A door cracks open in the Little Red Dot.

Authors Preface: Now that my departure from Singapore is imminent I no longer have to fear retribution for commenting about local politics. I was warned when I arrived in SG that foreigners commenting about SG political issues was verboten and liable to risk summary deportation or defamation charges. I do not think that what follows is defamatory in any way shape or form, and constitutes just the first in what will be a series of reflections about Singapore after having spent 3.5 years immersed in its politics and culture.

On May 7 2011, 2.5 million Singaporeans (out of a total population of 5 million) go to the polls in order to elect the next government. As a one party-dominant authoritarian state, the outcome is already assured–the People’s Action Party that has held power since 1959 will win the majority of parliamentary seats (Singapore is formally a unicameral parliamentary system). By gerrymandering electoral districts (which has led to uncontested walkover rates of 50 percent) and placing limits on opposition party rights to public expression and assembly outside of the two week campaign season (to include prohibitions on holding rallies and distributing flyers, posters or pamphlets, which has resulted in numerous defamation suits against and arrests of opposition figures over the years–the last in 2010 for a violation of the “no public assembly of more than 5 people without a Police permit” law), the PAP might match the 66 percent of the vote garnered in 2006 (a drop from the 73 percent received in 2001).  It will retain its majority hold of the (recently expanded) 87-member parliament. But there is political change blowing in the hot and humid Singaporean breeze, which is as much the result of generational and social change as it is of opposition renewal and PAP sclerosis. Although it will retain power this time, none of the trends auger well for the PAP.

Taking 25 years as the generational baseline, Singapore is in its third generation since gaining political autonomy from the Malay Federation in 1959 (independence came with its expulsion from the Federation in 1965). Led by 87-year old Lee Kuan Yew, the first generation of PAP leaders ruled with tight control until 1990, in an era when Singapore’s image as an austere and puritanical authoritarian state was forged. The second generation of hand-picked successors, who began the slow process of political and social liberalization and orchestrated the emergence of the country as a major transportation, logistics and financial hub, is singing its political swan song today. This year’s election marks the transition to the third generation of political leadership and not all has gone as planned for the PAP.

Voting is mandatory in Singapore. Yet spoiled ballots and non-voters amounted to nearly 10 percent of the 2006 electorate. In other words, the signs of discontent were already present five years ago. This year there has been a resurgence of political opposition led by the Workers Party, the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Party. In marked contrast to previous elections, 82 of the 87 parliamentary seats will be contested. Among the ranks of the opposition are defectors from the PAP, former government-sponsored overseas scholars (who usually pay their scholarship debt by returning to assume bureaucratic positions and joining the PAP), former Internal Security Act detainees (the ISA allows for the indefinite detention of suspects without charge and some of the current opposition candidates have spent periods in confinement as a result of it) as well as political exiles.

Most of the new candidates are in their mid 20s to mid 40s, thereby representing a coming of age for their generation of free thinkers. In response, the PAP has trotted out the usual ensemble of former bureaucrats and politicized retired military officers, interspersed with a handful of younger neophytes (including one whose qualifications for office apparently are that she is the wife of the Prime Minister’s executive assistant and has a penchant for shopping–the latter being Singapore’s national pastime). What is most revealing is that the PAP is no longer able to hide its internal divisions, with leading officials, Ministers and even the Minister Mentor (how’s that for a title?) Lee Kuan Yew himself openly disagreeing about issues of politics, policy and social construction. Perhaps sensing a shift in the public mood, some PAP candidates have withdrawn from the election (“retirement” being the most common reason). All of this underscores something that the Minister Mentor said last year: that the PAP must rejuvenate or stagnate, and that democracy would only come when the PAP proved incapable of responding to public expectations as a result of its stagnation.

The trouble for the PAP is that the elections have come too quickly for a major re-generation of its cadres, which in a talent-thin environment such as Singapore (owing to its population size, as anyone who looks beyond the front benches of the New Zealand parliament will understand), means that the moment of political reckoning has come much sooner than the 25 years Lee Kuan Yew envisioned.

Even worse for the PAP, although the government controls all of the mainstream media in Singapore, including the Straits Times and the telecommunications giant MediaCorp, it has been unable to staunch the flow of internet criticism of its personnel and policies, or the grassroots mobilization of support for the opposition. Much concern has been voiced about increasing inefficiencies in public services, the high cost of living, the loss of white collar jobs to foreigners, and the government’s astronomical pay scales (the Prime Minister–Lee Kuan Yew’s son–is paid S$4.5 million per/year, senior ministers make S$3 million and parliamentary backbenchers start at S$150,000. In fact according to the Economist, Singapore has the second highest ratio of political leader’s pay to the country’s GDP per person, with the average salary of US$2,183,516). There is irony in the latter because it is a world first: Singapore has the most expensive government that money can buy, in a society that is image-obsessed but in which income inequality is more third world than first world.

