Singapore: Same-Same But Different?

Natalie Tan - Singapore

Singapore’s General Election (GE) this past month was a landslide victory for the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP), which won 70% of the popular vote share and 83 out of 89 parliamentary seats. Singapore is divided into both Group Representation and Single Member Constituencies that elect Members of Parliament by the first-past-the-post voting system inherited from the Westminster parliamentary system. This election was the ruling party’s best performance in over a decade, especially given that the 2011 GE was thought to be an inflexion point—the start of a steadily declining vote share for the PAP. Accordingly, most of the post-GE2015 analyses focus on explaining such an ‘unexpected’ victory. But the more important questions to ask are whether this single-party dominant political system is viable in the long-term and beneficial in its current form.

For the unacquainted, the PAP first came to power in 1959, when self-government was accorded by the British colonial government. In 1965, the PAP oversaw separation from Malaysia and world recognition of modern Singapore as a country. Then, ‘Singapore’ had a population of only 2 million, less a nation than a collection of different ethnic groups and socio-cultural identities, fraught with fault lines. It faced the fallout of post-colonization alongside challenging geography. It lacked key natural resources, including water, and had no army in the face of a hostile neighbour many times its size. Colonial policy had left it with a deficit of literate and skilled workers and a shrinking economy as the British Army pulled out. The PAP is generally credited with Singapore’s progression over the past fifty years to a modern industrialized country with near total literacy, multi-ethnic and religious harmony, a credible army, strong diplomatic standing, and the world’s best country in numerous economic scoreboards. Though this narrative is disputed by some, it is little wonder that many Singaporeans have strong feelings of goodwill towards the PAP as a reliable and competent party.

This sense of legitimacy carries on today. To voters, the PAP is the ‘safe option’ to govern them—their track record has general public approval. However, the electorate has increasingly supported opposition to ‘keep the PAP on its toes,’ especially in recent years. The opposition parties so far have struggled to depict themselves as a potential governing party; instead, they appear to ride on voter sentiment supporting an opposition presence to check excessive PAP power. In other words, as long as the PAP continues to refresh their ranks and the opposition continues to interrogate them—ideally to avert ossification—the electorate seems to be content with a single-party dominant state in the near future. It is not a stretch to say that the PAP’s own founding and governing ideals of merit and pragmatism have been  thoroughly internalized by Singaporeans—they have become a core part of the political identity: ‘whatever works, works’ and ‘if you’re able, that’s enough.’ Less flatteringly, this may speak to the risk-aversion arising from a deep-seated belief in Singapore’s inherent vulnerability.

Political commentators, often from the West, are quick to remind Singapore of their views on what is truly ‘free’ and ‘good’, in the process staking an exclusive claim to what is and should be desirable in politics. Singapore often deviates from the liberal democratic models currently embodied by many Western countries, by placing restrictions on media and linking it to political leadership. It is certainly possible that this exceptional ‘Singapore model’—which includes a large Executive power and Legislative majority to try and avert the gridlock oft seen elsewhere—is a utopian myth, perhaps even perpetuated by the ruling elite. In time, the political scene may increasingly resemble that of Westminster or Washington D.C. But the electorate should be able to stake out its own independent mandate to realize its own goals and desires.

With this political landscape in mind, we spoke with Mr. Vikram Khanna, Associate Editor of the Business Times.

Assuming the people’s will remains rather constant—that is, continuing to desire the PAP as ruling party—can single-party dominance be sustained in the long-run and defy conventional theories about liberal democratic development?

It’s possible that a single party’s dominance can be sustained in the long run—anything is possible in politics—but unlikely. A rising population, greater affluence, a more educated and demanding electorate, an active (and less controllable) social media are all natural ingredients of greater political pluralism. We have already witnessed this. Certainly the ruling party will adapt (as it has done), but it’s likely that Singapore’s political space will become increasingly contestable, and contested—again, something that is already visible.

Will this be to Singapore’s benefit? How does this unique ‘Singapore model’ then differ from an exclusively single-party state? Is there a sort of identity engendered from being governed by the PAP?

If a single party can be truly inclusive in the sense of serving the needs of diverse political (as distinct from electoral) constituencies and interest groups, successfully negotiating crises, accommodating varying viewpoints—if, in short, it can truly be all things to all people, then yes, a case can be made that this would be to Singapore’s benefit. But I think this is unlikely and even a bit utopian.

More likely over the long run is what the experience of most of the democratic world suggests—that periodically, people will want alternative visions and approaches, they will want fresh faces, they will vote for change—sometimes even radical change. Also, we must remember, governments do not always negotiate all crises successfully. There are countless examples of this to look to: Europe today or Japan through most of the last 20 years, or Latin America over the last half century, or the Middle East.

But of course, for people to vote for a change of government, credible alternatives need to be available. Singapore does not have this—yet.

However, I am not sure the current opposition model of “we don’t want to form the government—we only want to be the opposition” is cast in stone. The opposition does have increasingly credible candidates with every election—many of them with experience in the professions, industry and even government. In the future they may have even more of them. So the talent gap can be filled.

But there are other major obstacles for the opposition to overcome before they can offer a credible alternative to govern. They do not have the formidable party organization of the cadre-based PAP. They are fragmented. Many of the parties only pop up at election time—the rest of the time they remain dormant. Their engagement with the nation is largely confined to asking questions in parliament and working with people in the constituencies they control. They do not offer alternative ideas or even constructive criticism on a sufficiently wide range of issues and on an ongoing basis.

However, over the long run, these things can change. One should not rule out the possibility of a consolidation of the opposition or even a split in the PAP itself. Realignments of political forces do occur, and politics can be full of surprises.