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Singapore Elections: The Opposition’s Growing Role – Analysis

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By Sripathi Narayanan

The city-state of Singapore went to polls on 7 May 2011 to form the 16th Parliament. The incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong-led People’s Action Party (PAP) won the with a landslide majority. The PAP won 81 of the 87 seats and secured a little over 60% of the votes. This election marks the thirteenth consecutive electoral victory for the PAP since 1959. The 1959 elections were for local self-governance, at a time when Singapore was still a colony of the British Empire.

In 1963, Singapore became an independent country with Lee Kuan Yew as its Prime Minister, the father of the current incumbent. Lee Kuan Yew was the Premier of the republic for over three decades and was also the world’s longest serving Prime Minster until he retired from politics in favour of Goh Chok Tong. Goh Chok Tong was in office from 1990 to 2004, and was succeeded by Lee Hsien Loong as Prime Minister. These elections were the second to be fought by the PAP under the leadership of Lee Hsien Loong.

Singapore
Singapore

Despite its success, these elections have created a dent in the PAP’s armour because it will be sending the largest number of opposition MPs to Parliament yet. Incidentally this is the second consecutive time in the history of Singapore that the electoral results were not known on the day of nomination as the opposition had filed their nomination papers for 82 of the 87 seats (93.4%), the highest number of seats contested since independence. In the previous general elections that were held in 2006, as many as 37 constituencies were secured by the PAP without contest, as compared to the present five. Singapore has a history of being a single party-dominated polity with instances of unopposed elections being held.

This election has in fact seen a fall in the voter percentage of the PAP. In the previous election the PAP secured 66% of the popular vote and locked 82 seats, this has now come down to 60%. On the other hand, opposition political parties have made marginal electoral gains. The fact that six opposition MPs are in the new Parliament is a landmark event. Incidentally all six MPs are from the Worker’s Party (WP), whereas the other five political parties have no representation in the Parliament. This election was also significant because it kept pace with cyber space through the use of social media as a campaigning tool. In addition to this, one in four Singaporeans are under the age of 35, the age group that is more adapted to electronic communication.

The era of electronic communication and new media has been a well-received initiative; especially in light of the opposition’s complaints that they were being denied air space by the government-controlled media. In the meanwhile the main opposition party, Worker’s Party, has also transformed itself into a party that share’s space with the white collar section of society.

The biggest surprise of this election was the defeat of the foreign minister, George Yong-Boon Yeo, who was considered a winning candidate for the PAP, despite his narrow margin of victory in the previous election. His defeat was reportedly not a welcome sign in the recently concluded ASEAN Summit held in Jakarta.

The PAP continues to enjoy an absolute majority for another term. The Prime Minister, during his campaign, had apologized for the shortcomings of the government in the past and assured the people it would lend a more sympathetic ear to their grievances. The issues that dominated this campaign were the influx of foreign workers which has driven the cost of living for the locals, higher cost of housing caused by high net worth expatriates, the slow progress of transportation, and the high salaries of ministers in the prosperous city-state.

Though this election was not significant per se, but there are two developments that need to be taken note of. First is the presence of the opposition, both in their participation in the election and now in the Parliament. The second is the growing resentment of the people towards the PAP-led government’s general high handedness accompanied by its shortcomings, which was reflected in the election results. Future elections could witness a closely fought competition as this election itself witnessed wins by narrow margins in a number of constituencies.

In a system that is unique to Singapore, the Election Department reports to the Prime Minister and is also in charge of demarking constituencies before every election. This system is perceived to have undermined to capabilities of the opposition. Should this practice be revised, its impact on the electoral process is anyone’s guess.

Sripathi Narayanan
Research Intern, IPCS
email: [email protected]

IPCS

IPCS

IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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