Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) is one of the longest political parties holding power, winning every election since 1959. CNA, part of the state media, inferred that Singapore was a one party state with its headline “A ‘one-and-a-half party’ political system possible in Singapore, says political analyst” , after the 2020 election.
Singapore has the characteristics of a one-party state. Yet, paradoxically, even though Singapore has a functioning Westminster parliamentary system, which Freedom House criticises for being unfair, if 66,251 voters had changed their intentions, there would have been a hung parliament after the 2020 general election.
With 63 straight years as the government, the PAP has entrenched itself within every aspect of Singaporean society. Although, the PAP can be challenged electorally, its power and influence over the administrative sector, business, health, education, housing, the military, and society is absolute. From this perspective, Singapore is the PAP, where loyalty to the nation and the PAP becomes very blurred.
The inner PAP
Membership of the PAP runs along two tiers, ordinary party members who are attached to branches at the grassroot level, and members of the inner core of the party, called cadres.
A potential cadre must be recommended by a member of parliament, and then the candidate is interviewed a number of times by a committee appointed by the Central Executive Committee (CEC), which will include four or five ministers and members of parliament. There might be up to 1,000 cadres within the PAP today, although the actual number is a secret and not published anywhere. A cadre has the right to attend the party conference and vote for the leadership every two years. This system is partly in place to prevent any future hostile takeover attempts within the party.
Consequently, the real political power in Singapore is centred around the Central Executive Committee, headed by the Secretary General, who is the head of the party, and usually the prime minister. There is a very strong overlap between CEC members and cabinet ministers. Twelve members are elected by cadres and six are appointed. Any outgoing CEC member must recommend a list of potential candidates to fill his/her position within the CEC. The CEC looks after the young PAP, Women’s Wing, PAP Senior’s Group, selects cadres, and parliamentary candidates.
Within the second tier, ordinary members are screened before they can join the PAP. Potential members must demonstrate some involvement within the community before membership is approved. Lee Kwan Yew did not want a party with populist demands, and also wanted to avoid the influence of ‘quanxi’ within the party. Party members are basically unpaid volunteers, serving their MPs on branch sub-committees, and help mobilize support during elections.
By international standards, the PAP is very small, maybe with around 15,000 members, and a small central administrative machinery, yet its influence spans the whole island nation.
Networking and Nepotism
One of the problems with smaller nations is the lack of distance between the centre of power and family, relatives, and other close associates. Singapore is no different here.
Relationships between the political elite and prominent people throughout Singapore society has been well documented over a number of years by a blogger with a pen name ‘Jess C Scott’, in her blog “Singapore Politics.” The close political, business, banking, administrative, and other societal links are meticulously mapped out on her blog.
What exists within Singapore are complex networks of relationships, some blood, and others through marriage, that cover almost every aspect of Singapore politics, government, and society. The blog claims that the real estate industry is held in tight hands, as are the banks, sovereign funds, and major instrumentalities. The government through sovereign funds controlled over 50% of the equity on the Singapore Stock Exchange (SGX). The National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) is headed by a PAP minister, and the People’s Association (PA) is headed by a PAP appointee.
Nepotism within the civil service is not just within the domain of the elite. An earlier investigation by the author found that many key positions within the Majlis Ugama Singapura (MUIS), a government statutory body under the Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY), were held by people who closely related to each other.
Cover ups and suppression of dissent
Singapore is ranked equal fourth in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index in 2021. According to the Singapore Corruption Prevention and Investigation Bureau (CPIB), corruption cases within Singapore are very low, with a zero tolerance by the government.
However, within Singapore there is a culture of cover up. An Australian Julie O’Connor raised allegations of fraud over the acquisition of assets from an Australian based company, Strategic Marine Pty Ltd. Her claims were dismissed without proper investigation by the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), where she has been vilified on social media, and even threatened with violence.
MUIS used the state owned public media to cover up allegations of fraud and misconduct, eventually commissioning a ministerial inquiry, clearing both the personnel accused and organization, without ever making the final report public.
The culture of denial is deep seated within Singapore, where the mass media is used to discredit whistle blowers, and placate public sentiment with official responses, which are often not based upon facts.
An ex-employee of the CPIB, charged with investigation corruption within the island state told the writer that the organization is guided by the executive on what it should and shouldn’t investigate.
Singapore also uses a draconian Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). This legislation is used to for the taking down of any social media which a minister, in his/her judgement deems a particular statement false. In 2021, the local news portal Citizen Online (TOC) had its license suspended by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA).
