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Change or Stability

Singapore General Elections 2015

Subrata K Mitra (isasmskr@nus.edu.sg) is the director of the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy (isasrrc@nus.edu.sg) is a research associate at ISAS.

 

What does the return of the People’s Action Party in the Singapore elections signify? The authors suggest that this verdict vindicates the trend of the steady spread of the norms of democratic participation and constitutional democracy in Singapore. 

The 17th general elections of Singapore (12th since the founding of the Republic in 1965), which took place on 11 September,  delivered a resounding triumph to the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has been continuously in power for the past five decades. This was no ordinary victory. The ruling party, despite grim predictions, brought home an overwhelming haul of 83 seats out of the total 89 (see figures I & II). Its vote share of 69.9% marked an increase of 9.8 percentage points compared to the 2011 polls. Those unfamiliar with Singapore politics and used to considering South-East Asian states in terms of the tutelage of authoritarian ruling parties might see this election as yet another instance of a general pattern.

However, two important caveats are called for. First, in terms of norms of constitutionalism and rule of law, Singapore is distinctly different from its neighbours. Secondly, most observers had expected the PAP to garner less votes than it actually did. We explore the reasons of the unanticipated swing towards the PAP and its implications for the deepening of constitutional democracy in Singapore.

Figure-I: Number of Seats Won

The Context

By Indian standards, the campaign, which lasted all of nine days with a “cooling-off day” in the end, was an intense but short, non-violent and orderly affair. Over 93% of eligible voters cast their ballots. This is not surprising, since voting is compulsory in Singapore. However, judging by the intensity of the campaign and the determined efforts of all contestants—from the ruling party as well as opposition parties—this election was not merely a ritual but a real battle of wills.

Figure-II: GE 2015 Results

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had taken a calculated risk in bringing the elections forward by a year, on the heels of the SG50 celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the republic. This was also the first time the PAP went to the polls without the towering presence of Lee Kuan Yew, the republic’s founder and Pime Minister Lee’s father, who passed away in March. Thus, the real challenge for the Prime Minister was to ensure a smooth transition to a new regime with a benign face, based on inclusive, efficient and professional governance.

Governance of Elections in Singapore

Since 9 August 1965, when Singapore became an independent republic and the Legislative Assembly was renamed Parliament, the PAP has  returned to power in every general election, with an absolute majority of seats and votes each time. Singapore held its first general election as an independent nation in 1968, with the PAP sweeping all parliamentary seats in 58 constituencies and garnering 84.4% of total votes cast. PAP’s success was in part due to an election boycott by the Barisan Sosialis and several other opposition parties. A breakthrough in the PAP’s monopoly of parliament came about only in 1981 when J BS Jeyaratnam of the Workers’ Party won a by-election. In the 1984 General Elections, the opposition won two seats in parliament. In 1988, the government introduced the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system to ensure minority representation in parliament. General Elections 2011 were the poorest showing by the PAP since independence as the party lost a GRC for the first time. The Workers’ Party captured the five-seat Aljunied GRC and retained its Hougang seat. The 2015 elections reversed the trend, for the PAP’s popular vote share bounced back to its previous levels of absolute majority (Ho 2014).

Results and Analysis

Table: Singapore GE Result

The long shadow of the 2011 polls had formed an ominous backdrop for the prospects of the ruling party. Social inequality was cited as a major issue by the Workers’ Party, which was expected to capitalise on it. The outlook for Singapore’s export-dependent economy appeared grim. The economy contracted a sharp 4.6% in the second quarter and rose a feeble 1.7% from the previous year. Other issues, such as a surge in immigration, crowding of public transportation, and concerns over healthcare and retirement savings had caused public resentment. Besides, housing and property prices were much contested topics. Finally, after many years of one-party rule, many were concerned about accountability and transparency. Politicians’ salaries remain among the highest globally. This had spurred accusations that the PAP was out of touch with ordinary Singaporeans, particularly on income disparity.

Why PAP Won?

