Singapore: A Question Of Margin And Pedigree


James Chin

Speculation is at an all time high in this tiny state that a general election will be called soon, perhaps as early as April, or immediately after the budget is passed. Lee Hsien Loong, who became Prime Minister only last August, will have to get a personal mandate from the people and pass the all important 'acceptability test'.

Getting the mandate will not present a problem, after all the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has never lost an election since independence in 1965, or for that matter before independence since it was the ruling party then as well.

In the context of Singapore politics, the real 'election' result or the mandate that matters is the winning margin of PAP and the number of votes for the opposition. In the last general election, held in 2001, the PAP won 75 per cent of contested votes, a sharp rise from the 65 per cent won in 1997. But this figure has little meaning since the PAP won government on nomination day when the opposition fielded candidates in less than 50 per cent of the seats.

The Opposition had hoped that by ensuring that PAP 'won' on nomination day, the so-called 'by-election strategy', the voters would be more willing to vote for the opposition knowing that even if many more opposition enters parliament, the PAP would still be the government providing the 'good life'. This strategy did not really work and one doubts that it will work in this coming election.

Although for the most part the political terrain will be the same, there are important differences in this coming election.

Firstly, some 180,000 youths will be first-time voters and, secondly, the government has said it will arrange for the first time for 100,000 to 150,000 Singaporeans abroad to vote. Third, Singapore is in the midst of the most serious economic restructuring phase since independence. All the top political leaders have gone on record many times saying that the Singapore economy, and in particular the workers, must change and adapt to the new reality and the old days when growth was routine will never come back.

For the bulk of the people, the new reality means it's a lot harder now to find employment for the long term or even work in a single industry for life. Newspapers in the past year have highlighted the difficulties faced by individuals in trying to cope with layoffs and the often-painful process of seeking new employment. Many were shocked that classic blue-chip companies such as Singapore Airlines were laying off workers in the face of increasing competition, rather than raising productivity as in the past. One anonymous writer has already coined the slogan for the coming election 'Jobs, Jobs, Jobs'.

The bottom line for the younger Lee will be simple: he can afford to lose up to three or four seats to the opposition; any more than that and even ordinary Singaporeans, already an apolitical lot, may be asking if he is indeed worthy to succeed Singapore's founder.

Thus, this coming election will be as much a referendum on whether the Singaporean voter has accepted the younger Lee as his own person rather than merely a version 2.0 of his famous father. Even prior to taking office, a huge PR campaign was underway to portray Hsien Loong as a political leader who can stand on his own merits with his own style of leadership different from that of the senior Lee. The people were told many times that the younger Lee was chosen by his peers, other cabinet ministers, to succeed Goh Chok Tong and chosen purely on merit and not his pedigree.

WATCHPOINT: Expect to see more of the 'softer' and 'more inclusive' side of Lee Hsien Loong as he presents himself as a leader totally different in style and substance from his father Lee Kuan Yew.


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