Singapore: Opposition Happy For Now


James Chin

The opposition in Singapore is often seen as weak, incompetent or both. In successive elections, they have not only failed to dent the People's Action Party's (PAP) stranglehold on politics, but have made a series of politically naive mistakes. For example, Chee Soon Juan, the opposition's brightest star, made a strategic blunder when he shouted at the Prime Minister during an election campaign street walk amongst the people in the lead-up to the last general election. The PAP mercilessly exploited the issue, causing Chee to lose by a large margin. A far bigger and longer-term problem for the opposition has been its inability to recruit what Singaporeans have called 'credible' candidates. This essentially means people with a high level of education and successful professional careers. The usual pattern is for PAP to recruit Singapore's brightest and best, while the opposition has struggled to recruit similarly credentialed candidates.

Things, however, may be changing. Last month, the Workers' Party, Singapore's oldest opposition party, recruited two high-flyers: Law Lecturer, Sylvia Lim, and financial controller, Tan Wui-Hua. In any other country, this would hardly qualify as a 'breakthrough', but in Singapore this was exactly how it was seen. While the electoral impact of such high-flyers cannot be ascertained until the next general election due in 2006 (but mostly likely to be called in 2005), it does represent new thinking among a small segment of the middle class. Traditionally the middle class has been the main beneficiary of Singapore's economic growth and has kept out of active politics, unless it has meant joining the ruling PAP.

This 'new' thinking may be due to the changing fortunes of Singapore's economy. Economic restructuring in the past few years has seen many jobs disappear and a host of price hikes in public services, including health, mass rail transit, buses and car parking. Many new graduates find it difficult to secure a well-paying job. Unemployment has hit the middle class in a big way. The government has also warned that the economy will get worse before it gets better.

But what really raised public ire against the government was the announcement that the government was considering a hike in its levy for foreign maids - set at S$345 per month since 1998. With many families depending on Filipino and Indonesian maids to care for elderly parents and young children, the public backlash was immediate and widespread.

This came on top of the PM's 'stayer or a quitter' speech at this year's National Day celebrations. Goh was trying to make the point that the youth of Singapore may be going soft with many preferring to emigrate when times get tough in Singapore. It would appear that some Singaporeans took offence incorrectly perceiving the government to be questioning their loyalty and patriotism.

WATCHPOINT: If the economy worsens, sympathy for the opposition may increase. However, this may not translate into votes for the opposition in the next general election. In an economic crisis, the population will probably stick with the incumbent government and its proven record on economic management. Nevertheless, expect more complaints from the middle class as the economic restructuring bites deeper.


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