Singapore debates the PAP's future

Singapore will go to the polls on May 7 with a battered opposition hoping it can make some kind of dent in the overwhelming dominance of the People's Action Party, which has led the country since 1959.

The Straits Times, Singapore's flagship newspaper, which assiduously toes the government line, has called the race a "defining election," implying that for the first time since full independence in 1965 the fragmented and largely oppressed opposition might actually pick up a significant minority in the parliament. It is difficult to figure out what the true picture is, since the government has outlawed polling.

So far, there has been little of the browbeating that has characterized previous races when the family of Lee Kuan Yew, modern Singapore's founder, has used defamation and other laws to pursue opposition members ruthlessly, bankrupting them and arresting them on flimsy pretexts.

Many observers believe the real test of the current election is whether, following the May 7 polls, the Lees or the government will once again take to the courts to sue opposition members for defamation or contempt of court for making what in most democratic countries would be regarded as legitimate campaign statements.

Currently the PAP holds 82 of the 84 parliamentary seats despite the fact that the ruling party won only 66.6 percent of the popular vote in the 2006 election. The PAP's popular vote total has been trending down for years. In 2001 the popular vote total was 75.3 percent. Gerrymandering of districts and group constituencies have helped to sustain the party's dominance in the parliament.

On their side, the opposition parties are seeking traction by campaigning against rising inflation, which hit 5 percent annually in February, and the astronomical salaries paid to PAP ministers, by far the highest in the world. Although Singapore has all the outward appurtenances of a modern, cosmopolitan society with gleaming office towers and residential parks, the reality, according to the Singapore Democratic Party led by the oft-arrested Chee Soon Juan, tells a different story. There are no statistics on Singapore's underclass, which according to anecdotal evidence is ‘legendary'. It is confirmed by the sight of ageing, frail and gaunt men and women cleaning up tables in the nation's food courts, restaurants and hotels, cleaning the streets or pushing trolley carts at the nation's glitzy airport.

The SDP's website is replete with vignettes of the poor, charging their condition has been allowed to fester because of an impassive government, detached from reality and insensitive to the sufferings of ordinary Singaporeans.

The government's campaign to bring in overseas workers, which has increased the population of the island by more than 800,000 since 2005, has also sparked considerable resentment on the part of the 4 million-plus native Singaporeans. In an effort to capitalize on that resentment, the economic blueprint championed by the SDP calls for a reduction of the nation's manufacturing sector, ostensibly to reduce the number of foreign workers entering the country. Manufacturing's contribution to GDP has been rising – from 29 percent in 2008 to 31 percent in 2010 and more so far this year.

Against the opposition concerns, the government can cite strong growth coming off the 2008-2009 global financial meltdown, with 2010 gross domestic product soaring upward by 14.5 percent, although that is coming off a low 2009 base. The Ministry of Finance has moderated its 2011 forecast to just 4-6 percent. The government can also argue convincingly that it managed its exposure to the global financial crisis effectively, using public funds to stimulate consumer spending and create or sustain jobs in an economy that depends overwhelmingly on exports to the west.

Legislation pushed through the parliament guarantees at least nine opposition members, with the closest losers being offered seats in addition to any who manage to win on their own. Only the most wildly optimistic observers believe the opposition will end up with a significant minority in the house. The opposition is divided among several different parties with significant differences in policy and strategy.

However, for the first time in a generation, the opposition is contesting all of the constituencies, something the PAP has rarely faced. And, in contrast to previous elections, the political opposition is fielding some formidable candidates. Some of the notable ones include Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the son of the late Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, long Singapore's leading opposition figure. The Cambridge-educated Kenneth Jeyaretnam leads the Reform Party that his father founded shortly before he died. Others include Dr. Ang Yong Guan, a psychiatrist who spent 23 years with the Singapore Armed Forces, and Tan Jee Say, who joined the SDP after being secretary to former Premier Goh Chok Tong.

Still others are Dr Vincent Wijeysingha, who is believed to have authored the Singapore Democratic Party‘s manifesto, and Chen Shao Mao of the Workers' Party. Sylvia Lim, the chairwoman of the Workers' Party, is another strong candidate.

Also, as with Malaysia in 2008 national elections, social media appear to be playing a growing role in one of Asia's best-wired – and most censored -- countries. So far, authorities have largely allowed opposition parties to publish what they want on Internet, much of it irrelevant or irresponsible, while keeping a close rein on print and television media. However Temasek Review, one of the few opposition websites, complained on April 25 that it had been hit with a so-called DDOS, or distributed denial of service attack that flooded the website with vast numbers of responses and put its server out of business.

Singapore boasts some 3 million Facebook members and an estimated 900,000 twitter users. Both the PAP and the opposition have been using the Internet extensively to put their message across for months despite the fact that ostensibly no campaigning is allowed until this week.

To blunt opposition criticism that the PAP is growing increasingly sclerotic and out of touch, the party has fielded 24 new candidates, the youngest of whom is 27-year-old Tin Pei Ling, who came under immediate fire for wearing designer togs. She defended herself by saying she had been forced to leave university for six months to help run the family coffee shop when her father fell ill, and that she knows what it is to worry about keeping families together.

The intimidation that typically characterized elections in years gone by has abated, for instance when then-Prime Minister Goh in the 19096-1997 general election warned that public housing upgrade programs could be withdrawn from constituencies that voted against the government, earning Goh a rebuke from the US State Department.

It is too soon to predict if the tide is turning against the ruling party. The PAP continues to remain entrenched. Throughout the country its imprimatur is overwhelming, whether in civil institutions, the armed forces, public housing and public schools. However, it is a party without the institutionalized platforms for accountability on why policies that have displeased the electorate continue to remain in place.

"This election may portend a generational change" declared Eugene Tan, a political commentator and academic to the nation's main news organization, Channel News Asia.

At the heart of the contest are competing economic blueprints. Another, is who best represents the aspirations and dreams of a population born in the digital age, raised with domestic maids doubling as surrogate mothers and oblivious to the odd ‘pious platitudes' the PAP has always been in the fond habit of dishing out.