Singapore’s political evolution

Singapore’s elections last week for the presidency of the country threw up a relatively narrow victory for Mr Tony Tan, a former Deputy Prime Minister of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government which has dominated the country continually since the 1950s. Tan was, until recently, Chairman of one of the most important state institutions, the Singapore Investment Corporation which manages the country’s sovereign wealth fund. With those credentials, although he was not a formal nominee of the PAP, and in accordance with tradition the party did not campaign for him for what is largely a ceremonial post. Nevertheless, it was widely acknowledge that he was the party’s choice, in what is really, in the language of the political scientists, a one-party dominant state. In a country in which, in the last two elections, the person deemed to be the PAP’s candidate for the presidency, S R Nathan, was elected unopposed, Tan obtained only 35% of the vote against two other candidates, edging out the next leading contender by a mere 7.269 votes in a voting population of about 2.1 million.

The result reflects what seems to be a trend of relative declining support for the government, first indicated in the parliamentary elections in May of this year, when the party received 60% of the vote, though winning 81 of 87 seats. This latter result which would send parties in democratic countries wildly rejoicing, the PAP saw as quite disappointing, this apparently reflecting a sense that its overwhelming political dominance since independence in 1965 is beginning to wane.

In looking at this trend, it should be noted that the other main candidate, Tang Cheng Bock, was himself a PAP member of parliament from 1980 to 2006, suggesting, still, an internal fight within the PAP. But the sentiment of diminishing support and power of the PAP is likely to be a correct one, as the country has moved from one generation to another over the last fifty years, and the advanced economic stage to which the party has brought the country is no longer seen by new voters as the miracle that it has been taken to be not only in Singapore, but in the world at large. The electorate is beginning to behave like those in longstanding democracies where the achievements of the ruling party are no longer seen as reflecting any particular positive characteristics of its leadership, but are taken by the voters as reflecting their natural expectations.

The PAP, under Lee Kwan Yew’s guidance has, however, always taken another view, arguing that the success of the country, which is approximately the physical size of St Lucia in our region, has been due to the manner in which all the efforts of leadership were concentrated in one institution, the PAP, and not subject to what they have deemed to be the divisive effects of multiparty politics. The PAP has never, over the years, formally denounced or formally rejected the multi-party system, a vibrant example of which was practised in Jamaica for example, a country to which it was often compared in the early ’60s. But Lee Kwan Yew has insisted, when challenged by critics about the rigidity of Singapore’s political system and the requirement for conformity which it insisted upon, that in a multi-ethnic (though Chinese dominated) small state, political unity was a prerequisite for effective governance, and this in turn, a prerequisite for consistency of economic policy. Lee’s argument was that unbridled two-party competition in a developing country inevitably led to opportunist promises of rewards to the population which the economy could hardly afford, and a loss of effective control of the policy-making necessary for economic stability.

Underlying this argument, however, has always been a focus on another aspect which Lee Kwan Yew and the PAP insisted upon, and which can rather be seen as a more convincing explanation of the country’s economic success. This was an insistence on a strict propriety in the conduct of government’s affairs, leading to a minimising of corruption in governance, this result being only made possible, in his view, by ensuring the unity of party governance. In his later years, Lee has often critically commented on the results of what he has seen as the alternative models for a developing country – for example the fractious party politics of Jamaica or the one-party system accompanied by the diminution of the plural economic system, as practised by many of the African states or Guyana which achieved independence more or less at the same time as Singapore.

The latest election results over the course of this year indicate, however, that the Singapore electorate is beginning to insist that the strict virtual one-party regime of the country is no longer necessary. It is voting with its feet to insist that the PAP’s monopoly is no longer necessary, and that the restrictions on individual freedom, including freedom of the press also thought necessary by Lee to ensure a stable environment for governance, is no longer necessary. The voters would appear to increasingly perceive the PAP as an oligarchy not permitting opposition to its mode of economic governance to be taken into account, and often utilising the mechanism of disallowing strong opposition candidates from contesting elections on politically frivolous or unconvincing grounds. With those objections, the voters are beginning to demand more political space, beyond the boundaries of the ruling PAP. This is an evolution to which the new leadership of the PAP appears to have no answer as yet, particularly as the demands of the opposition would appear to include insistence on the withdrawal Lee Kwan Yew from active and formal guidance of the system, a demand to which he now appears to have acceded.

But there are signs too, that the electorate is demanding more debate and consultation over economic policy, in a situation in which the PAP has always believed that the priorities and requirements of the international economy necessarily determine the making of domestic economic policy for a small state. In that regard, an aspect of the government‘s economic policy has always been an insistence that the price of labour needed to be controlled by permitting the relatively free import of foreign labour, even though of Chinese origin, abundant in the country’s environment. The recent parliamentary and presidential campaigns have brought home to the PAP that the electorate is not willing to permit this course, especially in the face of a level of inflation not previously experienced. The elections seem to suggest also an insistence on the need to ameliorate growing economic inequalities.

So the attraction of “the Singapore model,” much discussed in our part of the world, especially recently in a Jamaica seeking to find a way of getting out of its economic difficulties of the last thirty years, would seem to Singapore’s own electorate to be in need of modification. The need for more institutional flexibility that would remove the restraints on opposition politicking, and the taking into account of opposition parliamentary critiques of the government’s style of rule, is being forced upon the PAP by the electorate. How the new leaders react to the demands of the opposition, and wider popular sentiment, for an opening of the political system, absent the direct influence of the 85-year-old Lee Kwan Yew and his generation, is now left to be seen.

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