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Marking out the arena: Election issues emerge in Singapore

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
Marking out the arena: Election issues emerge in Singapore
Singaporeans are still waiting with bated breath for the Prime Minister to call the general election. But with political parties already swinging into action, certain issues begin to come to the fore.

Header photo credit: The Online Citizen

Singaporeans all know that there’ll be a general election soon – 12 September, rumour has it – only Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong won’t confirm it. Still, the political machine has begun to grind: candidates are being introduced, parties are jockeying for attention and territory, and the agenda is slowly but surely being set.

Singapore has, by all accounts, done well in 50 years of independent history. Although the city had already been considered rich compared to other nations in the region at the time of independence in 1965, much of the credit for its success since has been given to the People’s Action Party (PAP). The party set in motion policies and plans that has brought Singapore, for better or worse, to where it is today: a tiny-yet-wealthy Southeast Asian nation boasting a government that ranks in the top 10 of the Corruption Perceptions Index, a country described as a place where “things just work”.

Yet things that work might no longer be enough for the Singaporean electorate. The country has seen the same party hold the overwhelming majority of seats in parliament for over five decades, and people are starting to wonder if that’s long enough. The current PAP team of leaders, it’s often observed, are not of the same calibre as the idealistic and determined “Old Guard” that took on the challenge of governing a newly independent country. Singaporeans today are feeling stressed and squeezed; costs are going up and the rewards of economic growth don’t appear to have been equitably distributed.

And things aren’t even working as Singaporeans have come to expect: recent massive breakdowns in the public train system has caused widespread anger with the government. (The Transport Minister has already indicated that he will not be standing for re-election.)

It's against this backdrop that the upcoming election will be held. Sure, there’s likely to be a considerable amount of the warm fuzzies over the recent Golden Jubilee celebration – in which the PAP’s achievements were well-represented – as well as sympathy and nostalgia over the passing of first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in March this year, yet the reflection and soul-searching triggered by these events can lead to a multitude of conclusions.

A recent pre-election dialogue saw all representatives of the 10 contesting political parties mention the importance of securing the nation’s future. While the PAP representative argued for the need to build upon the trust between the ruling party and the people, opposition leaders insisted that the safest path voters can choose is one with stronger opposition presence in Parliament, where policies can be debated and power be checked. As people remember the past and look to the future, not all will see the next 50 years as one continually dominated by the PAP.

The opposition will thus want to hammer this message home from now to Polling Day. The need for checks and balances, for real parliamentary debates and for elected representatives with diverse backgrounds, experiences and problem-solving skills will be emphasised again and again – rather than argue for a complete overthrow of the PAP, it’s much more likely that the other parties will present themselves as providing credible alternatives to give the people more voice in the democratic process. After all, breaking the two-third majority the PAP has always held will come across as not only more realistic, but less intimidating for risk-averse voters worried about whether opposition parties can form a stable coalition government.

A question posed by Gerald Giam of the opposition Workers' Party at the pre-election dialogue.

The PAP, though, appears to be drawing focus to the need for a strong, reliable leadership for Singapore’s future. It’ll point to its long years of experience in governing Singapore, urging voters to go down the tried-and-tested path. Singapore’s vulnerabilities will once again be trotted out – Emeritus Senior Minister (yes, there is such a post in Singapore) Goh Chok Tong has already made reference to how easily Singapore could regress from “First World to Third” in a single generation:

An extract from an article published in local broadsheet The Straits Times on 14 August 2015. Note how the "leadership transition" for the PAP is referred to as "the country's fourth generation team", thus perpetuating – consciously or unconsciously – the idea that the PAP will always govern Singapore, and that forming the government is a matter of "succession" rather than election.

Municipal issues are also a favourite of the PAP, as they once again have the upper hand in managing town councils, holding Meet-the-People Sessions and working with supposedly apolitical grassroots organisations in which only PAP members can be advisors. Upgrading works can also conveniently be announced during election season if you’re the incumbent.

In addition, the PAP has more ammunition this time, which they’ve already been using to full effect: an audit of the opposition-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) found lapses in the management of funds, providing the PAP with more fodder with which to suggest that only they can run effective town councils. No number of responses from AHPETC will placate the PAP this season; voters will simply hear again and again that the Workers' Party is incompetent and untrustworthy. Whether this tactic will succeed – or whether the electorate will simply get bored – remains to be seen.

The 2011 general election was deemed a "watershed" because it saw an unprecedented number of seats being contested, and increased support for opposition parties as Singaporeans pushed for greater representation in Parliament. This upcoming election looks set to continue that trend. Many of the hot-button issues in the last election – transport, housing, population and inequality – are sources of anger and anxiety for many Singaporeans.

The PAP has, to its credit, attempted to improve the situation, and one could argue that some policies need more time to bear fruit. But voters may no longer be content to wait for the PAP's solutions, preferring the opportunity to hear alternative ideas. And beyond town council accounts and promises of upgrading, perhaps that will be the ground upon which the upcoming election battle will be fought.

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