Singapore: General Elections 2001: Not Just Entertainment


Dr Michael D. Barr

Why does the Singapore Government go to such extraordinary lengths to destroy the country’s tiny and ineffectual opposition parties during election campaigns? Is there a serious purpose in this overkill, or has it misjudged the proportionate response needed to meet the challenge?

It almost seems as if the government is setting out to provide some entertainment so that Singaporeans can feel that they are taking part in a real election. Such a judgement would admittedly be facetious, but if one views Singapore elections as a form of entertainment, it makes much of the November 2001 election campaign more comprehensible.

Technically the high point came and went on Nomination Day, when the opposition contested less than half the seats in Parliament. At this point the People’s Action Party (PAP) Government was given a new mandate without a vote being cast. With the climax reached so early, how is election excitement to be maintained? Threatening to sue opposition candidates provides some relief, but in Singapore it lacks novelty. Rejecting a few opposition nominations on a technicality, and allowing a Cabinet Minister to nominate despite the same technical error is a bit different, but is soon yesterday’s news. Even the technique of threatening to punish electorates that return opposition MPs is now old hat. A new variation is needed and found: targeting individual wards within the two existing opposition electorates with both the carrot and the stick. If these two electorates persist in returning opposition MPs, then they will indeed be punished financially, but the ward in each electorate that returns the highest proportion of votes for the PAP will be exempt! That causes a stir and is worth a few headlines. Combined with regular threats of legal action against a major opposition figure, it proves enough to maintain the illusion of excitement for the short period of electioneering.


But the elections were not just entertainment, and they had a serious, real-world result, which is no less important for being fairly predictable and contrived. The two sitting opposition MPs were returned with significantly reduced majorities; no other opposition candidates were even close to successful; and most PAP candidates were returned with significantly increased majorities. This result is primarily a commentary on the electorate’s confidence in the government as a political and economic manager in difficult times, though the government’s relentless pursuit of the opposition during and before the campaign undoubtedly contributed to the dimensions of the PAP’s victory.

The really interesting developments began emerging only after the polls had closed, when it became apparent that despite his determination to crush the opposition, Prime Minister Goh seemed to be quite keen to encourage criticism from within government ranks.

First he floated the idea of nominating about twenty government backbenchers to act as critics of the government. This is a fine notion, but it will be of minimal value unless he can convince his backbenchers that becoming such a loyal critic will not be a Career Limiting Move (CLM).

Of greater interest is the potential for change suggested by the election of Raymond Lim and Vivian Balakrishnan, two new PAP MPs with longstanding records as polite, non-threatening, and intelligent critics of the government. Despite their history, or perhaps because of it, they have both been fast-tracked into the Ministry, where they have all-but ridiculed the PAP’s monopolistic style of governance. This has not only been tolerated by senior government figures, but even encouraged, since it suits the current agenda of renewing Singapore Inc. to make it better equipped to operate in the global economy.

This development has added a new dimension to the possibilities of diversity and change from within. The contrast with the treatment of the official opposition also reinforces the message that engaging in opposition politics is both pointless and masochistic: it would be more productive and less painful to play by the unwritten rules of the PAP’s game. Ramming home this message is the only real point of the government’s pursuit of the opposition, which by any other measure must be regarded as gross overkill.

WATCHPOINT: Senior government figures have called for the ‘remaking of Singapore’. This is not just rhetoric. The PAP is not going to surrender its control of the Singapore economy or society, but within those parameters the scope for reform and revision is very wide. Even the government’s puritanical antipathy to ‘welfare’ has weakened. Expect some surprises over the next few years.


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