By Rui Hao Puah
The air is thick with anticipation over Singapore’s upcoming general elections, which will be the first since the passing of founding father Lee Kuan Yew in March 2015. It comes after the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) lost ground in the 2011 elections. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the city-state’s founding.
The Electoral Boundaries Review Committee on July 24 announced its recommendations for new electoral boundaries, signaling that elections are imminent. The time between the release of the electoral boundaries report and voting day has historically ranged anywhere from one day to six months, and members of both the PAP and opposition have already been seen “walking the ground” in their constituencies.
The opposition has long decried a lack of government transparency in establishing electoral boundaries and preparing for elections. Gerrymandering and calling elections soon after the release of the electoral boundaries report have been perpetual sources of grievance. In this case, Prime Minister Lee has said only that his government would make sure that “enough time elapses” between the report’s release and election day.
The report’s release has triggered speculation of a September election. Candidates will vie for 13 single-member constituencies (SMC), up from the current 12, and 16 group representation constituencies (GRCs), reduced from the current 15. In GRCs, parties field a team of candidates on a single ticket. The new Parliament will have 89 seats, up from the current 87. The reduction in the number of GRCs has been touted as a way to increase electoral competition since opposition candidates typically stand a better chance in SMCs.
Opposition parties have expressed hopes of coordinating in order to contest all 89 seats and avoid multi-cornered fights that may be advantageous to the PAP. The Worker’s Party, the strongest of Singapore’s opposition parties, said that it would contest 28 out of 89 seats.
The Worker’s Party in 2011 won the Aljunied constituency, dealing the PAP its first-ever loss in a GRC and costing then-foreign minister George Yeo his job. PAP’s organizing secretary Ng Eng Hen has indicated that the party is unlikely to risk fielding ministers or potential office holders in Aljunied this time. The PAP also aims to introduce candidates earlier in this election cycle in response to criticisms that it “parachuted” in many of its candidates just before the 2011 elections without sufficient time for voters to get to know them.
The stakes are high not only because of the stronger competition expected, but also because of a political maturation in Singaporean society and the wider participation of young and media-savvy voters. Singaporeans today are more vocal and ready to question government policies. Few quibble with the PAP’s track record, but not all buy into the narrative that Singapore would not survive without the exceptional and enlightened leadership of its ruling class. Yet even as voters desire alternative voices in politics, the PAP government has eschewed western liberalism as a yardstick for Singapore’s democracy.
Since the 2011 elections, a “new normal” has emerged in Singaporean politics. The passing of Lee Kuan Yew cemented the idea that a new generation is firmly in charge. The upcoming elections will be as much about bread-and-butter issues and contentious topics such as immigration as they will be about Singapore’s national identity and what some refer to as shared “Singaporean values.”
Timing is a key part of the PAP’s electoral strategy. Holding elections in early September will give opposition lawmakers and candidates little time to respond to electoral boundary changes, though it might also generate negative perceptions of the PAP as a bully. PAP officials said recently that the party started preparations for the next elections as soon as the 2011 elections ended. Moving into a fierce election cycle shortly after the festivities of Singapore’s 50th founding anniversary would also be an unwelcome juxtaposition to the unifying theme underlying the celebrations. These concerns however, have to be balanced with a favorable political window that the ruling PAP might not want to miss.
Singapore will mark its 50th anniversary on August 9 with much fanfare. The feel-good factor over the economic achievements of the past half-century, empathy votes for the PAP due to the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, and possible handouts to be announced during the prime minister’s National Day rally on August 23 have been cited as sources of electoral advantage for the government.
There is a possibility that the elections might be held toward the end of the year rather than September. This would allow the PAP to ride the waves of patriotism while ensuring breathing space between the festivities and the campaign period. Such timing could also signal confidence from the ruling party.
A study released by Blackbox Research in April 2015 found that nearly 80 percent of Singaporeans surveyed are satisfied with the government, up 8 percentage points from a year ago. Areas that showed the strongest gains in terms of public satisfaction included “level of salaries and wages,” “cost of living,” “gap between rich and poor,” “jobs and unemployment,” and surprisingly, “government accountability.” Public transportation was a noticeable area of dissatisfaction among respondents. Train breakdowns have traditionally been a source of unhappiness among commuters in a country accustomed to seamless public services. This could be a hot-button issue in the coming elections.
Younger voters may also take issue with the government’s record on civil liberties and freedom of speech. The sentencing of 16-year old blogger Amos Yee, who insulted Lee Kuan Yew as well as Christians online, has drawn attention to the government’s strict control of free speech. Yee’s conviction on charges of producing online content that was offensive to viewers has drawn both anger and support from different quarters of Singaporean society, and led international rights groups to criticize the government’s treatment of the teenager.
Other issues such as rising costs of living, a declining birth rate, and a stifled civil society may also be on the agenda during these elections.