In the face of what looks to be the possibility of losing previously safe seats amid an unprecedented wave of electoral contestation, the PAP has resorted to fear-mongering, focusing on the tired old canards of economic insecurity, Malay sedition, jihadist terrorism, unskilled foreign workers from the sub-continent and mainland China bringing crime and stealing local jobs, and gay rights (homosexuality is illegal in Singapore but as part of the social liberalization process enforcement of sodomy laws has been weak and episodic over the last decade. This has been a major concern of social conservatives, including the very large number of ethnic Chinese Christians found on the island who are a core PAP constituency). PAP officials talk darkly about “hidden agendas” and wonder why the opposition would seek “to take control of the government” (apparently ignorant of the fact that political parties are formed precisely to contest for power in order to gain decision-making authority and influence policy). Yet the more it raises the specter of Singapore returning to its polyglot swampland brothel and opium den past, the more the PAP is ridiculed for being out of touch with the wants and needs of contemporary Singaporeans.

This means that this election and its aftermath will constitute a critical juncture in Singaporean history. It will set the stage for the next critical juncture, which will be the occasion and aftermath of Lee Kuan Yew’s death.

The notion of critical juncture is important and needs explaining. Using economics-derived path dependency analysis (in which human behavior is “locked in” by past institutional practice the more that practice is routinised over time), critical junctures are historical moments when decisive choices are made within given institutional parameters that set the future course of events (the most common used analogies are the “fork in the road” and “tree branch” motifs).  Because of its internal divisions, Lee Kuan Yew’s death will be the moment when the knives come out within the PAP, with moderate reformists and liberalizers pitted against hard-line status quo defenders in what could wind up as a splitting of the party. Since the hard-line elements constitute the bulk of the deadwood and sclerotic elements within the PAP, it is quite possible, given the outcome of this election, that reformists will gain control of the party and move to accommodate moderate opposition views in a grand coalition strategy designed to help preserve their hold on power after 2016.

But that is precisely why this election constitutes a pre-conditioning critical juncture that will set the stage for the next one. Processes of authoritarian regime liberalization tend to be “two-steps forward, one step backwards” affairs. The regime opens a little, the opposition pushes further than what is acceptable to the regime, and the regime pushes back. Confronted with a rising tide of opposition success and grassroots mobilizations against one-party rule that cannot be contained with selective application of the ISA and the usual use of defamation and non-assembly laws, the PAP regime will therefore be forced to opt for one of two paths: repress or reform. Its previous preferred strategy of cooptation will no longer work.

This is important to consider because the reformists constitute a minority of the current PAP leadership. The PAP status quo–many of who have held their sinecures for more than a decade–control the levers of government and retain the loyalty of the armed forces (which have internal security and regime protection as well as external defense roles). Thus, even if there are internal tensions within the armed forces between “professional” and “political” officers (the former focused on the technical merits of soldiering and the latter concerned with career advancement via political linkages), and its leadership sclerosis is profound, the PAP can, if it wants to, halt the process of social and political opening any time it wishes. Because it still has a reservoir of support in the so-called (ethnic Chinese) “heartland,” the regime can push back without incurring major backlash.

This is not to say that there will not be any. Singaporeans are largely a passive and conformist society, so a move to repress or politically back-peddle will not be met with mass demonstrations akin to those of the Middle East today or Latin America in the past.  But even if they acquiesce to the retrogression, the third generation of Singaporean voters will not consent to a return to the days of arrests for jaywalking, fines for chewing gum and imprisonment or bankruptcy for reasonable (unarmed) dissent. Instead, they will engage in passive resistance and low-level protests with increased grassroots mobilization over the internet, including social media and other hard-to-filter communications vehicles. Since Singapore is an extremely “wired” society that depends on its telecommunications capabilities for much of its daily business, Chinese-style censorship will be very hard to maintain even though the government controls the telecommunications duopoly through which all internet access is filtered (I will not digress into the reaction of foreign actors to any such retrogression but suffice it to say that it will not be entirely supportive).

