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Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, left, has named Workers' Party Secretary-General Pritam Singh, right, the "leader of the opposition" in a first for the city-state. © Nikkei montage/Source photos by Getty Images
Asia Insight

Singapore's 'democratic dawn'? Parties adapt to new landscape

Ruling PAP under pressure to save economy while opposition faces test of ideas

KENTARO IWAMOTO, Nikkei staff writer | Singapore

SINGAPORE -- The Progress Singapore Party failed to win a single seat in the city-state's general election on July 10. Nevertheless, the year-old party says that it has received about 1,000 membership applications since the election period.

The continued inflow arguably supports the narrative that emerged after the polls: The 10 opposition parties lost, yet in some ways they succeeded. And Singapore might never be quite the same.

Leong Mun Wai, the PSP's assistant secretary-general, told the Nikkei Asian Review that the vote was the "dawn of Singapore's democratic politics."

A little over two weeks after the election, and less than two weeks before the country marks its 55th anniversary on Aug. 9, it is anyone's guess whether this new era will bring real or only superficial changes. After all, the People's Action Party -- in power since independence in 1965 -- took 83 of 93 available seats, comfortably clear of the two-thirds supermajority needed for constitutional amendments.

Only the Workers' Party, led by Secretary-General Pritam Singh, made a tangible dent, grabbing a record 10 seats for the opposition.

But even PAP heavyweights sound a lot like Leong these days. It is as if they feel the ground shifting beneath their feet as the government attempts to overcome the devastating economic effects of COVID-19, craft a new growth model and transfer power to the next generation of leaders.

Singaporean politics have "changed permanently," the PAP's Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a senior minister and former deputy prime minister, said in a Facebook post on July 19. "We have to make this new balance work well for Singapore."

There are several other signs that this is not the Singapore of yore, when the PAP could count on strong public support fueled by a brisk economy, coupled with an election system that democracy advocates have long described as unfair.

One signal is the ruling party's share of the popular vote, which plunged to 61.2% from 69.9% in the previous 2015 election -- perilously close to its worst result of 60.1% in 2011. Even the fledgling PSP, which came up empty in terms of seats, challenged the PAP and won 40.8% of the vote in the constituencies it contested.

A survey of 1,500 voters conducted just before the election, but released afterward, underscores that Singaporeans of all ages want alternative voices in politics.

Blackbox Research found that 75% of citizens aged 21 to 24 felt that "more choice for voters was good for Singapore's democracy even though some [new politicians] have no real experience in the government." The ratio was 67% for the 25 to 39 age bracket; 64% for voters in their 40s and 50s; and 58% for those over 60.

Lawrence Wong, hitherto the national development minister and now education minister in the new cabinet announced on Saturday, reckons the days when the PAP could expect to surpass 65% of the vote are probably over.

"The desire for diversity in the parliament, for checks and balances, is permanent," Wong told reporters on July 18. "It is here to stay. We must be prepared for this new reality."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong seemed to be facing up to this shortly after the election when he formally named the Workers' Party's Singh "leader of the opposition" -- a first for the city-state. What this entails remains to be seen, but some expect Singh could be granted more access to government information and support staff.

Lee on Saturday said he hopes the opposition will "play a more constructive and more substantive role, not just asking questions of the government, but also putting up alternatives, putting out proposals and being scrutinized so that Singaporeans can understand what the trade-offs are, what the issues are, what the choices are, and we can have a better quality of debate."

Politics watchers like Donald Low, professor of practice and director of the Institute of Emerging Market Studies at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, see a rebalancing that could serve the nation well as it confronts the coronavirus.

"With a stronger presence of the opposition to demand accountability, Singapore is in a stronger position [to recover from the crisis]," Low told Nikkei. "This sort of democratization is very healthy for Singapore, and this is exactly what Singapore needs in this period -- careful consideration of alternatives, diversity of ideas of how to adapt to the post-pandemic, disruptive future."

Even so, critics say the political playing field remains far from level.

Singapore ranked 75th in the Economist Intelligence Unit's global democracy index for 2019, behind regional peers Malaysia (43rd), Indonesia (64th) and Thailand (68th). The city-state performed especially poorly in the category of "electoral process and pluralism."

