A general election was held in Singapore on May 7th. For most international news media owners, the elections of an authoritarian capitalist state of 5 million people would not hold much interest. After all, the same ruling party has been in power since independence in 1965, and the most number of seats won by the Opposition has been four (of about 80 electoral seats) back in 1991. So what has made the 2011 campaign different, and what are the leadership lessons we can learn from what turned out to be the most dramatic elections since 1963? After all, when the dust settled, the ruling Peoples Action Party (PAP) still held 81 of the 87 seats.
For starters, the PAP won about 60% of the popular vote, its lowest share since 1963, and with a vote swing against it of 6%. Second, for the first time, a group constituency, where people elect not one, but a team of four to six Members of Parliament (MPs) was lost to the Opposition, and with it, two prominent Ministers and the future Speaker of Parliament. Third, it was an election where closely fought wards were won and lost using a combination of new media and rallies.
For decades, the PAP had entrenched themselves in institutions which would be otherwise bi partisan, for example the Civil Service, grassroots organisations, town councils and to an extent, the state-supervised media. Debilitating defamation lawsuits filed by the ruling party’s key ministers post-elections served to further cripple key Opposition and dissenters, and dissuaded many from being involved in civil society and politics. Depoliticised for years, Singapore’s Opposition, with just a few exceptions, were also often half-baked and lacked credibility. Based on their sterling past performance in delivering good , honest government and progress, studious tweaking of electoral boundaries at each elections, dominance in the media and broadcast tools, the PAP romped to resounding victories for decades.
However this 2011 election provided a startling wake-up call to the PAP in the light of deep resentment over cost of living issues, public housing, and a lack of meaningful response through feedback. On top of these issues was deep resentment on issues like ministerial pay – where the PAP-led Ministers peg their salaries to the GDP of the nation, and where they are paid several times more than the President of the United States. In addition, a champion of globalisation, the PAP’s policies of freely welcoming new immigrants was seen as depriving many Singaporeans of job opportunities and creating congestion in public transport and the local housing markets.
Here are some of the most powerful leadership lessons from that election.
1) In a campaign for hearts and minds, stay on message, and if you have a choice, work on hearts
The Opposition’s most influential party, the Workers Party, proffered a “first World Parliament “message, promising a listening ear, and a future where the people would be more engaged in the making of their destinies. Pooh –poohed by the PAP as being “out of touch” with the people on the ground, they ignored the power of aspirational political messages. These resonated with a public fed-up of not having a listening ear. Worse, the PAP’s conducted a confused campaign where ministers made threatening messages, and then conciliatory messages. For the first time living memory, Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister apologised for the mistakes made by some of his million-dollar ministers, including, though not mentioned specifically, harsh comments by his father, the legendary Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled Singapore with an iron-fist until the 1990s. But Lee’s ministers still went on to score own goals. First by losing the moral high ground when they began to smear their rivals and then by sounding inconsistent.
As a corporate leader, do you prefer to create a culture of fear and respect, or one of respect and love? I guarantee the latter will get you people who will go the extra mile for you and your cause. DO you waffle and appear indecisive? Or do you choose a clear path to a goal?
2) Bring your A-Game to the table, and do not dilute your focus
This point has precedents in military history, and at critical moments, generals like Napoleon and Alexander the Great have beaten their often larger opponents by concentrating forces and setting them upon their opponent’s weakest points.
In a masterful campaign in the Group Representation Constituency of Aljunied, the Workers Party took their biggest gamble by placing all their top candidates in one team of five persons to challenge a minister-led PAP team. Aljunied became the confluence of the opposing forces of the national campaign. While the PAP were trying to fight the battle there on a constituency level, banking on their past performance, this time, they were overwhelmed by the tide against the PAP’s national style of governing.
By failing to listen and respond to the electorate on national issues, the electorate’s feelings far surpassed any localised benefits the PAP might have had. The Workers Party played the game at a higher level, raising national issues such as the glaring lack of alternative voices, the bully-boy practices in the past of the PAP government – and they won not narrowly, as predicted, but by a full 10 points.
Some other Opposition parties made the mistake of spreading their top candidates over several constituencies and failed to capture a single one, let alone a group ward.
As a leader – how much of your energy is focused on the most critical aspects of your business versus the daily firefighting?
3) Communication is what is received, not what is said
A day after the elections, and where a key national complaint was the ruling party’s inability to listen and respond to the people’s pains, only one of the outgoing Aljunied MPs, the much-liked Foreign Minister George Yeo, said that the PAP really needed to listen and shake-up their feedback mechanisms. Merely deciding on policy and then telling the people why it was good for them was insufficient. And yet, other Ministers – most in wards polling less than 60%, that is, less than the national average for the winning PAP candidates, were reported as saying that they would meet the people and find out what was troubling them. This irony was not lost on commentators. After all, if they could not read the writing on the wall, how could they respond effectively afterwards?
As a leader, do you truly listen at meetings, or merely waiting for your turn to speak?
4) Nimbleness and the use of new technologies will be an advantage
Despite their lack of financial resources, access to government machinery and a media used to serving the PAP’s interests, the Opposition parties adopted a nimble campaign, making extensive use of social media networking such as Twitter, and Facebook, bypassing the traditional mass media, and streaming live video feeds, marshalling volunteers and supporters to their cause. One 24-year old Opposition candidate created such an impact, fuelled by the Internet, that she obtained over 100,000 ‘likes’ on her Facebook fan page, exceeding any PAP Minister’s page. Although whole PAP committees had been set to exploit the new media, they were clumsy in their execution, with their pages often being a one-way communication tool.
For the first time since 1963, almost every single ward was being contested; a watershed for Singapore politics. With more than double ( 2.2 million versus 1.1 million ) the number of citizens being allowed to vote in 2011, many voters, frustrated by the years of walkovers by the PAP came out in force. With a large number of Gen Y voters who preferred news from alternative media, the Internet helped the Opposition cause.
As a leader, who is looking at cutting edge software and technologies to help vault your business to a higher level? And how are you engaging and winning over the Gen Y employee or customer?
The 2011 elections in my much-admired island state is over, but the fight for the minds and hearts of its people will continue.
DAVID LIM IS A LEADERSHIP AND NEGOTIATION COACH AND CAN BE FOUND ON HIS BLOG http://theasiannegotiator.wordpress.com, OR subscribe to his free e-newsletter at