Singapore’s Perpetual Rulers Prep for Early Polls

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is gearing up for a general election later this year, despite the fact that under the country’s parliamentary system they do not have to be held until January 2017. It will be a watershed vote, the first since the death of the country’s founder Lee Kuan Yew and coming as the country marks its 50th anniversary.

Opposition leaders are concerned for a variety of reasons that they may be forced to give back some of the gains won in the 2011 election when the overall share of the vote for the People’s Action Party, which had been declining in election after election, fell from 66 percent to 60 percent. The PAP has ruled Singaore since it was founded.

The PAP apparently has woken up from that 2011 debacle – in which it still won 79 of the 99 elected seats in the parliament by gerrymandering. The government has responded dramatically to various public policy problems it had ignored previously. It installed an S$8 billion “Pioneer Generation Package” that has cut health care costs for the elderly and introduced tough measures to forestall a residential property bubble. It has cut the massive inflow of foreign workers, who at one point amounted to more than a third of the country’s population.

Big stick still rules

Nonetheless there is little sign of a new era after the passing of the elder Lee. The government still alternates between the carrot and the stick, bullying opponents, bloggers and publications with lawsuits and administrative action while delivering pork to the voters.

“Actually I'm seriously concerned that the PAP are going to improve on their share of the vote in the 2011 elections,” said Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the secretary-general of the opposition Reform Party. “I don't see the same kind of excitement or the rush of people coming forward to volunteer.”

Indeed, an April poll cited by the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies found that nearly 80 percent of Singaporeans are satisfied with the government, up 8 percentage points from a year ago on a variety of fronts including salaries, cost of living, the rich-poor gap and government accountability.

There are several other reasons to go ahead early, if for no other reason than to get the polls out of the way ahead of a rapidly cooling economy that could eventually affect voter sentiment. Surveys of economists say the economy is struggling from a slowdown in global activity, self-imposed domestic labor costs and falling commodity prices, which have severely reduced demand in many sectors including its important offshore oil exploration support sector. Second-quarter GDP came in at just 1.7 percent annually.

Built-in edge

The Electoral Boundaries Review Committee – which is in charge of redistricting – announced it finished its work on July 24, a sign that elections are imminent. The PAP traditonally uses its clout to gerrymander districts and impose other tactics to stay in power like group representation constituencies that favor the powerful PAP against fragmented opposition parties. It seems likely to be the same this time around given the short time between the redistricting committee’s report and a likely election. The opposition will have to scramble to redeploy forces in new districts.

So far opposition leaders haven’t been able to capitalize on the 2011 gains including winning a by-election for a group constituency in the clumsily named Aljunied-Hougang-East Punggol constituency. After taking over the Town Council from the PAP, the Worker Party has faced an unending series of audits, roadblocks and allegations from the government, raising concerns that the government is bent on hamstringing the town council. Unfortunately, the council has not helped itself through by a series of contracting mistakes that stem from inexperience or incompetence. Because of that, PAP operatives have succeeded in establishing that the Worker Party leadership is primarily interested in making money rather than serving the people or forming an alternative government. Nonetheless, the Worker Party is still expected to hang onto their present territories and may get East Coast group council and possibly a single constituency as well, an analyst said.

Blog backlash?

At the same time, two celebrated incidents could either work for or against the opposition. They each involve young people who defied the government. Roy Ngerng became the first blogger to be sued by Lee Hsien Loong for alleging in a May 15 posting on his “Heart Truths” blog that Lee had diverted money from the country’s central provident fund. When the prime minister threatened suit, Ngerng withdrew the offending article but posted more blogs raising questions about the CPF without directly attacking Lee. Singapore’s legal system, where the Lee family has never lost a defamation suit, wheeled into action and quickly won the suit. Ngerng is bankrupt, has lost his job and lives with his parents; he is awaiting a court decision on how much he will owe the prime minister.

The second case involves Amos Yee, a 16-year-old blogger who posted an obscenity-filled diatribe on Facebook saying, among other things, that he was glad Lee Kuan Yew was dead. Yee was handcuffed and jailed, placed in a mental ward for evaluation and charged with hate speech. The government finally backed off and sentenced him to time served.

“I think most people were shocked by the treatment of Amos even though they were disapproving of his criticism of the dead ‘god,’” Jeyaretnam said. “Also I don't think the PM has made many friends by suing an unemployed blogger [Ngerng]. Lee revealed himself to have no statesmanlike qualities when he appeared on the witness stand and reduced himself to the level of a school bully.”

Neither Yee nor Ngerng won many points with the wider Singapore populace by hinting the prime minister was guilty of graft in one case, even if it was withdrawn, or cursing Lee Kuan Yew. But the harsh attack on two powerless young people could generate a backlash, as could the government’s decision to lift the publishing license of The Real Singapore, a blog run by a young Singaporean and his Australian girlfriend and threaten the two with sedition charges.

“The stakes are high not only because of the stronger competition expected, but also because of a political maturation in Singaporean society and the wider participation of young and media-savvy voters,” said Rui Hao Puah, a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

“Singaporeans today are more vocal and ready to question government policies. Few quibble with the PAP’s track record, but not all buy into the narrative that Singapore would not survive without the exceptional and enlightened leadership of its ruling class. Yet even as voters desire alternative voices in politics, the PAP government has eschewed western liberalism as a yardstick for Singapore’s democracy.”