This reflects frequent electoral boundary changes and a unique "group representation constituency" system that have helped the PAP maintain its grip. Opposition parties typically struggle to find enough candidates and cobble together thousands of dollars in registration fees to compete in the GRCs, where parties field teams of up to five and the winner takes all seats.

But this year, the system did not benefit the PAP quite as much as it used to. The Workers' Party won two GRCs for the first time, including one district that had just been created in the latest electoral boundary renewal. The Progress Singapore Party, led by Tan Cheng Bock, also came within 2 percentage points of taking a third GRC for the opposition.

The PAP had slipped up before, as seen in the 2011 general election. Yet, there are deeper trends that suggest this time is different.

Before the pandemic sent Singapore's economy plunging to a 12.6% year-on-year contraction and a technical recession in the second quarter of 2020, headwinds were already blowing. Rising protectionism and U.S.-China tensions were taking a toll on the trade-reliant city-state. And although the PAP had built one of Asia's richest nations, there was growing concern about high living costs and unequal distribution of that wealth.

As the economic pressure mounts, opposition groups will be aiming to capitalize further, while the PAP will be seeking solutions to turn back the tide. Younger ruling party members, in particular, will be under the gun to prove themselves.

This election was supposed to be a major milestone in a transition to "fourth generation" or "4G" PAP leaders. The biggest name of the bunch is Heng Swee Keat, 59, the finance minister and deputy prime minister tipped to succeed the 68-year-old Lee sometime this term. But the shaky election showings of some 4G candidates -- including Heng, whose team won its GRC with just 53.4% of the vote -- has stirred speculation about a succession rethink.

Lee kept Heng and other core ministers in his new cabinet. But on Saturday he did nothing to stop the chatter about whether he would retire by age 70 as planned, vowing to see the coronavirus crisis through.

Garry Rodan, honorary professor at Australia's University of Queensland, told Nikkei that the 4G politicians will have to work to "win back some of the popular vote."

Rodan said they can start by establishing some "product differentiation from past PAP leaders on major policy issues of concern to alienated voters." The first step, in his view, would be to show the Workers' Party "and its ideas some genuine respect and engagement in parliament, especially where this involves issues of inequality and the rights of Singaporeans -- inside and outside parliament -- to scrutinize the processes of state governance institutions."

If 4G leaders respond positively to calls for more democratic transparency and accountability, Rodan said it would "help to signal a positive shift in PAP political culture."

The opposition, meanwhile, will need to show it is up to playing a larger role.

"This term, our efforts in parliament are centered on key bread-and-butter concerns; jobs for Singaporeans, health care for our seniors and more generally, cost of living concerns," Singh, who was not available for an interview, said in a Facebook post on July 20.

The Workers' Party leader, however, placed some of the onus on the PAP.

"What remains to be seen is whether the approach of the PAP government towards greater information sharing will turn in favor of greater openness," he said. "The extent to which realistic policy alternatives can be advanced both in public and in parliament is also a function of the PAP's approach to democratic politics."

The PSP's Leong told Nikkei that his party would strive to cooperate with the Workers' Party, amplifying opposition voices in parliament and promoting transparency. Although the PSP did not win any seats at the polls, it gained two thanks to another quirk of Singapore's election system, which rewards the "best loser" with "non-constituency member of parliament" seats.

Leong said the party would also suggest specific policies on key issues, such as a future economic growth model.

Policymaking aside, both the ruling and opposition parties will be keeping at least one eye on the next election during parliament's five-year term, which commences Aug. 24.

Rodan said that "there may be value in greater rationalization of the number of opposition parties so that there are fewer but better-resourced and better-coordinated parties contending with the PAP." Opposition groups' ideological and policy positions, he added, "are not diverse enough to warrant 10 parties."

At the same time, Rodan warned that the PAP might attempt more gerrymandering to contain its rivals.

Leong agreed that the battle is only just beginning, and that the opposition cannot afford to ease up now.

"It's still a 'dawn,'" Leong said. "We might go back to 'dark' again."

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