Singapore Voters Speak
September 23, 2015
Singapore went to the polls on September 11, returning the governing People’s Action Party (PAP) to power once again. The PAP won 83 out of 89 seats in Parliament, with a resounding 70 percent of the vote, 10 percent more than in the previous general election in 2011 (GE 2011).
This was the first election since Singapore’s independence from Britain in which former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March, was not a candidate. It was also the first election since Singapore became a republic, in 1965, in which all the seats in Parliament were contested.
Depending on the factors one considers, the decisive PAP victory was either predictable or surprising.
Amidst the feel-good mood of a country celebrating 50 years of nationhood, the outpouring of grief and gratitude on the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the PAP’s nimble policy changes following GE 2011, and the shaky performance of the new parliamentary opposition, the show of support for the PAP seems hardly surprising.
During much of the campaign, on the other hand, there were strong signs of support for the opposition, including attendance at election rallies, online media traffic, and popular trends on social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook. Attendance was generally far higher at opposition rallies. Social media, texts, and videos favoring the opposition appeared to be more widely shared.
Following GE 2011, when the opposition won an unprecedented six seats in the midst of great public dissatisfaction over jobs, housing, and transport, the PAP government launched a slew of new measures and policies. Steps were taken to restrict the influx of foreign workers, and new funding was made available to train Singaporeans for the new jobs of a restructuring economy. The former head of the Ministry of National Development, which is responsible for housing, was removed. The new minister was quick to ramp up construction of several more blocks of government-subsidized flats to meet pent-up demand. Anti-speculation measures such as additional taxes were also introduced to stem escalating property prices. Several infrastructure investments were made to cool frustrations over the inadequacy of public transport. The government stepped up construction of new metro lines, and, in recognition of the time it would take for the new trains to come on line, it also provided funding to buy more public buses.
At the same time, the election was held when Singapore was still basking in the afterglow of the fireworks and handouts of the country’s jubilee festivities. Reflections on how far the city-state had progressed were inevitably linked to the role of Lee Kuan Yew as the architect of modern Singapore. Emotions were heightened by his death in March and his absence from National Day celebrations in August. All these would have helped the PAP.
For their part, the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) had done itself no favors since its electoral breakthrough in GE 2011. Its lackluster performance in Parliament disappointed many supporters, who had voted for the WP to create more “checks and balances” to the PAP-dominated government. The WP’s clumsy handling of municipal issues also became a factor in the latest election.
In the end, the WP kept the six seats it had won in GE 2011, but its share of the vote fell from 47 percent to 40. It also lost the seat it had won in the 2013 by-election, called when a PAP member of Parliament resigned over an extra-marital affair. While voters still wanted some opposition voices in Parliament, they did not go so far as to reward WP with more seats. The other, smaller opposition parties also saw their shares of the vote fall.
In the final analysis, Singapore’s voters used the GE 2015 ballot box to express their disappointment with the Workers’ Party’s performance over the last four years, and to reward the ruling People’s Action Party for listening to their voices in GE 2011.
The message from the Singapore electorate to both governing and opposing parties was clear: promises are not enough; convincing performances are needed. Votes have to be fought for, not just at election time, but during the years of governing in between.
Peggy Kek is the former country director for The Asia Foundation in Singapore, and former director of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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