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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 29, 2013

Singapore's rulers suffer by-election loss
By Simon Roughneen

SINGAPORE - In a surprise result, Singapore's long-ruling People's Action Party (PAP) at the weekend suffered a second consecutive by-election loss since winning the 2011 general election, ceding the island state's Punggol East seat to the main opposition Workers' Party.

The result saw opposition politician Lee Li Lian take the Workers' Party's seventh seat in parliament, a small but significant win for proponents of a more pluralist political system in the wealthy city-state.

The PAP, which has governed Singapore mostly unopposed since 1959, holds 80 of parliament's 87 seats, a majority secured at the 2011 elections where only 60% of eligible voters turned out.

Lee, a 34-year-old sales trainer, took the contested seat in a

northeast constituency, close to one of the island state's main border crossings with Malaysia. By winning 54.5% of the vote on Saturday, Lee outpaced PAP candidate Koh Poh Koon by more than 10 percentage points. She also received 13 percentage point more votes than at the 2011 general election, when she finished second to a PAP candidate.

Though the result came as an electoral surprise, the PAP may have erred in choosing a candidate without a solid constituency base - in keeping with the party's long-standing method of choosing highly educated and qualified candidates from across the city-state rather than local politicians known in particular constituencies.

The down-to-earth Lee "was able to identify with the Punggol East voter," said Reuben Wong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore. "She is the closest among the four candidates to the demographic profile of this ward," he told Asia Times Online.

The by-election was called when PAP incumbent Michael Palmer, who was parliamentary speaker, ceded the seat he won in 2011 after admitting he had cheated on his wife.

A 2012 by-election in the nearby Hougang constituency was called when Workers' Party incumbent Yaw Shin Leong was forced from office and from the party in another of Singapore's increasingly common sex scandals. The Workers' Party retained that seat, however, which the opposition party has held since 1988.

Though ballot-casting was restricted to just over 31,000 eligible voters, the by-election had the trappings of an early-term local plebiscite on the performances of PAP in office and the Workers' Party as opposition. Singapore's next national election is more than three years away.

Since the PAP returned to office in 2011, it has had to deal with public gripes over a fast rising cost of living, housing shortages and anti-immigrant sentiment in a country where foreigners now make up 40% of the 5.3 million population. Foreigners buoy several crucial business sectors, including electronics, chemicals and financial services in the US$250 billion economy.

They are all issues the opposition Workers' Party is using to challenge the PAP's legitimacy. To the cheers from party supporters and Punggol East onlookers, the Workers' Party's Secretary General Low Thia Khiang stumped for Lee at a pre-election rally in Punggol East by reminding them of the first-world woes of living in Singapore.

"We all have to deal with rising food prices, rising transport costs, rising healthcare costs," he intoned, raising cheers from the estimated 3,000 or so light blue-clad Workers' Party supporters who attended a rally in a sodden field behind a Chinese temple in the constituency.

On the other side, the PAP was not able to capitalize on the power of incumbency. In the run-up to the vote, the government announced new incentives to goad Singaporeans to have more children, pledging to spend $2 billion on incentives such as childcare, longer parental leave periods, cash gifts to parents to try increase Singapore's 1.3 fertility rate, a figure that lags well below the natural 2.1 replacement level.

Several voters interviewed by Asia Times Online said that, though welcome, the scheme is unlikely to offset the baby deficit unless living costs drop and housing shortages are managed.

In the run-up to the vote, the final two Workers' Party rallies last week were notable for attracting much larger crowds than PAP events.

"Everyone knows what the PAP says," said Steven Lim, a pro-PAP voter who runs a watch shop in Punggol East. "They have always been in government and are always in the news, so more people are more likely to attend a Workers' Party rally as they don't know as much about them."

Workers' Party events for the by-election were also notable for pulling in party supporters from across the island, boosting numbers and generating an enthusiasm that the PAP could not match. To a much smaller crowd of around 600 onlookers on the Thursday night before the vote, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sought to remind voters of the PAP's record in office, which has presided over a jump in gross domestic product per capita from $516 in 1956 to today's $60,000 - a level among the world's highest.

"Why does Punggol East look like this?" asked Prime Minister Lee, pointing to the intricate infrastructure around the neighborhood. "Because the government did it," he said. He also warned against what he termed "divisive politics", which he characterized as when "we slap one another and call it checks and balances."

Whether or not the Workers' Party win signals that the country is finally transitioning into a genuine two-party political system remains unclear. The Workers' Party appeared to acknowledge as much even with the electoral win.

"Despite this victory, the Workers' Party is still a small party with much to do and improve upon," party chairwoman Sylvia Lim told reporters. Putting a brave face on Saturday's result, Prime Minister Lee reminded that by-election dynamics can sometimes work against the incumbent. "The governing party always has a tougher fight," he said.

Simon Roughneen is a freelance journalist covering Southeast Asia. He's on twitter @simonroughneen

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