Singapore: Staying Together, Moving Ahead: It's Election Time


Dr Terence Lee

After much anticipation and speculation, Singaporeans will go to the polls on Saturday, 6 May 2006. The coming General Elections will be the tenth since Singapore attained independence in 1965, but it will be the first since Lee Hsien Loong became Prime Minister. He is therefore expected to seek a 'fresh' mandate from voters for his leadership style.

The writ of this year's election could not have been issued at a better time. The economy is on an upturn, with growth in the first quarter of 2006 estimated at 9.1 per cent. Although this figure is expected to soften for the remaining quarters of the year, the general expectation is that Singapore will achieve up to 6 per cent growth for the whole year, if not slightly higher.

In addition, recent reports that 113,300 new jobs were created in 2005 adds to the overall air of social, economic and political confidence in Singapore, which is likely to translate to a positive outcome for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) government. This does not mean that the PAP's share of the popular vote will increase. On the contrary, it is more likely that its electoral support will decrease from the 75.3 per cent support achieved in 2001 following global uncertainties brought about by the September 11 terror attacks. However, it is not expected to drop below 61 per cent, the lowest level of support ever enjoyed by the PAP.

All available resources have been mobilised to lessen PAP's vote 'deficit'. The most significant has been the disbursement of financial giveaways announced at PM Lee's 'election' budget in February, with generous bonuses for older low-income workers accompanied by a universal surplus sharing initiative called the 'Progress Package' (where 'PROGRESS' stands for 'Providing Opportunities through Growth, Remaking Singapore for Success'). Officially, these goodies are intended to 'share the fruits' of recent growth in Singapore and to mitigate the flow on effects of inflationary pressures. But the fact that these payouts will reach Singaporeans from 1 May 2006, just days before polling day, leaves little to one's political imagination.

On 15 April 2006, PM Lee unveiled the PAP's Election Manifesto entitled 'Staying Together, Moving Ahead' which essentially promises, among other things, to create new job and educational opportunities for all Singaporeans. Expectedly, the strategies mapped out in the manifesto were criticised by the opposition parties as uninspiring and a rehash of old vision statements and reports.

What is new though, both in the manifesto and in the message that PM Lee is attempting to convey to voters, is the election is about 'moving ahead' into the future. As PM Lee himself declared shortly after news of the election date became public: 'It is a very important election for Singapore, because it sets the direction for the country for the next 10 to 15 years'. While it would be foolhardy to describe any election as 'unimportant', PM Lee was in fact alluding to the PAP's internal self-renewal programme.

In the coming election, PAP will 'launch' 24 new candidates - of which a handful will be swiftly catapulted to ministerial positions, in much the same vein as the previous election. By the same token, 24 existing, some long serving and relatively outspoken, PAP MPs will exit the political stage. As this is likely to have an impact on the atmospherics in parliament over the next 5-year period and beyond, PM Lee is, somewhat ironically, spot-on in his remarks about the 'future' of the country.

The PAP isn't the only party with an eye towards self-renewal. The much-maligned and 'invisible' opposition (as James Chin pointed out in the March 2006 issue of Asian Analysis) is also expected to reveal more than 30 candidates collectively, many of whom would belong to the post-independence generation, or in their 30s, with strong academic and community service backgrounds. But with limited media coverage over a short 9-day campaign period - along with a government announcement on 3 April 2006 that new Internet-based technologies such as podcasting and videocasting cannot be used to disseminate political content during the election - communication with voters will largely be restricted to old-fashioned door-to-door canvassing.

For all its pluses and flaws, the coming General Election in Singapore is, strangely enough, a 'non-event' worth watching.

WATCHPOINT: The results of the opposition wards of Hougang and Potong Pasir, held by veteran opposition MPs Low Thia Kiang and Chiam See Tong for 15 and 20 years respectively will determine the speed of change expected in the political landscape of Singapore. Whether PAP's share of votes increases or decreases, PM Lee is likely to draw on the 'open' and 'inclusive' rhetoric that has become the hallmark of his premiership either to congratulate voters for their 'wise' choices or to rally for their support in the future.


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