimes, people don’t take us seriously when we say that you may have a freak election result.  But in fact this is quite possible, especially if the starting point is that the PAP getting about 60% of the vote.

So let us all be prepared. Subsequent GEs will be much tougher than this one and as I said, we are unlikely to exceed 65% of the vote in future.  

The desire for diversity in Parliament, for checks and balances, is permanent. It is here to stay. And we must be prepared for this new reality.

For now, Singaporeans want to see the PAP in power; but they also want a credible opposition to check on the PAP. Now that the WP has more MPs in Parliament, they cannot just continue asking the government questions. It is also their duty to put forward serious policy alternatives, to be scrutinised and debated.

In fact, the WP tells voters they are not trying to take over the government – they are only seeking a stronger check on the PAP government, which is a message they know voters want to hear.

The WP says that their long-term aim is to deny the PAP 2/3 of the seats in Parliament. But I have no doubt they want to displace the PAP and form the government one day, except that they find it inconvenient to acknowledge this now.

And there is nothing wrong with that ambition – it is what parties in Parliamentary democracies exist for – to win over voters’ confidence and support, in order to win power, form the government and carry out their policies. It is part of a democracy at work.

So we must be clear-eyed about this. The PAP must argue for what we believe in, govern Singapore well, and keep on winning the trust and support from new generations of voters.

Remember, the right to leadership cannot be inherited. we must continue to strive to win the trust of the people and we must prove that we can govern well, then we can develop a stable political balance and the PAP can continue winning future elections.

Now that we have put the election behind us, and elected a strong team to represent Singaporeans, let us stay focused on doing our best for Singapore and Singaporeans.

We have five years to overcome the problems, consolidate on the ground, and show voters what we can do.

Comrades, the work to win GE 2025 starts now.

Thank you.