New realities

Print edition : June 03, 2011

Singapore's long-governing People's Action Party triumphs again but slides down in popularity in several pockets.

in Singapore

Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister and leader of the People's Action Party, after winning the elections on May 7.-MUNSHI AHMED/BLOOMBERG

WHAT is new about the decisive triumph once again of Singapore's long-governing People's Action Party (PAP) in a parliamentary general election? Surely, there is nothing outwardly novel about its performance in the 2011 round.

The party, led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, won 81 out of the 87 seats in the parliament-to-be formed. Indeed, the seats at stake for the actual election on May 7 were only 82. The PAP had already bagged the other five seats by being unopposed in one multi-member constituency on the nominations day. Significantly, the five unopposed winners included Singapore's founder and first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. The elder statesman is also the father of the current Prime Minister.

This time, the PAP was not returned to power on the nominations day itself. So, polling took place on May 7 for most of the parliamentary seats at stake. The 2011 general election was not the first time when the party had failed to capture government on the nominations day itself.

Looking beyond these simple ground realities, the younger Lee has emphasised that the latest general election should be seen as a watershed in the city-state's political history. Despite the old-fashioned ways of looking at Singapore's politics of single-party dominance, the new realities this time were the spirited campaign by several opposition parties and the convincing victory for one of them, the Workers' Party (W.P.), in a solitary group representation constituency (GRC). W.P. leader Low Thia Khiang portrayed the first such gain as a political breakthrough and as a reflection of the people's assessment of his party as a rational, responsible and credible outfit.

Different dynamics

To those familiar with the pluralist political ethos and electoral passions of 24/7 democracies such as India and the United States, the apparent gradualism of change in Singapore's politics, as now acknowledged by the PAP and its electoral rivals, is a dynamic that belongs to a different world, as it were. Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Lee, steeped in the local folklore about Singapore as an exceptional state, defended his party's primacy even before calling the 2011 general election. He argued that the inevitable absence of a sufficient pool of talent in a mere city-state would not be conducive to the evolution of a genuine two-party system. The crux of his argument was that Singaporeans would be hard-pressed to assemble two A-Teams for competitive politics.

Surely, Singapore's latest election results do not conclusively reveal the existence, if at all, of a subterranean groundswell of support for the evolution of a two-party system or a multiparty society. In fact, the six opposition parties, which came together to challenge the PAP this time, made no post-poll claims of having discovered a subterranean urge for a balance of forces in parliament, let alone a shadow government.

The six opposition parties did not even form a coalition, with a prime ministerial candidate of its own, to challenge the PAP. With the W.P. informally leading the opposition's charge in the analogy of a competitive sporting event, the six parties just managed to avoid undermining one another for 81 of the 82 contested seats. There was a triangular fight in one single-member constituency (SMC), with two opposition parties challenging a PAP candidate. Significantly, one of the two opposition candidates lost deposit, the only such instance in the 2011 elections.

For the statistical record, the PAP won just over 60 per cent of the total popular votes, a sliding down compared with the previous two general elections, but bagged a magical 90 per cent of the seats. And, the opposition, with just six seats now, will continue to remain at a huge numerical disadvantage.

OPPOSITION WORKERS' PARTY supporters celebrate after their party won five parliament seats.-ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP

Viewed in this quantitative and part-qualitative perspective, it should come as a surprise, by the conventional wisdom of democratic discourse elsewhere in the world, that Prime Minister Lee should see the latest election results as something that requires profound attention.

Until this year, Singapore's general elections were about how big the icing on the cake of power was and not about the cake itself. For the PAP, already in power for over half a century without any break whatsoever, the latest results should reflect the continuation of a similar pleasant reality. Maybe, the icing is somewhat slimmer this time because of the loss of a GRC (and with it, five seats in one stroke).

But the cake itself remains very large indeed. Yet, the ruling party has taken these results as a wake-up call. Why? The qualitative aspect of the PAP's loss in a solitary GRC and the perceived erosion of the ruling party's popular vote in several pockets cumulatively account for such a sense of new realism.

Logic of GRCs

The opposition has for long disputed the logic of the system of multi-member GRCs. In every GRC, each contesting party must have on its slate at least one candidate from one of the minority groups. According to the PAP, the author of the GRC system, such a rule book is the only way of guaranteeing at least a minimum representation of minorities in parliament. Singapore is home to a huge ethnic-Chinese majority with diverse religious and rational persuasions. The city-state is also home to several minorities, including in particular Muslims with Malay-ethnicity and the predominantly Hindu people of Indian origin.

The opposition's counterpoint about the GRCs is that they are designed to favour the PAP unduly. It is argued that each of the established PAP players invariably takes under his or her wing one or more candidates with little or no name-recognition at all. Such a practice of slate-making is designed to leave the opposition parties with less than a level playing field. So runs the argument from the opposition camp, which is yet to have a team of major parliamentary players who can carry on their shoulders candidates with little or no name-recognition. It now remains to be seen whether the W.P., buoyed by its first success in a GRC, will change its tune about this system over time.

A campaign theme of the opposition, in particular the W.P., was the need to move towards the creation of a First-World parliament. The Cold-War-era label is quite anachronistic today. However, the decoded message is that Singapore is not yet a first-world country despite its highly impressive macro-level economic growth indices.

In fact, income disparities, the high costs of health care and education, inflation, and the looming presence of foreign talent were the other main campaign issues.

The opposition, in its passion for the label of a First-World parliament, has so far failed to notice how established democracies such as India have sought to address the issues of electoral fairness and representation for the minorities. In fact, India, as an Asian parliamentary democracy, and the U.S., as a Western presidential democracy, can be usefully studied by the leaders across Singapore's political spectrum.

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