Singapore ruling party popularity tested in general election
SINGAPORE — Singaporeans began voting Friday in general elections whose results hold no surprises – the ruling People’s Action Party will extend its 50-year-rule by another five years. But what will be closely watched is the percentage of votes it garners, which will determine the measure of its popularity as the city-state goes through tough economic times.
Riding on a wave of public dissatisfaction over rising cost of living, increasing income disparity, restrictions on free speech and a tide of immigration, the opposition hopes to increase its strength in Parliament from the meagre seven seats it currently holds, all by the Workers’ Party. But the PAP also hopes to capitalize on a sympathy wave following the death of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, in March. Lee, a PAP stalwart, became the country’s first prime minister at independence in 1965, and remained in office until 1990. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, has been in office since 2004. In between, another PAP leader Goh Chok Tong was the prime minister.
“We are not the bosses of Singapore, we are not the commanders or owners of Singapore,” Prime Minister Lee, 63, said in an election rally speech. “We are the trustees and stewards of Singapore – we are like the jaga,” he said, using the Malay word for guard.
While the PAP’s current tally of 80 seats in the outgoing 87-member Parliament may signify an overwhelming dominance, the truth is that it did so by winning only 60 percent of the votes cast. The PAP has long benefited from the weak opposition which has not even been able to contest all seats, handing the PAP uncontested victories in many constituencies.
But for the first time in Singapore’s history the opposition will contest all seats in Parliament, whose strength has been increased to 89 members in Friday’s elections.
The PAP has also benefited from a unique electoral system in which some constituencies are represented by a group of four to six lawmakers. In a winner-takes-all, first-past-the-post system, all members of the victorious team get entry into Parliament. But in the last elections in 2011, the opposition wrested one such multi-candidate ward from the PAP, sending five candidates to Parliament, out of the seven seats it won.
There are about 2.46 million eligible voters — in a population of 5.47 million — in Friday’s elections, up from 2.35 million in 2011, with an increased number of voters born after independence. Most of these young voters take Singapore’s prosperity, stability and a corruption-free, low-crime society for granted. These were the main selling points of the PAP in past elections, which appealed to the first few generations who saw Singapore rise from a backward trading port city to a thriving and technologically advanced metropolis, and the 9th richest country in the world.
But voters are now asking uncomfortable questions about the restrictions on free speech and media, which they had been willing to sacrifice in return for economic prosperity. They also see an increasing number of immigrants from all over Asia, filling not only low-paying jobs but also middle-level and high-paying positions.
Singapore citizens currently make up 61 percent of the population, which is expected to increase to 6.5 million or even 6.9 million by 2030, of which 45 percent will be foreigners, partly to tackle low birth rates.
The government has long relied on an open immigration policy to attract cheap labor to keep the wheels of the economy turning. But Prime Minister Lee has had to balance the need for growth against public resentment over a policy that is cramming more and more people into an island with limited space. The government is already cutting back on immigration.
“I don’t see how the younger generation can afford a house anymore, or get a job easily with the rate of foreigners coming in at its peak. We need somebody to voice out,” said Vijayan, 34, a logistics associate. He uses only one name.
While it presided over prosperity and comfort, Singapore’s government has for long also maintained strict controls on the lives of its people. It determined who should live where. Critics including opposition leaders and foreign media were slapped with expensive — and successful — defamation and libel lawsuits. Mainstream local media remain controlled by the government. Public gatherings and demonstrations without police permit remained banned until 2000, when the rule was relaxed. Demonstrations are now allowed, but only in the Hong Lim park designated for such activities.
“Stability does not come from bullying. Stability does not come from control, and stability certainly does not come from suing those who criticize you,” Sylvia Lim of the Workers’ Party told supporters at a rally last Sunday.
“So what if our country’s GDP is high, if our income inequality is also high? So what if we have high GDP but spend hours in traffic jams due to overcrowding? … So what if there is constant urban renewal but we have forgotten our heritage and roots? ” she said at another rally.
“Please reflect on how PAP has placed economic growth at the expense of your happiness … tell the PAP that we don’t always need to be richer, we just want a better life.”
The Workers’ Party is contesting 28 seats and eight other smaller opposition parties and two independents are contesting the remaining seats. This means that even if the Workers’ Party wins all 28 seats it won’t be able to form a government with a minimum 45 seats required. There are also no plans for the party to be in a coalition with other parties.
In any case, the Workers’ Party, or any opposition party, is not contesting the election with the promise of providing an alternative government, but its campaign theme has mostly been that there needs to be a stronger opposition voice in public discourse. In one of her speeches, Lim said voting for the opposition would be like buying insurance against bad PAP policies.
Lee lampooned her in his speech.
“Insurance is good, but you must buy the right insurance from the right company,” Lee said. “But if your insurance company is an opposition party, no track record — or worse, don’t know how to handle money, not interested in you, it only wants your commission — then you pay your premium now, you feel OK, but one day you run in trouble and you look for the insurance company to pay out — then, you know you’re in trouble,” he said.
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