“A Door Cracks Open in the Little Red Dot”

On the Kiwi Politico blog, Singapore-based political risk consultant Paul G. Buchanan writes that Singapore’s surprisingly competitive election this year is due, in part, to the difficulty of leadership regeneration within the People’s Action Party– now in its 52nd year of uninterrupted rule:

Taking 25 years as the generational baseline, Singapore is in its third generation since gaining political autonomy from the Malay Federation in 1959 (independence came with its expulsion from the Federation in 1965). Led by 87-year old Lee Kuan Yew, the first generation of PAP leaders ruled with tight control until 1990, in an era when Singapore’s image as an austere and puritanical authoritarian state was forged. The second generation of hand-picked successors, who began the slow process of political and social liberalization and orchestrated the emergence of the country as a major transportation, logistics and financial hub, is singing its political swan song today. This year’s election marks the transition to the third generation of political leadership, and not all has gone as planned for the PAP.

Voting is mandatory in Singapore. Yet spoiled ballots and non-voters amounted to nearly 10 percent of the 2006 electorate. In other words, the signs of discontent were already present five years ago. This year there has been a resurgence of political opposition led by the Workers Party, the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Party. In marked contrast to previous elections, 82 of the 87 parliamentary seats will be contested. Among the ranks of the opposition are defectors from the PAP, former government-sponsored overseas scholars (who usually pay their scholarship debt by returning to assume positions in the bureaucracy), former Internal Security Act detainees (the ISA allows for the indefinite detention of suspects without charge, and some of the current opposition candidates have spent long periods in confinement) and political exiles.

Most of the new candidates are in their mid 20s to mid 40s, thereby representing a coming of age for their generation of free thinkers. In response, the PAP has trotted out the usually ensemble of former bureaucrats and politicized retired military officers, interspersed with a handful of younger neophytes– including one whose qualifications for office are apparently that she is the wife of the Prime Minister’s executive assistant, and has a penchant for shopping, Singapore’s national pastime.

What is most revealing is that the PAP is no longer able to hide its internal divisions, with leading officials, Ministers, and even the Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew himself openly disagreeing about issues of politics, policy and social construction. Sensing a shift in the public mood, some PAP candidates have withdrawn from the election. All of this underscores something that the Minister Mentor said last year: that the PAP must rejuvenate or stagnate– and that democracy would only come when the PAP proved incapable of responding to public expectations as a result of stagnation.

The trouble for the PAP is that the elections have come too quickly for a major re-generation of its cadres. In a small, talent-thin environment such as Singapore– as anyone who looks beyond the front benches of the New Zealand parliament will understand– the moment of political reckoning has come much sooner than within the 25 years Lee Kuan Yew envisioned.

The full post is available on the Kiwi Politico blog.


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