Analyzing the Singapore Election

Hardly on a par with developments in North Africa and the Middle East in recent months, Singapore's 7 May general election is nevertheless significant in the struggle against the authoritarian rule of the People's Action Party (PAP).

Opposition campaigns linked the cost-of- living rises, growing inequalities and public infrastructure pressures associated with foreign workers to the absence of parliamentary accountability and genuine political competition.

Enough voters bought the argument to suggest the PAP's elitist authoritarianism might be headed for greater scrutiny. Certainly there is growing skepticism about the PAP's ideology of meritocracy and exorbitant ministerial salaries justified by it. And tensions between the PAP's economic model and its ideological resistance to social democratic notions of redistribution will continue to fuel public disquiet over government policy.

But what is the extent and nature of opposition gains from the recent election? Can these be harnessed to promote sustained progress towards political pluralism? And what are the implications of a greater parliamentary opposition presence for wider political competition through civil society?

To be sure, the PAP still enjoys overwhelming electoral support and parliamentary supremacy. Even after dropping 6.5 per cent of total votes in this election, it commands a 60.1 per cent approval rating. Under Singapore's first-past-the-post voting system, aided by gerrymandering, this translates into all but six of the 87 seats in parliament. The political space opened up by the Workers' Party taking these six seats should thus not be exaggerated.

Yet, coupled with the 2006 election results, the PAP has now lost a combined 15 per cent of total votes since 2001. The opposition now collectively accounts for 40 per cent. This is quite remarkable given the extensive legislative impediments to critical political expression and independent civil society activity. And the Workers' Party victory in the Group Representation Constituency of Aljunied, netting five seats, is also a major psychological fillip for all PAP opponents.

Introduced in 1988, supposedly to guarantee minority ethnic representation, GRCs have enabled the PAP to capitalize on the limited opposition resources, shielded weaker PAP candidates from head-to-head contests and simplified electoral gerrymandering. They now constitute all but 14 parliamentary seats.

However, by a new strategy of concentrating their best candidates in the GRCs, Workers' Party leader Low Thia Khiang and colleagues demonstrated that the GRC fortress is not impregnable. Even senior ministers can be unseated – as was Foreign Minister George Yeo in the Aljunied loss. It is a strategy that opposition parties generally adopted to achieve marked improvements in vote share.

This election has also begun to blur the traditional product differentiation between PAP and opposition candidates on the basis of educational and professional credentials. Most of Singapore's six opposition parties recruited candidates who, by the PAP's traditional meritocratic yardsticks, are high achievers.

The Workers' Party's Aljunied candidate, Chen Show Mao, is emblematic of this. The former Oxford University Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Stanford University was involved in the world's largest initial public offering as a lawyer at international law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell's in Beijing.

Meanwhile, weak PAP candidates are being exposed, as in Marine Parade GRC where Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong conceded that this was a factor in the National Solidarity Party's (NSP) 43.5 per cent of the vote. The PAP's 27-year-old business consultant Tin Pei Ling was unimpressive and widely parodied in the blogosphere as a dud candidate, as were several other PAP candidates. By contrast, NSP's articulate 24-year-old Nicole Seah proved a politically savvy debater and eclipsed Lee Kuan Yew during the campaign as Singapore's most popular politician on Facebook.

For a party that claims utmost rigor in selecting candidates of merit, this raises a question. Will the narrow techno-bureaucratic types who dominate the PAP be able to attract and identify candidates to cope with more natural politicians like Seah, who may increasingly come out of the woodwork for the opposition in the wake of this election?

As Low sees it, the first step has been taken towards realizing a ‘First World Parliament' in which a critical mass of opposition genuinely holds the PAP to account. Significantly, Low asserted the legitimate long-term goal of forming a government to replace the PAP – challenging prevailing political culture among opponents and supporters of the PAP alike.

Certainly the medium- to long-term political opposition in Singapore will continue to be presented with opportunities from tensions between the structural and ideological realities of the PAP's model of state capitalism. This model combines an embrace of global market forces with an array of government-linked-companies and state institutions controlling citizens' access to economic and social resources.

If these controls were ever inspired by social democratic goals of income and wealth redistribution, it is the economic and political interests of a virtual class of state capitalists and functionaries thereof that have increasingly gained ascendancy. Indeed, the PAP has claimed ideological virtue in eschewing welfare-oriented programs that are characteristic of other developed countries.

Consequently, as Singapore's exposure to the disciplines of economic globalization has intensified, social and material inequalities have widened substantially. The average incomes of the top 20 percent of households rose by 50 per cent from 1997/98 to 2007/08, but dropped by 2.7 per cent for the poorest 20 per cent of households in this period. Recent studies by National University of Singapore academics also suggest that intergenerational social mobility in Singapore is now low.

The government's Workfare initiative and other programs meant to ease the pain of rising living costs through government rebates and other handouts are simply too meager to address this growing problem. Either the PAP has to find a solution that doesn't concede ideological ground to social democracy or crank up welfare and redistribution and admit it has been going down the wrong path.

But the challenges for political opposition exploiting these tensions as a basis for a sustained assault on authoritarian rule are also considerable. Despite recent improvements, opposition parties need to transcend inter-personality issues to concentrate on more clearly defined ideologies and programs. Six opposition parties may be a luxury. These parties are also severely restricted in the resources, networks and mobilization capacities available to them.

Most important here are the constraints on collective organization around social and political issues which are heavily regulated under the Societies Act. These are intended to prevent links between opposition parties and wider interest groups as well as to stymie the possibility of social movements and other informal political activities.

It is this denial of organic links to civil society by opposition parties and the confinement of political competition to the consequently stunted competition of electoralism that stands in the way of genuine political competition and pluralism in Singapore.

Resigned to a buoyed up Workers' Party presence in parliament, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has expressed his preference for a ‘constructive relationship in policymaking.' If the ground is to be laid for more meaningful long-term challenges to authoritarian rule, though, exploiting the parliament to subject the political system itself to systematic scrutiny is paramount.

Garry Rodan is an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University.