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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

How Singapore’s People’s Action Party continued its 50-year reign

Singapore’s recent national election was meant to be close-run, but instead the ruling party extended its 50-year reign. Joshua Kurlantzick examines their stunning victory.
Top, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister and the leader of the People’s Action Party, celebrates after its landslide election win earlier this month. Above, his father, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, visits the newly built Commonwealth Close Estate in 1965. Nicky Loh / Bloombeg
Top, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister and the leader of the People’s Action Party, celebrates after its landslide election win earlier this month. Above, his father, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, visits the newly built Commonwealth Close Estate in 1965. Nicky Loh / Bloombeg

Lee Kuan Yew’s death in March prompted much debate about the road ahead for Singapore.

Lee had overseen the city-state’s separation from Britain and its divorce from Malaysia in 1965, winning elections that year as the head of the People’s Action Party.

The party at the time had many peers as independence-campaigns-turned parties in former colonies. But none have matched its 50-year record of electoral dominance and economic policy. Singapore’s GDP per capita has grown from about US$500 (Dh1,836) in 1965 to more than $55,000 today.

Although Lee was no longer prime minister (but still an MP and very powerful), his death brought into focus the challenges facing Singapore. Some predicted that the dominance of the PAP would end in the general election two weeks ago.

Opposition parties seized on Singapore’s high income inequality and openness to immigration, blaming the PAP for allowing in too many foreigners.

The 2015 election would be decisive, vowed the Workers Party leader Sylvia Lim. Several officials privately said they hoped to gain at least a quarter of the seats in parliament. And the opposition was contesting all seats for the first time.

“Perhaps more than any election in recent decades, present conditions in Singapore are not as favourable [for a PAP win] as they were in the past,” wrote Bridget Welsh, a specialist on South East Asia at National Taiwan University.

However, the PAP won nearly 70 per cent of the vote in the September 11 poll, its highest total in two decades. Supporters jubilantly carried the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong (the son of Lee Kuan Yew) around a stadium on their shoulders. The result, a visibly shocked Lee said, “humbled” him.

How did the PAP exceed expectations in the vote, maintaining dominance in the city-state even as its population has become wealthier, more educated and extremely knowledgeable about politics and the world?

The pre-election debates did not avoid critical issues, such as Singapore’s economic competitiveness and its delicate security balance between China and the United States – a contrast from the sound bites that sometimes characterise political debates elsewhere.

Certainly the PAP benefitted from Singaporeans’ genuine sorrow at Lee Kuan Yew’s death in March and the national sense of gratitude for the economic miracle he had delivered. And even as Singapore has developed the institutions of democracy, including free and fair elections, the PAP retains subtle advantages that help it maintain its grip. Dan Slater, an expert on South East Asia at the University of Chicago, notes that the opposition in Singapore faces “extreme malapportionment and gerrymandering” as well as “state resources [that] flow freely and unapologetically to the PAP’s partisan benefit”. (There are no rules that limit state resources in this way.)

In addition, the short time between when a Singaporean government calls an election and the election day works to the ruling party’s advantage, since it has more resources and can deploy them more quickly; the election period usually lasts only about two weeks. And although Singapore’s social media and blogosphere are relatively free, the ruling party maintains significant influence over the traditional media; the biggest print newspaper is owned by a government-linked company.

But even with these advantages, the PAP’s result still shocked many experts. High turnout at opposition rallies convinced some experts that the opposition would make historic gains. This year’s election could end the era of one-party rule, making a two-party or multi-party system a real possibility, said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University before election day.

Yet the PAP has proven far more adaptable than the global image of the founding father Lee Kuan Yew, famous for sternly banning chewing gum and sanctioning caning, would lead one to believe. Following the 2011 results, where the PAP’s share of the popular vote dropped to about 60 per cent for the first time ever, Lee Hsien Loong publicly called for the party to be less top-down and more observant of the public mood. He vowed to have a “national conversation” with Singaporeans and allowed that as the city-state changed, the PAP had to change as well. The party has also become more tolerant on a range of social issues such as homosexuality and freedom for visual artists.

But beyond some cosmetic changes, the PAP also co-opted many of the opposition’s themes. “Voters appreciated the government’s recent redistributive social policies, such as the 2014 pioneer generation package to close the income gap,” even though it was the opposition that first hammered the issue of inequality, notes Netina Tan, an assistant professor of political science at McMaster University in Canada. The package provided free health care to many seniors, as well as funds for disability coverage and other subsidies for seniors.

“Voters were also grateful that the government responded to public sentiment by slowing down the unpopular immigration policy.”

Since 2011, the government has reduced the number of migrants allowed in yearly. The government last year allowed in about 26,000 foreign workers, about a third the number who entered in 2011. (However, many senior PAP leaders are convinced that Singapore must remain one of the most migrant-friendly places in the world to maintain its economic competitiveness.)

Like any effective political party, the PAP also went on the attack before the vote. Senior figures often shifted the debate to questions about the opposition. In one region of Singapore, where the Workers Party had won a group constituency four years ago, the opposition had taken over what in Singapore is called a town council, a kind of local government. PAP leaders relentlessly charged that the Workers Party had mismanaged the town council, running up debts and handing out contracts to friends of the party. These attacks clearly had an impact, denting voters’ confidence that the Workers Party and other opposition groups could manage town councils or the national government.

The attacks on the opposition’s competency also seemed to bolster Singaporeans’ inherent conservativeness, the preference for the stability provided by the PAP. Kenneth Jeyaretnam, secretary general of the Reform Party, one of the smaller opposition groups, admitted that voters had provided what he called “a mandate for authoritarianism” – that Singapore’s voters had indeed voted for the PAP, but that the PAP has acted for years like benign autocrats. (The Reform Party did not win any seats in Singapore’s parliament.)

Jeyaretnam is the son of one of the few prominent opposition politicians in Singapore during Lee Kuan Yew’s time in power; his father went bankrupt as he futilely tried to challenge the PAP. Now, some of the smaller opposition parties attracted so few votes on September 11 that they may disband. Somewhere, Lee Kuan Yew must be smiling.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for South East Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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