Singapore’s PAP Surprises Itself

The surprisingly decisive People’s Action Party win in the Singapore election says much about Singaporean society as it enters an era with possibly new and bigger challenges than those faced in recent years.

The 70 percent vote for the PAP was a surprise if only because most commentators had believed the issue was whether the party would gain less than the 60 percent it won in 2011. Thus even by its own standards the party outperformed.

  • In no particular order, with hindsight the reasons appear to be a mix of the following factors:

  • With his father no longer around, that Lee Hsien Loong be given the opportunity to be his own man for a full term. He may have been prime minister for 11 years and his father may have interfered very little in his last years, but nonetheless Hsien Loong is now out there on his own.

  • The responsiveness that the Lee Hsien Loong-led administration has shown towards public unhappiness, firstly over the rate of immigration creating transport and housing shortages and job competition in some sectors. Sharp cutbacks in numbers of new permanent residents and those on work permits have been well received. So too has been the admission in the budget of the need for additional welfare spending to supplement Central Provident Fund provisions for low paid workers.

  • The innate conservatism of an aging society – the median age of citizens is now 40.4 years. Although Lee promises to focus on the needs of the younger generation, the median age is set to hit 47 by 2030.

In the wake both of Lee Kuan Yew’s death and the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence, the PAP was able to strengthen its appeal as the embodiment of Singapore success.

The PAP’s poor showing in 2011 could be attributed to its arrogance as well as specific issues. Now it has a slightly softer image. LKY himself then generated many resentments. Now he generates nostalgia.

The state of the world is more worrying for Singaporeans. The China boom which has benefited it so much since the turn of the millennium is now in doubt, tensions between China and Singapore’s close ally, the US, are a worry as are the conflicts over the South China Sea. Malaysia is in a mess and both it and Indonesia face sustained periods of difficulty due to commodity price falls. World trade is almost stagnant and ASEAN cohesion is in doubt.

The quality of the opposition to the PAP remains an issue but it was no worse than in 2011. As before this was a referendum on the PAP, not a choice of alternative governments.

A big victory however does not make it any easier for the PAP to remain united as it faces new challenges and expectations. One is how far to move down the road of increasing recurrent spending to meet the health and welfare needs of an aging population. The years when Singapore could build surpluses with high enforced savings and a very high level of workforce participation are ending. Lee Kuan Yew’s vision of a “rugged society” worked well enough in pioneering days when the population was young. But no more.

One answer is more immigration but the local population is already very unhappy with the rates seen in the past decade when there was a deliberate attempt to increase size, not just offset the low fertility rate of residents. Despite repeated efforts to encourage child-bearing the fertility rate at 1.2 similar to Hong Kong’s and almost the lowest in the world.

Increasing the numbers of nonresidents on employment passes, S-Passes and work permits (mostly low paid employees in construction or domestic help) helps raise living standards for the citizens and can provide for increased health care. But Singaporeans can reasonably ask whether it is healthy for the nation to be so dependent on workers with no stake in society. Non-residents are already 29 percent of the population and about 33 percent of the workforce.

There are no obvious signs of divisions within the PAP elite, yet such divisions, whether over policies or personalities, are natural. In the Singapore case, the elite controls much through its levers in commerce as well as the machinery of government and state controlled entities. But it is not like the Communist Party of China, a self-perpetuating system of power and privilege but one which was forged by the force of personality and exacting performance standards of a man who is no longer around. Notwithstanding the election result, Singapore looks set to be more interesting, and less predictable.