The government paradox. After thoughts of the Punggol East by-election

Jan 27, 13 The government paradox. After thoughts of the Punggol East by-election

And so the vote counting just ended and the results announced. Worker Party’s Lee Li Lian got 16,038 votes vs People Action Party’s Koh Poh Koon who got 12,856 votes. The other 2 candidates were fairly insignificant with Reform Party’s Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s 353 votes and Singapore Democratic Alliance’s Desmond Lim with 168 votes.

The by-election was called when PAP’s Michael Palmer resigned after his extramarital affair came to be known. I would have to say I was a little surprised at the margins that WP won though.

However, if you did look at the sentiments in the last couple of years, both in Singapore and Internationally, there are elements of social unrest everywhere. Everybody just wants change. In Singapore, this resulted in an opposition party winning a GRC for the first time in the GE2011. The problem with this is what I call the government paradox.

In a stable system, the government is meant to instil confidence in that it is able to lead. As much as people realise that no solution is perfect, there is some form of compromise for the greater good. However, when a political party start to lose confidence votes, there is a growing need to address this and commonly, these are not long term solutions, but more of short term patches. Examples of these could be fixing immediate concerns such as housing issues, foreigner issues, transportation issues, or even general vote buying and promises. As much as it seems like it is the thing to do, the result can actually be counter-productive!

The case of proactive VS reactive

In management and leadership, it’s always been said that a leader is someone that has to have foresight and be proactive. A weak leader is reactive and only reacts to things that they see. In the recent incidents, the PAP government is seen as being reactive. When something happens, they come out and patch it. Housing prices going crazy? Flood the markets with supply. Implement cooling measures. Restrict property transactions. The same can be said about the foreigner issue when they clamp down  heavily on foreigner inflow, transportation issues when they had issues with the public transport system, the taxi pricing mechanism, and the car ownership system.
PE2The truth is, there is a lot of things that are out of the control of a government, such as unprecedented flooding, global dynamics resulting in capital inflows into Singapore, and even change of consumer sentiments. The problem with having short term patches is that a solution can never be perfect. As much as it benefits some people, it will disadvantage others. In the case of a confidence vote, it has a higher chance of losing overall share, as the people who benefit do not feel that they have benefited much, yet the people who are affected will be less happy at being affected.

Fixing problems VS gaining confidence in the government policy directions

When a government is caught up with fixing problems, it might neglect future planning. The worst case scenario of this, is that we will just see the list of problems building up as time passes. A competent leadership fixes problems before it occurs by foresight and future planning. It’s like a company who suddenly decide to focus on fighting it’s competitors on pricing. Without future innovation, they might face a slow and painful decline.In reality, it is not the problems that is causing a decline in popularity for PAP. It is really the confidence that PAP will be the best party to lead. When people have confidence in a leader, they understand that solutions are not perfect and that there are always problems. Like the car ownership and COE system. There may be other ways to redistribute car ownership, but in a system with constraints, there will always be people who benefit and people who are marginalised. You can increase car ownership, but you might face heavily congested roads. You might choose a balloting system for COE, but that doesn’t resolve the issue of people who urgently needs a car. You might have a needs based allocation system, but who’s to determine what is a higher need? To me, I believe there is no perfect system, but there should be a simple concise system that is efficient and fair. There will always be winners and losers.A drop in confidence however, results in ideas thrown out that might benefit themselves the most.

Different benchmarks for opposition VS the incumbent

And of course, a very clear distinction that we can see in the recent by-election is the different benchmarks being placed on the opposition VS the incumbent. In most cases, the incumbent is benchmarked at a much higher level. They have to be whiter than white, smarter than all, and have to always have the perfect solution. The opposition however, does not need to have a concrete response or policy. This can be seen in the social unrests around the world. Many European countries recently had political upsets by relative unknowns. With no experience to talk about, the oppositions were still able to defeat an incumbent fairly easily. This stems from the sentiment that people just want change, and they don’t care who or how.


It is quite a different world we live in now. There is a saying that a government cannot last more than 50 years. Apparently that applies even to strong governments. Perhaps it is just people wanting change, for better or for worse.

I guess, PAP would have to reflect on their strategy. Short term solutions might be logical, but there is no way to please everybody. Emotions and confidence seem to be the way to go in this world of ours now.

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