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The Nikkei View

Singapore's bittersweet election result calls for more say

Time for ruling PAP to debate with opposition on the road ahead

Prime Minister and People's Action Party leader Lee Hsien Loong, right, leaves a polling center after casting his vote in Singapore's general election on July 10.   © Getty Images

Singapore's ruling People's Action Party, led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, kept its grip on power in Friday's general election, winning 83 of the 93 seats at stake.

But its share of the vote dropped to just over 60%, down notably from the roughly 70% seen in the 2015 election.

The drop is seen as a reflection of public unhappiness over economic slowdown and autocratic rule. For the PAP, the result was a bittersweet victory.

The new coronavirus has sunk Singapore into its worst economic crisis since gaining independence in 1965. "We need a strong mandate from Singaporeans," Lee said as he called a snap election before the sitting parliament's term expired in 2021. 

While the PAP pledged to protect and create jobs, the opposition called for ending a status quo that gives the ruling party a blank check on policy. The push resonated with many Singaporeans, allowing the Workers' Party to increase its seat count to 10 from 6 -- its first-ever showing in the double digits.

Supporters of the opposition Workers' Party wave party flags while votes are counted for the general election on July 11.   © Getty Images

Singapore's nominal gross domestic product per capita came to $64,578 in 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund -- far ahead of Japan's $39,303. The PAP's long, stable grip on power has been instrumental to the city-state's growth. But it will be a welcome change for the opposition to gain more clout in a parliament long dominated by the PAP and step up debate on policy.

With little land and natural resources, Singapore began bringing in more foreign workers in the 1990s to boost growth. Foreigners now make up about 30% of Singapore's total population of 5.7 million.

But the rapid influx of skilled foreign workers has also caused resentment. Many Singaporeans see them as taking good jobs and preventing wages from rising.

Improving living conditions for unskilled migrant workers from nearby developing countries has emerged as a priority as well, after their dorms became hotbeds of the coronavirus outbreak.

Singapore has embodied the spirit of globalization, joining the ranks of advanced economies by becoming a trade and financial center and embracing foreign talent. But the country now finds itself at a crossroads amid the outbreak, and the government will need to engage in a dialogue with the public to find a new, sustainable model for growth.

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