All of this means that the PAP is staring at the beginning of the end in this election. The opposition has organized, mobilized and taken advantage of the limited political space afforded to it by the manipulated electoral system. The PAP has reacted slowly and awkwardly to the opposition’s energetic display. It therefore sits on the horns of a dilemma: accept that power sharing is inevitable over the short term and rotation in government office is quite possible within a few years (or at least much sooner than expected), or use its election victory to reassert its political supremacy, by force if necessary, over pretenders to its throne. That will influence the context in which the power struggles following Lee Kuan Yew’s death will occur, which in turn will determine whether or not the slow process of authoritarian liberalization will continue or be halted. At that point the moment of truth will have arrived for a country struggling with its identity as a modern bridge between East and West.

>> A different version of the essay appears as this month’s “A Word from Afar” column at Scoop.

16 thoughts on “A door cracks open in the Little Red Dot.

  1. Thanks Pablo for an insightful commentary. Those of us who don’t pay all that much attention to the city state will struggle to draw lessons from its politics, but it’s a good read all the same. It’s easy to think of current political orders as intransient, but as another political thinker I respect likes to tell me, “nothing is inevitable”.

  2. I’m living in Singapore currently, having moved here in late 2009, and this analysis seems spot on, although I suspect that Lee Kwan Yew’s eventual death is far more important that this makes out.

    A huge number of Singaporeans seem extremely disgruntled about developments in Signapore, although almost all the concern seems to be over essentially economic issues: the role of ‘foreign talent’ in the economy, the price of housing and food etc. But Singaporeans essentially trust the Minister Mentor – I’m not sure they trust the rest of the PAP and when he goes, so will a large part of the government’s credibility.

    The general feeling is that the opposition parties need to win one of the gerrymandering Group Representation Committees, electorate regions where residents elect a group of MPs, usually a combination of ministers and young members. If they can crack that, a system specifically set up to keep them out, then the PAP will really be on the back foot.

  3. Cheers George. Just trying to put into words what I am seeing and hearing.

    N. Thanks for the local perspective. I would add to your mention of the concerns of the electorate the fact that issues of civil liberties and human rights trail far behind material concerns and opposition to immigration, so the voter perspective is not necessarily “progressive.”

    I agree that the MM carries an aura his successors do not have. Which is why his death is going to be decisive for the PAP, and I see the possibility of a split, with a more conservative, nationalist Chinese branch paring off of the main trunk. Bottom line, as I have mentioned in other contexts: the Achilles Heel of authoritarianism is the question of leadership succession. It is particularly bad in personalist regimes but even highly institutionalised regimes like that of the PAP have a hard time outliving their founding fathers. That is why I see this election setting the backdrop to the power struggle that will ensue when he passes.

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  5. Well, this and the Scoop version have made it into the SG on-line media. It is interesting (and gratifying) to see the KP page readership go up on a non-NZ focused topic. But now I have SG friends asking me if I am prepared for the knock on the door.

    For those interested in seeing some of the SG reaction, check out these links (you may have to scroll through a few pages because both sites update frequently): http://www.facebook.com/theonlinecitizen

  6. Pingback: Daily SG: 28 Apr 2011 « The Singapore Daily

  7. The judicial system does not cane people for jaywalking though. You might want to correct that …..

  8. Ah Daniel,

    ’tis so Singaporean of you to fret over minutiae instead of the big picture. Or to fixate on the trees and miss the forest. Geez. You may find it hard to believe put there was a point to the statement, which was about the PAP not being able to return to the past.

    I suppose I should have mentioned the ban on chewing gum (still in force) instead. Specifically, my reference to “jaywalking” (now punishable by fines, in another liberalisation measure) harked to the past, as in the late 60s and early 70s, when in fact jaywalkers were arrested and sometimes caned. But again, there was larger point….

  9. The reason I raised that up is that the average reader of this article (for example me) will just take that to mean that the article is likely to have been possibly poorly researched and just based on popular misconceptions, since the law that it refers to an outdated and obscure one, and the fact that it is mentioned in the same line as a ccurrent existing situation only confuses the reader more. As you yourself mentioned, a reference to the ban on (selling of) chewing gum would have been a much better choice of an example to use. It might not have been obvious from my 1st post, but its purpose was to improve the article by correcting flaws while still retaining the spirit of the article.

  10. Its a well written and engrossing article, I’m just pointing out that if the typical Singaporean reader were like me, that odd point would have made them do a doubletake and stopped the (reading) momentum. Just a little change can make the reading experience so much smoother ;)

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  12. The ‘chewing of’ chewing gum is not banned in Singapore – it is the ‘importing and selling of’ chewing gum.

    Having noticed the horrible mess chewing gum makes of the worlds’ pavements (look down, all those black circles are chewing gum)I cannot but admit that this useless confection can be happily eliminated from our sweet shops. Millions of dollars spent yearly on sandblasting/waterjetting this dirt off is a total waste of money.

