Democratic gap narrows in
Singapore By Megawati Wijaya
SINGAPORE - Voters returned the ruling
People's Action Party (PAP) to power on Saturday,
giving the long-ruling party 81 seats out of the
87 parliamentary seats contested. The opposition
turned in its best performance on record, winning
nearly 40% of the popular vote and handing the PAP
its poorest showing since the island state
achieved independence in 1965.
2.06 million out of 2.21 million eligible voters
went to the polls in the most widely contested
election since 1972. Only one constituency, the
five-member constituency under Minister Mentor and
PAP founder Lee Kuan Yew, went uncontested. In
past polls, many seats went uncontested due to the
"[T]he voters have
decided, and I'm honored that they have once
again entrusted the PAP with
a clear mandate to form the next government," said
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of former
prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, after the votes were
During the 2006 polls, only 47
out of 84 seats were contested by the opposition.
The PAP won 66% of the votes in 2006 but notched
82 of parliament's 84 seats due to the group
representation constituency (GRC) system, a
controversial scheme where candidates compete in
teams of four to six.
The opposition never
won a GRC until Saturday when the Workers' Party
of Singapore (WP), under the charge of its
secretary general Low Thia Khiang, crushed a PAP
team led by foreign minister George Yeo in the
five-member GRC in Aljunied. "You have made
history tonight," said Low in a speech to his
supporters after his victory. "This is a political
landmark in modern Singapore."
retained its single member constituency (SMC) in
Hougang, thus giving the opposition party six
members in parliament. That will triple the number
of opposition members in parliament, raising new
hopes that some alternative voices to the PAP will
be heard during policy discussions.
other opposition parties, the Singapore Democratic
Party (SDP), the National Solidarity Party (NSP),
the Reform Party (RP), the Singapore People's
Party, and the Singapore Democratic Alliance
(SDA), challenged but failed to beat the PAP in
and political observer Alex Au attributed the WP's
relative success to persistent groundwork, strong
quality of candidates and clear party branding.
Political analysts will look to anticipated
studies and surveys to answer in more detail why
and in what ways some opposition parties succeeded
and others failed at the polls.
voters, stronger opposition This year's
election was set against the backdrop of both
strong economic growth and growing grass roots
angst over the rising cost of living, a high
influx of foreign workers, and soaring property
and rental prices.
surveys are uncommon in Singapore, making it
difficult to statistically gauge the mood of the
electorate before the polls. The city has bounced
back from the 2008-9 global financial crisis,
recording 14.5% gross domestic product (GDP)
growth year on year in 2010. But heated debates in
on-line forums and other alternative media
revealed rising frustrations among many
"I notice a certain
restlessness, even restiveness, among different
sections of the people," said veteran editor P N
Balji last month. "Because the government has
played a critical role, a womb-to-tomb role, in
people's lives, now there's a boomerang effect.
They blame the government for everything that goes
wrong in Singapore."
Balji coined the term
"Orchid Evolution" after the Middle East's and
North Africa's "Jasmine" uprisings to reflect a
new angry mood among Singaporeans, observed in
their rising use of social media to express
unhappiness with the government.
Singapore's opposition parties had
leveraged this discontent throughout the nine-day
intensive campaign period. Well-attended rallies
of tens of thousands hit on where the government
had failed the people in the past five years.
The WP's last rally held at Serangoon
Stadium was estimated to have drawn 35,000-40,000
people. Pictures posted online played on the stark
comparison of the WP's big crowds and the PAP's
less-attended campaign events.
election also saw the opposition put up a more
united front. Horse trading took place long before
candidates' nomination day, whereby opposition
parties gave way to one another where particular
parties felt their candidates stood the better
chance of beating the PAP candidate in particular
This allowed opposition
parties with comparatively limited resources to
contest almost all of the constituencies and avoid
three-cornered fights, a scenario that in the past
split opposition votes and benefited the PAP.
"[The oppositions'] guns are pointed in
only [one] direction - that is the PAP," said
Socialist Front (SF) secretary-general Chia Ti Lik
in a political forum last December. SF pulled out
of the running before the election, saying that it
wanted to avoid causing three-cornered fights.
