The 14th parliament of Singapore opened this week. In last month’s election, the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has governed since 1959, won 83 out of 93 seats. That may seem like a sizeable victory, but ten seats is the best ever showing for an opposition party and the Workers’ Party celebrated long into the night.
‘People are euphoric,’ the social activist and publisher Fong Hoe Fang told me. ‘Ten seats might not sound like much, but it is a real breakthrough, a sign that the elite of one party can no longer decide the direction of the country unopposed. People, especially young people, are no longer willing to be bystanders.’
‘Every election the boundaries change with the effect of splitting the opposition vote,’ Fong says. ‘There are also enormous obstacles to grassroots organising and getting access to the media, and then this was a very short campaign: just nine days to get your message across.’
There are also enormous psychological disincentives to vote against a party that has ruled for more than sixty years, including fears about access to mass housing and employment opportunities being restricted. Opposition parties in Singapore used to be among the most circumspect and unobtrusive in the developed world. But the country has begun to face problems long familiar to the West: an ageing population, stalling growth, high levels of private debt, a sense that the compact that drove globalisation since the 1970s is coming apart.
In terms of policy, there is little to choose between the PAP and its rivals. The WP manifesto makes plain that, despite its name and symbol (a yellow hammer on a red background), it is not in fact a workers’ party. Its platform for the most part combines middle-class interests, for example reducing competition from skilled foreign workers, with a philanthropic concern for the extremely poor. The Singapore Democratic Party – which won three seats in 1991 but lost them in 1997 and hasn’t held any since – has shown a faint interest in shifting the focus of Singapore’s political economy from ‘the global’ towards Malaysia, but the opposition parties as a whole tend to distinguish themselves from the PAP by favouring greater protectionism. Ultimately, the manifestos tinker at the margins.
There are real differences in the culture and ethos of personnel, however. Alongside 44-year-old Pritam Singh, the first official leader of the opposition in parliament, of the 20 other WP candidates, all but two were under 50, nine were under 40 and one was under 30: 26-year-old Raeesha Khan is now Singapore’s youngest MP, and the first Malay woman to hold an opposition seat. As for the PAP leadership, ‘we worry they come from silos,’ Constance Singam, an activist, says. ‘They have been conditioned by the whole PAP culture; the civil service, the armed forces and the state-run Temasek companies.’ While Khan borrows heavily from contemporary American identity politics, the PAP remains grounded in the idea of the developmental state.
‘There’s no real language to talk about democracy in Singapore,’ according to Chua Beng Huat, a professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore. ‘Young people are adept at importing political language from the West but it can be difficult to transfer those concepts into Mandarin or Malay. We have no language of human rights, there were basically no debates about human rights during the election, and the discourse around foreign workers can be quite xenophobic, particularly on the side of the opposition, in their critique of the government’s immigration and population policies.’
Yet, for the first time, the ‘Pioneer generation’ who achieved independence – now pensioners – could be heard in hawker centres discussing the difference between a political party and a government, or asking what gerrymandering is. It felt like a step towards a different sort of country. As for the young, ‘over the last ten years,’ Singam says, ‘you have seen increasing numbers of young people prepared to go to prison or pay fines for their activism. There is less fear among young people to speak up and address the fundamental problems we have with low wages, inequality and racism.’
Before the election, 58-year-old Heng Swee Keat was expected to take over as prime minister. But the PAP in his constituency beat the WP with only 53 per cent of the vote, down more than six points from 2015. Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister since 2004 (and the eldest son of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who ran the country from 1959 to 1990), pledged to stay in office until the pandemic passes. Heng’s hesitant speeches were widely shared on social media during the campaign, and he has had health scares in the past. There’s now a degree of doubt over his eventual succession.
There are few limits to the power of Singapore’s state and billions have been spent responding to the crisis: in a population of nearly six million, there have been 56,000 cases of Covid-19 but only 27 deaths. The government has also put together an impressive array of schemes to tackle unemployment. But while creating middle-class administrative jobs in the public sector may shore up the PAP’s vote in years to come, it doesn’t seem the most obvious strategy for tackling deeper social or economic problems.
Perhaps because the government has at times appeared to be moving hard in several different directions at once, public approval of its performance has been qualified, while international criticism has focused on outbreaks among migrant workers from India and Bangladesh. It’s certainly possible that without the ongoing pandemic, the PAP’s vote would have fallen further.