Singapore: Incredible But True

2001

[Name and Address Withheld. Ed.]

Singapore's political system, as we all know, is unique in many ways. It does not fit into any political theory, and a confusing array of labels are attached to it by political scientists: semi-democracy, one-party state, bureaucratic authoritarian state, ‘nanny’ state, and so on. The uniqueness manifested itself again on 3 November when the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) won all but two seats in the 2001 ‘general election’ (GE).

Even the label ‘2001 GE’ is misleading for there has never been a real GE in Singapore since 1965, the year of independence. The PAP has won every election since independence, and for the first 16 years, the PAP won every seat on offer. In all elections, the opposition does not even talk of ‘winning government’ but rather ‘creating an opposition’ in parliament. Thus, since the 1980s, the opposition has never challenged the PAP directly, preferring to go for the 'By-election GE'. Under this strategy, the opposition will only contest less than half of the seats on offer, automatically guaranteeing the re-election of a PAP government on nomination day.

Two elements made this 2001 GE unique. First, pundits (often western political scientists) gave the opposition a better than even chance that it will gain a few more seats from two. For the very first time, four opposition parties got together and formed an electoral alliance, the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA). The members of SDA are: Singapore People's Party (SPP), Singapore Justice Party (SJP) and the Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS). Although the other two major opposition parties, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the Worker's Party (WP) refused to join the SDA, there was an unwritten understanding that they would not field candidates against each other in the 'hot seats'. The opposition was also upbeat because economic data released prior to the election showed that Singapore was heading towards its worst economic recession since independence.

Second, prior to and during the election campaign, the PAP sang the praises of the two incumbent opposition MPs, SPP's Chiam See Tong and WP's Low Thia Khiang. No less a person than PM Goh Chok Tong who described both as ‘gentlemen’ who had contributed to Singapore. Even the PAP candidates who stood against Chiam and Low said they do not expect to win. In fact, just short of asking the people to vote for Chiam and Low, Goh publicly said that he preferred Chiam and Low as elected opposition MPs rather than the feisty Chee Soon Juan of the SDP, whom he described as a ‘thug’. This was due to a minor incident where Chee shouted at Goh when they were on the campaign trail. Chee, who has an international profile as an opponent of the PAP rule, was later served with a defamation suit that may cost him a considerable amount. In all likelihood, Chee will sooner or later be declared a bankrupt due to defamation suits filed by PAP leaders.

The results? Not only did PAP increase its share of the votes cast to 75 percent from 65 percent in the previous polls held in 1997, it won all but two seats in the 84 seat parliament. Not surprisingly, the opposition members elected were Chiam and Low. Cynics may argue that 'gentlemen' MPs like Chiam and Low may actually be working for the PAP as safety valves, allowing people to vent some frustration. There is no other industrialised country on earth where the electorate chooses the opposition based on what the ruling party tells them.

The PAP’s increased share of the vote can be explained by the September 11 incident in America and the economic recession. A majority of Singaporeans were convinced by PAP message that no one else had the experience and wherewithal to pull Singapore out of its slump in an uncertain world. Given the PAP track record in turning Singapore from ‘Third World to First’ (as Lee Kuan Yew's memoir aptly calls it) in less than two decades, people prefer the old, steady but paternalistic hand of the PAP. The ever-practical Singaporeans have shown that the pocket is more important than the ideals of liberal democracy.

Goh will resign as Prime Minister before the next election in 2007 and his main priority now will be to ensure a smooth political transition, and to mentor a new group of younger MPs in order to create the third generation of leaders. The PAP is already putting in place a leadership team for 2020.

WATCHPOINT: With the election over, expect more day to day responsibility for governing Singapore to be given to Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew and Goh's nominee to succeed him as PM.

 

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