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    Southeast Asia
     May 10, 2011


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.

A record 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 PAP's dominance.

"[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 counted.

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."

WP also 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.

Five 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 various constituencies.

Prominent blogger 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.

Unhappy 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.

Pre-election voter 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 Singaporeans.

"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.

The 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 constituencies.

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 term.

"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 people."

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.

"My own 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.

Cherian George, 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.

PAP 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."

Clearly 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 are."

Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based journalist. She may be contacted at megawati.wijaya@gmail.com

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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