Politics in the Lion City: Toward an “Orchid Evolution”?

By Ai Ghee Ong, Research Associate, CSIS Southeast Asia Program

A supporter of the opposition Workers' Party waves the Flag of Singapore at a Workers' Party rally on May 1 at Yishun Stadium in Singapore. Tens of thousands turned out for the party's rallies during the short campaign. Photo by Abdul Rahman, used under a Creative Commons license.

Singapore’s May 7 General Election opened a new chapter in the city state’s history, taking a big step toward a more open political system— and perhaps a unique, Singapore-style democracy. Though the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) returned to power, garnering 81 out of 87 parliamentary seats— and though it is unlikely that Singapore will evolve into a two-party system anytime soon— the significance of Singapore’s 11th General Election is undeniable.

With a winning margin of more than 10 percent, the Workers’ Party, arguably the strongest opposition party in Singapore, took the Aljunied Group Representation Constituency. This is the first time that the Opposition has captured a Group Representation Constituency (GRC), a unique feature of the Singaporean electoral system in which each party contesting the GRC puts up a slate of 4-6 candidates, depending on the size of the constituency, who campaign as a team. The slate which receives a plurality of the votes in the GRC takes all the seats at stake there.

The victory of the Workers’ Party “A” Team in Aljunied, led by party leader Low Thia Khiang and including Sylvia Lim, Muhamad Faisal Manap, Pritam Singh, and “secret weapon” Chen Show Mao marked several firsts for the Opposition: their first female MP, first Malay MP, and first Sikh MP. The elections are also the first time that almost all – 82 out of 87 – parliamentary seats were contested, up from 48 in 2006 and only 19 in 2001. The unprecedented scale of opposition was made possible through agreement among the opposition parties to spread out, and avoid three-cornered fights. With the exception of Tanjong Pagar GRC, where the opposition was disqualified after filing their papers 35 seconds late, all constituencies were contested. (Tanjong Pagar was thus won without contest by a PAP team led by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew). The newly elected opposition MPs, holding 7 percent of the parliamentary seats, will have the huge responsibility of representing the 40 percent of the electorate that did not vote for the ruling party—nearly 1 million Singaporeans.

In a system where the odds are stacked in the ruling party’s favor, garnering 60.1 percent of popular vote is considered an embarrassment for the PAP. During the last two elections in 2001 and 2006, the PAP garnered 75 percent and 67 percent of the popular vote respectively. Although PM Lee Hsien Loong painted this year’s electoral results as a strong mandate for the PAP, it is clear that the PAP is losing its share of electoral votes with each successive election.

With 14.4 percent GDP growth last year and the country effectively at full employment, this year’s election outcome would have seemed unfathomable to external observers. But widening income inequality, rising inflation, unaffordable public housing, a massive influx of immigrants, ministerial pay hikes, the escape of Mas Selamat, and the grossly over-budget Youth Olympics, and even acts of God like the massive floods in the Orchard Road area were some of the common grouses. However, these are mere symptoms of the real problem. The underlying reason for what we see today is deeper and ideologically driven – at the end of the day, Singaporeans want a more responsive, inclusive, well-represented, and transparent government. Singaporeans are even willing to vote out a strong and popular cabinet minister, Foreign Minister George Yeo, who led the PAP’s team in Aljunied GRC, for this kind of government.

Much of the problem appears to lie with the GRC system. The loss of a capable and well-respected foreign minister was not the only “freak outcome” mourned by PAP and opposition supporters alike. The casualties of this election include the well-loved veteran opposition leader, Chiam See Tong. Chiam ventured out from his Potong Pasir Single Member Constituency (SMC) stronghold to contest the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. Not only did he lose his gamble in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, his 27-year stronghold on Potong Pasir SMC was narrowly lost to the PAP by a razor-thin margin of 114 votes.

Another “freak outcome” was the election of the wildly unpopular, 27-year-old Tin Pei Ling as part of the Marine Parade GRC slate led by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. Clearly, all parties— the PAP supporters, opposition party supporters, and now the not-so-silent majority— are upset over these “freak outcomes.” The GRC system was justified at its inception as a way to ensure minority representation in Parliament. This now rings hollow, as minority candidates like PAP’s Michael Palmer have won over Chinese opposition candidates in the more traditional single-member constituencies where they are supposedly disadvantaged. If Singaporeans no longer vote along racial lines, is the GRC system justified anymore?

The last and perhaps most significant development in this election was that for the first time, Singaporeans were engaged. The election rallies during the 9-day campaigning period were extremely well attended. In particular, opposition rallies were held in full-capacity stadiums. The Singapore People’s Party last rally, led by Chiam See Tong was reportedly attended by 30,000 Singaporeans. Young Singaporeans in particular were engaged in heated debates in new media forums, such as Facebook. For the first time, the opposition parties were able to use the Internet to mobilize supporters. In an indication of the speed with which the Internet was able to galvanize support, numerous Facebook pages sprung up overnight after the announcement of the election results calling for Tin Pei Ling’s resignation from parliament for allegedly violating cooling-off day rules.

That the quality of opposition candidates has improved with each successive election is also an indication that Singapore society is maturing. Better-educated professionals are now more willing to stand up and offer an alternative voice to the ruling party. This includes the likes of Stanford- and Harvard-trained Chen Show Mao from the WP. The candidacy of the National Solidarity Party’s 24-year-old Nicole Seah, who emerged from obscurity to become the up-and-coming star in the political scene, is also an indication that younger Singaporeans are willing to step up to shape Singapore’s future.

What is in store for Singaporean politics? More than 80 percent of Singaporeans voted this time, many of them—in their 30s and 40s—first time voters, because their constituencies were contested for the first time. In the past four elections—in 1991, 1997, 2001, and 2006—the percentage of eligible voters who lived in uncontested constituencies were 49.9 percent, 59.3 percent, 66.8 percent, and 43.4 percent respectively. Thus a large proportion of the eligible electorate was denied the opportunity to vote for decades. This large-scale disfranchisement has led to political alienation, which the ruling party had incorrectly diagnosed as political apathy amongst the young. Anecdotal evidence suggests that voters were engaged, listening to the debates, and weighing the pros and cons before they cast their vote. Gone are the images of docile, passive, and apathetic Singaporeans. The alienation and disenfranchisement that resulted from the inability to vote because of the numerous walkovers in uncontested GRCs dissipated. Singaporeans were thinking, voting with their hearts and their minds and thinking about the future of the country.

The casting of the ballot is merely an external act. What is more important is the decision-making process that occurs within each voter to arrive at that decision. There was an awakening, a desire for their voices to be heard, and if I may venture, this was the first time that a strong Singaporean identity was forged. This election achieved a strong sense of national unity that National Day parades each year have not achieved. There was pride in being Singaporean, to know that each and every citizen has a stake and a say in the country’s future. This is truly a watershed and a turning point. The ruling party needs to evolve as our society evolves. The opposition parties need to prove their worth and credibility to those who are willing to take a chance with them. The performance of both the ruling and opposition parties in the next five years will tell whether they have understood the message of this election. A political evolution is underway in Singapore, and the next election in 2016 will show how the tide has turned.

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