Singapore: should the Opposition regroup?

PAP wins the election, garnering over 60% of the popular vote.  Their worst showing since Independence.

The Peoples Action Party has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965, yet slowly an opposition has developed.  The 2011 general election resulted in another resounding victory for PAP led by Prime Minister  Lee Hsien Loong.  But the opposition is fragmented, so not so surprising really.  How well are the opposition performing against the PAP government juggernaut?

It's always been difficult to develop an effective opposition in this democratic city-state which perches at the southern tip of the Malay peninsular.  There are numerous reasons, but despite precarious political terrain an opposition has survived. One challenge to overcome has been the creation of multi-member Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), which have been extremely hard to win..  Until now, no opposition party had broken through that barrier.  The previous best achievement was the occasional win of a Single Member Constituency (SMC).

The social democratic Workers Party (WP) has been winning the working-class residential SMC seat of Hougang since 1991 and did so again on May 7.  Hougang, with an electorate of  some 24,000, is surrounded by the 5-member GRC of Aljunied - which typically votes PAP.  Like Hougang, Aljunied is a suburban area full of  Housing Development Board (HDB) flats.  The Aljunied electorate is over 143,000.  Last Saturday in a watershed result, the WP gained Aljunied as well as Hougang to enter parliament with an unprecedented six-strong contingent of MPs.  A real Opposition has arrived in Singapore.

Since 2001, the WP has been led by Loh Thia Kiang, a 55-year old former teacher who is now Chairman of Hougang Town Council as well as being an MP.

PAP achieved 1,210,617 votes or 60.14% overall and 81 of  87 parliamentary seats.  With that percentage PAP can still push through major changes. 258,141 people opted for the WP or 12.82% of the popular vote.  Both of these parties lost support to smaller opposition parties.

Despite record economic growth and consistently advancing living standards, there's been widespread dissatisfaction with the huge influx of migrants who have been actively enticed to offset falling birth-rates and leaking emigration.  Many incomers are from the PR China, where people sport very different behaviour, demeanour and attitudes from the generally polite, easy-going yet hard-working Singaporeans.

So several new or revitalised opposition parties have attracted increased support:

  • The centre-left National Solidarity Party (NSP), since 2007 led by 41-year old social welfare specialist Goh Meng Seng, got 242,369 votes or 12.04%, but no seats.
  • The liberal Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), since 1994 led by 49-year old Psychology lecturer Chee Soon Juan, received 97,239 votes or 4.83%, but no seats.
  • The liberal Reform Party, a new party led since 2008 by 52-year old banker and hedge-funder Kenneth Jeyaretnam, received 86,174 votes or 4.28%, but no seats.
  • The liberal Singapore Peoples Party (SPP), since 2001 led by 76-year old lawyer Chiam See Tong, garnered 62,504 votes or 3.11%, but no seats (losing their only seat of Potong Pasir to PAP) despite increasing their overall support.

There have been opposition alliances in the past, and even now one opposition party may yield to another in a constituency in order to trounce PAP.  Such was the case in 2006 in the Sembawang GRC when the WP ceded to the SDP.  As soon as electoral boundaries were announced recently, negotiations between parties took place to avoid three-cornered fights in 2011.

The political ideologies of these opposition groups tend to fall into two camps, either social democratic or liberal.  The combined total of opposition support amounted to 39.86% or some 746,427 votes, impressive by any standards.  Clearly, several of these groups are small and pick up less than 5%, not enough to have won seats under a proportional voting system elsewhere (like Germany, for example) when a threshold is employed to prevent tiny parties from entering parliament.

It must be the strength of the personalities of these opposition party leaders, rather than major policy or ideological differences which prevents them from merging.

The two opposition traditions received votes as follows:

  • Social Democratic:  500,510 or 24.86%
  • Liberal:                       245,917 or 12.22%.

Should mergers take place in the future between these typically unrepresented parties, the people might have more faith in their ability to effectively challenge PAP.  Although, even now, there's speculation that a two-party democratic model is evolving.

In Canada, after seven years of political stalemate, one party - The Conservatives - have emerged with an overall majority.  There's talk in Ottawa of the trounced Liberals merging with the resurgent social democratic New Democrats to form a powerful centre-left Opposition as Canada reverts to two-party politics.

Such a merger occurred in 1988 in the UK when the Liberals wed the SDP to create the Liberal Democrats.  But they had the Labour Party to their left and have been consistently squeezed between that party and the Conservatives ever since.  Three party politics appears to produce that effect.  Two big-tent party democratic models seem to work best.  The only danger being see-saw politics with swathes of legislation altering society is undone by a subsequent government, as was the case in hapless Britain in the '60s and '70s. In general lessons have been learned from that experience, as other countries watched in dismay as the UK tumbled down league tables as fast as it shed its imperial holdings

So, a wholesale realignment in Singapore to create a single, strong, vocal and well-supported Opposition might enhance democracy in the city-state.  According to the Financial Times, rapid spurts in economic growth have followed opposition gains in the past.  On this occasion, the election result induced an impressively prompt apology from the PM for any "mistakes made by PAP during its five decades in power", writes the FT.

Singapore, one of the great success stories of the post colonial era, is evolving a more sophisticated democratic parliamentary system.  Still, can any opposition party ever actually achieve political power, or is that to be placed well beyond reach?

No comments:

Post a Comment