Despite these challenges from the opposition, the government, rising over the appeals of populism, had resisted calls for universal healthcare, showcasing its financial prudence and solicitude for stable governance. The policy debates will surely continue. But the scale and spread of the electoral triumph should be seen as a strong endorsement of the leadership of the Prime Minister, with his central message of continuing with the achievements of Singapore—economic growth, stability, environmental sustainability, communal harmony and a robust, forward-looking attitude to life. The Prime Minister declared, “Tomorrow will be better than today, SG100 will be better than SG50. Thank you very much.” In this election, 2.3 million voters in General Elections 2015 returned the PAP to power with a swing of almost 10 percentage points from the previous General Elections. What were the factors which led to such a resounding victory? Broadly, we can classify key factors into three categories:

Emotional Factors

Singapore turned 50 years in 2015, which was celebrated in a big way by the ruling PAP government. SG50 grand celebrations and related activities reminded Singaporeans of how their country—the little red dot (Koh, Tommy and Chang Li Lin 2005)—thrived against all odds under the able leadership of the PAP.  Indeed, the PAP has enabled Singapore to punch far above its weight in global affairs. Further, it was believed that the death of founding Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, also generated a sense of gratitude among citizens and reminded them his vital role in making Singapore what it is today. However, it is difficult to say how much of those emotions turned into actual votes.

Policy Changes

Issues such as immigration, elderly healthcare and rising property prices were on top of the government’s agenda and the PAP government took decisive actions to address these issues effectively. Immigration flows were tightened. Senior citizens were given health and transport subsidies. Similarly, construction of more public flats helped control the rising property prices, and more importantly, to ease the pressure of overcrowding on public transport, huge investments were made to improve its state. The outcome of these policies convinced voters that the PAP is dependable and hence citizens reposed their trust.

Strong Leadership

Amidst emerging regional and global challenges, Singaporeans wanted a strong and reliable leadership with a well thought-out strategy for future. While steady decline in popular votes of the PAP resulted in emergence of several new opposition parties, mainly personality-driven ones with little organisational structure. With a lack of credibility and visibility, poor-quality of candidates and without institutional ground support, opposition parties seemed less prepared to lead Singapore (Chong 2015). On the other hand, the PAP under the leadership of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, while impressed with its performance, it also convinced voters that the PAP would be able to steer the ship safely from the rough weather in region and progress of the little red dot would be more impressive in years to come. People wanted to hand over Singapore in the hands of a strong leadership.

Thus, all these important factors lead to the PAP’s big win. Indeed, Singapore is a vibrant society and performance by the government seems a true indicator of getting popular support.

Throughout the campaign, Prime Minister Lee’s ubiquitous, smiling face on election hoardings, his genial walkabouts—mingling with crowds without anything like the security cordon that filters ordinary folks from the leadership in most countries—made this election something of a personal achievement for him. With this election, Lee has finally emerged from under the towering presence of his father.

Discreet Charms of an Asian Democracy

Sceptics who scoff at the idea of an Asian democracy and see it merely as a truncated version of a Western-style democracy are wide off the mark. Underneath the facade of a ruling party, with its highly efficient party machine and a state machinery that has mentored the rise of a barren island into first-world prosperity, a vital change is taking place in the nature of Singapore’s national identity, community and political process. Just as the Congress’s dominance in the first two decades immediately after Indian independence established the key parameters of Indian politics—independence of the judiciary, the Election Commission, the army’s political neutrality and the sanctity of the basic rights of ordinary citizens—so too has the stewardship of the PAP given Singapore its political and moral foundation. This election has vindicated the trends of the steady spread of the norms of democratic participation and constitutional democracy in Singapore—a rare achievement in the volatile and fragmented political communities of the non-western world.

Note

For information on Singapore's election rules and the manner in which it is conducted please see http://www.eld.gov.sg/elections_parliamentary.html. 

References

[All URLs last accessed on 2 December 2015]

Chong, Terence (2015): “Upcoming Election a Tipping Point for Singapore’s Ruling PAP,” EastAsiaForum, 6 September, http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2015/09/06/upcoming-election-a-tipping-point-for-singapores-ruling-pap/.

Ho, Stephanie (2014): “History of General Elections in Singapore,” singaporeinfopedia, http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_549_2004-12-28.html.

Jeremy Au Yong and Tham Yuen-C (2015): “8 Reasons for Surge of Support,” Sunday Times, 13 September, Modified Online Version - http://www.straitstimes.com/politics/8-reasons-for-surge-of-support.

Koh, Tommy and Chang Li Lin (eds) (2005): The Little Red Dot: Reflections on Singapore’s Diplomats, Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies and World Scientific Publishing Co Pte Ltd, http://www.worldscientific.com/doi/pdf/10.1142/9789812567628_fmatter

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