  13. Again, another silly Singaporean nit-picking without addressing the substance of the essay. With an authoritarian disposition to boot. Bound to be a PAP voter.

  14. LKY’s eventual death will undoubtedly see a massive outpouring of grief – some real, some hysterical. Many will note his contribution to Singapore’s development. However, there is a growing core of Singaporeans who realise that Harry’s ways are now past their “best before” date.

    Demands for accountability are growing. Whereas it used to be “the gahmen knows best”, there is a growing realisation that the PAP is not synonymous with the state and that some major gaffes (the wildly bad forecast of the YOG cost) show that the government doesn’t always know best. Social media and the internet have provided an outlet for frustration for many Singaporeans and with it the realisation that they are not a tiny group of naysayers but indeed a sizable minority.

    I like your point about the PAP facing a dilemma. How exactly are they going to change to avoid losing even more of their eroding share of the popular vote? I see a microcosm of this in the apologies by PM Lee Hsien Loong during the final days before the election. They sound nice but lacked substance. Apologies for what exactly? Was there an admission that the policies and the thinking behind them were wrong? The PAP will have to do more than this – and much more than allowing LKY and GCT to fade into the sunset. The political genii has finally escaped and short of an abrupt and deeply unpopular return to the dictatorial ways of the 20th century, the demand for a more pluralistic political system will grow.

    Could a lurch backwards happen? I doubt it. There is no threat of instability. A good example of this is the very smart use by some opposition candidates of the National Pledge. Support for the opposition is seen as consistent with patriotism – something that LKY fought hard against during his heyday. The use of mechanisms such as defmation suits and bankruptcy to silence opposition hereafter would only further hasten the loss of popular support. I suppose constitutionally its possible that a PAP government might suspend elections but Singapore has already seen at least one President who dared question the government and I think it highly likely that the next President would be under immense (popular) pressure to resist a move back to authoritarianism.

    So the PAP has little choice. It must evolve and evolve fast. It must improve accountability and transparency within this 5-year term. It must also be seen to moderate its fairly aggressive marketing of PR/citizenship to citizens of other countries (especially the PRC). If it fails to do so, it may well lose several more GRCs and SMCs in the next election.

    The best leaders are those that actively plan for succession. Does LHL have tht in him? Rather ironically, his father was on record as saying he hoped to see someone strong enough to push himself aside.

  15. Thanks Dismal, for the interesting analysis. The loss of George Yeo was a major blow for two reasons: 1) he lost in a GRC that should have been an easy PAP win, whereas has it been a single member constituency he most likely would have won the seat; and 2) this likely had an influence on MM Lee and SM Goh’s decision to step down from cabinet (the two men issued a joint statement announcing their decision, so it is clear this was a considered and calibrated move). Since Yeo was a very talented foreign minister on the short list to be the next PM and part of what passes for the “progressive” wing of the PAP, we may well see him re-emerge in another party in 2016. Lee and Goh saw him as a natural progression in leadership of the party, but now that succession scenario is over.

    Lee and Goh have in the past called for the PAP to reform and regenerate. Last year such a call by Lee was rebuffed by the PAP leadership, who said that he spoke in a private capacity and that he no longer had a leadership role in the party. This insult to the founder of the nation did not go unnoticed by the informed public. Thus, while Lee won his seat with 80% of the vote the overall trend for the PAP went in the opposite direction, and if that trend holds true that will lose more points in 2016–I would hazard the guess that the PAP could go as low as 52% of the vote next time around unless it does some major house ordering and external factors favour it. Under such conditions it will have to accomodate the opposition one way or another.

    The opposition, though, is too divided to pose a serious threat. The WP is doing well but some of the other parties are splinters of it and others are personality-driven cults. Thus the opposition has to form a united front or grand coalition in order to be a serious challenge in 2016 and that may be hard for its contending factions to do given their differences. Should the PAP offer the WP a minority power-sharing role, the chances of a united opposition will be almost nil.

    The PAP also needs to think about electoral and constitutional reform. Now that the GRC gerrymandered constituency system has been exposed as vulnerable to well organised, targeted opposition campaigns, given the first-past-the-post nature of the electoral system as a whole the possibility of a PAP ouster becomes more realistic. Thus a move to a proportional representation or even an MMP system might allow the PAP to win even if losing in a future election. That may not be in 2016 but it may be something tabled for subsequent elections.

    Finally, although the possibility of a return to overt repression is remote, I should point out that in the days after the election the police broke up two peaceful petition gathering assemblies seeking the reinstatement of a popular opposition figure. The law under which the police did so was the “no assembly of more than 5 people” law, backed up by the ISA. So even if held in reserve, the stick is there.

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