It was the ruling coalitions that dominated the Sarawak state elections in Malaysia last month and the Singapore general elections last week, but the opposition parties also scored some important victories as well.
The Barisan Nasional coalition secured 55 out of the 71 seats in the Sarawak state assembly, which allowed Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, who has led Sarawak since 1981, to retain his position. The coalition garnered 372,000 votes, while the opposition parties received only 300,000 votes. Meanwhile, Singapore’s People’s Action Party won 81 out of the 87 seats in the parliament and received 60 percent of the popular votes.
In other countries, these figures would have been immediately interpreted as an overwhelming vote of confidence for the winning party, but it seems it isn't the case in Singapore and Sarawak. It isn't enough for the dominant party to grab the majority of seats in parliament since the opposition can always claim a moral victory even if it only won a few seats. In other words, the administration’s victory in the polls doesn’t automatically translate into complete political hegemony.
This political paradox becomes less confusing if we take note that the BN has been in power since 1957, while the PAP has never lost an election since 1959. In the case of the PAP, it has been successful in preventing the opposition from clinching even a single seat in parliament.
The BN isn’t used to the Democratic Action Party winning 12 out of the 15 seats it contested in the Sarawak elections. On the other hand, the PAP, for the first time, has lost an important Group Representation Constituency to the opposition. The legendary political invincibility of the mighty BN and PAP has been shattered in the polls.
We should also add that they were ‘humbled’ several times during the campaign period. Sarawak’s Taib, who is the longest-serving minister in Malaysia, was accused of crony capitalism by his enemies. Meanwhile, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong issued an apology in behalf of the ruling party for the rising difficulties encountered by Singaporeans. Five years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a PAP leader would apologize for the shortcomings of the Singaporean government.
Despite their minor victories in the polls, the opposition parties in Singapore and Sarawak could use their limited power to expand influence inside the government and broaden their constituencies. The instant boost in their credibility could motivate them to be more aggressive in engaging the dominant parties. They seem to be more ready now to play a bigger and critical role in politics.
Another important point that political observers like us have learned from the recent elections in Singapore and Sarawak has been to be more cautious in measuring the strength of a party based merely on their performance on the internet. The low ratings of the ruling parties in social media didn’t reflect the actual votes on election day. It’s a reminder that the internet can reflect the sentiments of people in a given moment, but not necessarily their voting preference.