One reason for PAP's long dominance has
been the historical lack of strong opposition
figures. Analysts say the quality of opposition
candidates was much improved at Saturday's
election. For instance, high flyer civil servant
Tan Jee Say, the former principal private
secretary to senior minister Goh Chok Tong, joined
the SDP. Former government scholars Tony Tan and
Hazel Poa joined the opposition NSP, giving its
candidacy higher credibility than in the past.
"Although the opposition lost to PAP in so
many constituencies, to me they are already
winning," said cargo coordinator and SDP supporter
Razlan Karzali. "They have improved their
performance compared to the last election."
Barring the SDA, all opposition parties
performed better this year than at the 2006
election, the government-influenced Straits Times
reported. The SDP turned in the most improved
performance, winning an average 39.3% of votes in
the areas they contested, up from 23.2% in 2006.
WP placed second in improved performance, winning
46.6% in contested constituencies, compared to
38.4% in 2006.
Campaign apology To be sure, PAP, Singapore's ruling party
since 1959, sailed comfortably to victory at
Saturday's poll. The PAP had touted this year's
election as a watershed poll as it forwarded a new
generation of leaders on the ballot. However,
several new PAP candidates had come under fire
even before the election campaign started.
Netizens singled out Janil Puthucheary, a
new Singapore citizen criticized for not doing
compulsory national service. A young PAP
candidate, Tin Pei Ling, was criticized for her
perceived lack of media savvy and for allegedly
relying on her personal networks rather than
hands-on experience to enter politics.
Several PAP blunders, including the
unexplained escape of Jemaah Islamiyah leader Mas
Selamat Kastari from a detention center in 2008
and perceived overspending in the Youth Olympic
Games, were opposition fodder during the campaign.
Despite having the upper hand in deciding the
timing of the snap polls and drawing constituency
boundaries, a large part of the campaign saw the
PAP rebuking opposition criticisms rather than
touting the success of party policies.
Perhaps realizing the growing
disenchantment among voters, Prime Minister Lee
took a big political gamble halfway through the
campaign. In a rally, he apologized not once, but
twice, for the mistakes his government had made
over the past five years, including for the Mas
Selamat escape, floods in the Orchard Road
shopping mall district and overstretched housing
and public transport. He pledged to make
adjustments to the system and do better in a new
"When these problems vex you or
disturb you or upset your lives, please bear with
us. We're trying our best on your behalf. And if
we didn't quite get it right, I am sorry but we
will try and do better the next time," he said. In
the same rally, he said: "I think you want a
government which has a strong mandate but at the
same time is acutely aware that they are servants
and not masters, that they are accountable to the
The apologetic speech was widely
analyzed on the blogosphere. "The themes of
government accountability and arrogance played so
strongly with the electorate, that the prime
minister was compelled to apologize for the errors
of his government late in the campaign. But it was
clearly too little, too late for disenchanted
voters," former nominated member of parliament
Siew Kum Hong wrote in his blog.
sense is that the middle ground, that big chunk of
voters in the middle who decide the fate of
elections, largely approves of the PAP as the
governing party, but had grown to dislike the PAP
and its style," he wrote.
political observer and associate professor at the
Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and
Information at the Nanyang Technological
University, wrote that Lee's apologies
"potentially signals nothing less than a new
compact, a recasting of the relationship between
the PAP and the people."
"If he had then
turned defensive and declared that the PAP had
already delivered such a government, he would have
lost me," wrote George. "Instead, he said: ‘That's
the kind of government which we would like to be
able to [form] from this election.' The sub-text:
there is room for improvement; my next government
will embody these principles in a way that my
previous ones did not," wrote George.
apologies aside, there is no illusion that the
current opposition is poised to take power any
time soon. WP candidates consistently hammered the
message that it wanted to be a check and balance
for the PAP and its dominance over government.
"If Singaporeans were to throw out the PAP
government, which other parties could come in and
govern at this point in time?" WP chairwoman
Sylvia Lim said in March. She conceded that "The
WP is not ready to do that now."
many voters agree. "You see how developed
Singapore is now? You see how prosperous this
country is? PAP is the best political party, not
only in Singapore, they are the best in the
world," said Leo Chin Kuan, a taxi driver. "After
this election, PAP will surely change for the
better. They know the whole electorate has changed
... They have realized how powerful the voters
Megawati Wijaya is a
Singapore-based journalist. She may be contacted
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