More recently, the government introduced the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA), designed to prevent foreign interests interfering with Singapore’s domestic political processes, national sovereignty, or social cohesiveness.
Singapore heavily utilizes defamation laws to suppress political opponents. One of the most well known cases was the suit against former opposition MP JB Jeyaretnam in 1997, leading to his bankruptcy. Amnesty International charged that the judiciary had in the case bent to the will of the executive in this politically sensitive case.
The police are often used when there has been a leak from the civil service. Any information or documents leaked from the service is considered a breach of the Official Secrets Act (OSA), and is investigated as such. This is usually a form of intimidation, as police during questioning are mostly interested in uncovering the identity of the whistle blower.
Most Singaporeans fear criticising the government out of fear retribution may be taken against them by one of the Island states government agencies, such as the Housing Development Board (HDB). Singaporeans tend to only share their grievances in groups of trusted members, rather than go public.
Singapore’s Security Apparatus
The Internal Security Department (ISD) has a notorious history. The ISD is responsible for administrating the Internal Security Act (IDA), which allows for detention of people without criminal charge or right to trial, from renewable two year periods.
The ISA was used against most of Singapore’s Barisan Sosialas members, through what was called Operation Coldstore, which enabled the PAP to control the parliament without any challenge for decades. Two ISA officers, one named Tim and another Iqbal Abdul Rahim, according to Zulfikar Muhamad Sharif’s memoirs of his detention under ISA at the Changi Complex, admitted that the ISA had been used against political opponents to the PAP.
According to Zulfikar, the ISD officers believed that protecting the PAP, was protecting the government, which equates to Singapore.
Today, the ISA is utilised as a tool through the media to show Singaporeans how well the authorities are keeping the island nation safe from terrorist threats. This has worked well, as it is believed the majority of Singaporeans believe in the need of the ISA. The ISA a sublimed threat to any Singaporean who might openly criticize the PAP.
The government exerts massive influence over television, radio, print, and online media. They formally own a number of media organizations, most under the umbrella of MediaCorp. While SPH is privately owned, the government through the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, can nominate individuals to sit on the board. The chairman of SPH has been an ex-minister for a number of decades.
Journalists working for the mainstream media are heavily restricted by their editors about what they can and can’t report on. They also practice self-censorship due to repercussions from their superiors, as well as civil and criminal actions that can be used against them. In addition, ministers or their offices often request news agencies pull down stories which they object to. Most of the mainstream media complies with these requests.
The future of Singapore’s quasi-one-party state
The PAP doesn’t see itself as a political party. It sees itself as the legitimate institution in charge of Singapore’s destiny. The PAP as a patriarchal culture has a prevailing attitude that its inner circle knows best for Singapore. From this context, opposition is perceived as being obstructive to the PAP vision of Singapore. From this perspective, the media, civil service, armed and security forces are instruments or tools to ensure stability in implementing the vision. Unlike other one-party states, this vision is not anchored to any ideology, other than pragmatism, context, and situation.
Singapore is now undergoing a very important transition to the so-called fourth generation of leaders. The current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong has anointed Lawrence Wong as his new deputy and potential successor. Although, the transition is expected to be smooth, Wong will have many challenges ahead.
PAP support is on the decline. In the 2020 general election, the PAP garnered 60% of the popular vote, down from 70% in the 2015 general election. Fortunately for the PAP, the nations opposition is fragmented and divided, and unlikely to unite as a single front against the PAP in 2025.
The key question for the new leadership is whether Singapore would have been able to progress the way it did, if it had a political system which allowed criticism and debate, not to mention a fairer more inclusive electoral system over the last 50 years?
Singapore’s development has not been without its costs. Lee Kwan Yew often stated that states within the Asian region could only be run through ‘guided democracies.’ Any fully fledged liberal democracy would have been disastrous for stable government.
This is worth reflecting upon to see the way the fourth generation will pursue future governance. It should continue to be pragmatic, technocratic, and based upon a very select group of elite cadres. Singaporeans must expect more of the same.
The one-party state today, with all its imperfections, is not just about the PAP. Its now just as much about the opposition uniting and their real want to take government.
Should there ever be a day the opposition came to power, it would take decades for the new government to disassemble the tentacles of PAP influence. The pragmatic approach is that one day the opposition may share government in a junior position to the PAP, which itself would be a revolution in Singapore politics.
This may take a generation.