Saturday, May 19, 2012

Singapore Elections: Hougang By-Election 2012

The Hougang by-election provides another classic example on the need to thoroughly understand your target audience.  This is because selected themes and messages can only be effective against a "vulnerability."  For example, offering a target audience something he does not need or want will not motivate him to do what you want.

The following is my quick analysis of the likely effect of the People's Action Party (PAP) and Worker's Party's (WP) election themes and messages ...

PAP Theme/ Message. The PAP's strategy is to exploit the WP's success in the last GE where the WP won a GRC - this has put substantially more "opposition" in Parliament. As such, the PAP is adopting a theme targeting the self-interest of Hougang residents by "localising" it (i.e. not about having an opposition in Parliament as the WP already has a GRC) and making it about "meeting the needs of residents."

Target Audience Assessment. Using the outcome of the Potong Pasir elections as a reference to understand voter psyche, voters are primarily driven by self-interest. They are however willing to vote opposition if the opposition candidate is (a) credible; and (b) can meet the needs of residents provided it is not too far off the norm (norm defined as the perceived benefits of being a PAP ward). This willingness to accept slightly less than PAP wards is balanced by voters desire for an alternative voice in parliament.

Assessment of WP Theme/ Message. My assessment is that WP is continuing with the age old theme of "being a bastion" for democracy. The danger with this theme/ message is that one of the main conditions which prompted Hougang voters to vote opposition in the previous GE is no longer present. In the last GE, it was commonly believed that the WP had a slim chance of winning a GRC. Hence, Hougang residents continued to vote WP to ensure that at least the WP would be in parliament. Now that WP has a GRC, this need is no longer there and self-interest is likely to prevail.

I believe that the PAP has correctly identified that this election will be won by the candidate who can best meet the needs of residents as the issue of democracy is no longer on the table. For WP to win, my believe is that the WP's primary platform must focus on the self-interest of voters with democracy being a secondary theme. As such, I believe the more effective Theme/ Messages for the WP is to focus on (a) demonstrating how Hougang is on par with or better than the PAP-held wards; and (b) play up the familiarity of the WP with Hougang and hence the WP's ability to meet the needs of the residents. The latter message not only counters the PAP's message, but also plays into basic psychology where people are generally resistant to change.


  1. Your talk to entice Hougang voters' votes on "self interest" is flawed. Since 1991 Hougang voters has sacrficed much for choosing WP - like foregoing estates upgrading programmes, market and hawkers amenities and bus services, etc. You must respect their "brave stand". I wonder how you would have voted if you were confronted with the same dilemma Hougang voters faced. Bravo Hougang voters!

  2. Thanks, Anonymous (May 21, 2012 11:02 pm).

    To clarify, I am not enticing Hougang voters to vote for any party. I am merely using this as a communications case study where the impact of a theme and message on a target audience is used to predict a likely outcome.

    Yes, I agree that Hougang voters must be respected for their "sacrifice," but even Potong Pasir (who was the first opposition SMC) lost to the PAP in the recently completely General Elections. In that same GE, Hougang won by a margin of 14.8%. As such, it is my assessment that all it will take for a PAP win is for less than 1.5 voters to put self-interest above idealism in this by-election. And given that the WP already has a GRC and the fact that one more opposition MP in Parliament is not likely to make a difference (which by the way, is the PAP's theme and message), I feel that this is highly likely.

  3. Looks like the PAP's appeal to the self-interest of Hougang residents had shown some effect and probably resulted in the shift of approx 2.7% of votes in favor of Desmond Choo. Unfortunately the PAP did not offer any big carrots to "buy" votes, so I can only speculate that doing so would have swung more votes in PAP's favor.

    To the WP's credit (and as mentioned in my earlier blog posting), to keep Hougang the WP needed to focus on telling and showing residents that in terms of infrastructure and amenities Hougang is "not far off" from PAP held wards. This is precisely what WP did in their 24 May 2012 rally (by Sylvia Lim amd Png Eng Huat). This in my opinion allowed them to keep the swing votes.

    While not distinct as a case study (as the PAP did not aggressively pursue the carrot theme), the change in the number of votes in favor of Desmond Choo does allude to the principle that themes and messages are only effective against a target audience's "vulnerability."


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