Singapore Entering a ‘New Phase’ in Politics


Opposition Workers Party supporters celebrate after winning five Parliament seats in the May 8 election. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)

During a trip to Singapore in January, one of my stops was at a local university journalism class. The professor was particularly interested in election coverage, and I responded that a critical element of a good election night broadcast was suspense. I added that suspense is hard to create in a country where the ruling party overwhelmingly wins every election.

By those standards, the city-state of five million people had a surprisingly interesting, and some say exciting, weekend election. Most Americans or Europeans would not regard an opposition gain to 7 percent of the seats in parliament as a big deal, but for Singapore it was a dramatic breakthrough.

Whether it heralds the beginning of what Singaporeans call “First World Democracy,” in a country often criticized by outsiders for its lack of that, remains to be seen. But many, especially the younger voters who became engaged through Internet campaigning (another first in a country with tight limits on mainstream media), were encouraged and engaged as never before. I know some in their 30s who voted for the first time in their lives.

Since independence, the former British colony has been governed by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) of founding father Lee Kuan Yew, now minister mentor. It has dominated politics to the point that parliamentary candidates in most elections ran unopposed. But this time, opposition parties challenged all but one (Lee’s seat) of the 87 seats. The main opposition Workers’ Party emerged winners of six seats and held the governing party to 60 percent of the vote. The opposition’s biggest triumph came in one central multi-seat district where they won five seats and ousted two cabinet ministers and the prospective House speaker.

In a gracious concession statement, Foreign Minister George Yeo said, “Like it or not, we are entering a new phase in Singapore’s political development.” He acknowledged the role of young voters and campaign workers but added, “It is not good that so many of them feel alienated from the Singapore they love.”

Political analysts generally agreed that 5 percent inflation, even more in housing prices, and an influx of immigrant workers were immediate issues in what has become one of the richest nations in Asia.

But the leader of a smaller opposition party, Chee Soon Juan, wrote in the Guardian of something deeper, of “a populace (including middle class professionals and even civil servants) finally tired of living under an authoritarian system and of constantly being told how good their rulers were and that their rule was a right and not a privilege.”

Peggy Kek of the Asia Foundation said perhaps the most important development was the note of apology in concessions from Yeo and other defeated ruling party candidates, which she described as unprecedented. She said opposition parties, for the first time, are being viewed as credible, removing “a huge psychological block” to their success.

Kek added that a new generation of voters has emerged that never knew when the country was poor, had no memories of Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister and took less seriously, even negatively, his warnings that Singaporeans would regret voting for the opposition.

Not every analyst was as optimistic. One popular blogger, Cherian George (the title of his blog “Air Conditioned Nation” reflects his lightly sardonic approach), wrote: “The 2011 election campaign may have energized ordinarily docile Singaporeans to share views on Facebook, attend rallies and jostle for WP (Workers Party) umbrellas, but the sobering truth for the opposition is that the vast majority of them will return to their private lives tomorrow, and continue to outsource public affairs to politicians.”

But as many political commentators in the U.S. or Europe would add, that is what usually happens after elections in “First World Democracies,” too.

Follow Michael D. Mosettig on Twitter.