By Chia Siow Yue*
After a roller-coaster year, Singapore enters 2022 with its economy, government and society all proving resilient. Singapore managed the impacts of external pressures on its globalised economy, absorbed the impact of COVID-19 and navigated domestic political change. But as ageing leaders and voters pass the baton to the next generation, upheaval may be inevitable.
Despite some early hiccups, Singapore’s young generation of political leaders in cabinet positions — known as 4th Generation or 4G (Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Generation is known as 3G) — brought the COVID-19 situation largely under control.
The government’s quick-changing control measures and vaccination programs were sometimes confusing and restricted personal freedoms, but they contributed to a low death rate and a very high level of vaccination. Along with a strengthened healthcare system, this produced the confidence needed to open Singapore’s borders to regional and international travel towards the end of 2021. Still, the recent emergence of Omicron presents a continuing challenge.
Even as the government navigated COVID-19, changing political sentiments at home continued to present challenges. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) sought a new approach to pandemic management and the economy when it called a general election in July 2020. The electorate returned the PAP to power with a reduced majority and voted in two opposition constituencies with group representation. While preserving the PAP’s leadership, the election brought in a stronger opposition to provide checks and balances and diversity in parliamentary representation.
The leading opposition Workers’ Party put up credible candidates, connected with younger voters via social media and ran a clean campaign. Many believe the opposition was hampered by the perceived ‘unfair’ PAP campaign style — which included the use of tactics such as gerrymandering — and the new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act.
Despite this momentum, in November 2021 Raeesah Khan — an opposition MP — admitted to lying in Parliament on more than one occasion, leading to her resignation and a parliamentary investigation that received much attention from domestic media.
As with past practice, the PAP signalled an intent to pass the leadership on to the 4G as Prime Minister Lee and his cabinet are ageing. But on 8 April 2021, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat — widely regarded as the 4G ‘leader-in-waiting’ — unexpectedly quit the prime ministerial race on the grounds of ill-health, age and the need for a longer time frame to navigate Singapore’s post-COVID recovery. As the priority is tackling Singapore’s immediate health and economic challenges amid the pandemic, the 4G team asked for more time to select a replacement leader.
The media and general public continue to speculate on who will emerge as the next Prime Minister — this will likely become clear in 2022.
The PAP will need to continue to adapt its leadership to appeal to younger voters, particularly as resentment continues over an economic agreement with India, which was perceived as favouring Indian professionals over Singaporeans in employment, and frustrations from job losses and business failures with the economic slowdown. Further, as Singapore’s demographic profile changes, younger Singaporeans have no collective memory of the early struggles that were involved in building a resilient nation, a cohesive society and a competitive economy.
Singapore’s highly urbanised and digitally connected citizens are now more exposed to regional and international political developments, from which they draw lessons for Singapore. As they routinely express in writing and on social media, younger people want a more consultative style of governance and accountability, more emphasis on social inclusiveness and justice, and greater environmental sustainability.
They question the need for highly paid political leaders and bureaucrats and the need to maintain huge fiscal reserves. Instead, they emphasise the need to protect local talent and businesses against the huge influx of foreigners. Of course, many of these aspirations and grievances are not unique to Singapore and are also found in other advanced economies.
Importantly, the quality of political opposition is also changing. The opposition can now attract better candidates to stand for election — that is, better educated, more talented, more articulate and more willing to serve for the betterment of Singapore. Still, as the Raeesah Khan saga has highlighted, the opposition will be held to the same high standards of integrity and meritocracy that the electorate demands of the PAP.
The PAP is already changing to meet some of these challenges. Successive prime ministers after Lee Kuan Yew have adopted a softer style of leadership that is more consultative and compassionate. The 3G and 4G accept the new norm of a significant opposition in Parliament that provides checks and balances and offers diverse perspectives on policy.
With a more vibrant political opposition, Singapore will become less unique among nation-states. Hopefully, it will be able to retain its incorruptibility and efficiency.
*About the author: Chia Siow Yue is Senior Research Fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.