The following piece was first published on Byline.
The upcoming general election is not about electing opposition voices into Parliament. Or so the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) would like you to believe. No, the upcoming general election is actually about electing the next generation of PAP leaders to govern the country.
That this completely misrepresents the point of parliamentary elections should be clear. But what is more troubling for Singapore is the way in which the PAP is treated as a fixed point in the country’s political landscape, a certainty that voters are expected to facilitate (if they know what’s good for them).
The framing of the PAP as perpetual leaders of Singapore has made it difficult at times to separate the party from the nation state. When the state doles out GST vouchers to citizens, or upgrades a public housing estate, it is to the party that we are expected to feel grateful (particularly as opposition wards are openly and shamelessly shunted to the back of the queue when it comes to development and upgrading). The fact that the funds for these initiatives are made up of taxpayer monies and state revenue – not the generosity of a single political party – is left by the wayside.
After so many years of unbroken governance, the PAP has become bewilderingly entrenched within the state machinery – to the point that the People’s Association, a statutory board focused on grassroots community organising, is a de facto party campaign arm. So much of Singapore’s history as it is taught in schools, exhibited in museums and displayed at National Day events is about what the PAP did to build up an independent nation. It’s difficult now to imagine a Singapore without the PAP.
But this is what all Singaporeans have to do. It’s not a matter of voting the PAP in or out in this next election, but of being able to really make informed choices.
If we consistently accept that the PAP has some inalienable right to rule in Singapore, we will never be able to see the possibilities that lie outside that box. All talk about voting for the opposition would be simply that: voting for people to mitigate the effects of PAP policies by requesting – I can’t use the word “force” as long as there is a PAP majority in Parliament – tweaks in the system.
This might be acceptable for some time, as it appears to have been to the electorate for over 50 years. But the power imbalance leaves us all in a vulnerable position, where we just have to cross our fingers and hope that those in power continue to make good decisions and share the values that ordinary people would like to see in our society.
The PAP is not infallible. Like any other political party, it could one day stray from its values, lose touch with the ground, stop coming up with policies that Singaporeans actually want. (Depending on who you talk to, some might say this has already happened.) And if/when that happens, Singaporeans need to be able to respond, either via the ballot box or otherwise. For that to happen, we must first be able to conceive of a Singapore where the PAP is not always king.
Flawed though it may be, democracy is the only safeguard we have against being governed by people we don’t want. That is why elections are so important; despite what we might say about the unfairness of the electoral system, making an informed choice in the polling booth is still the one time Singaporeans get to (legally) exercise their power en masse.
This power also needs to be extended, so that Singaporeans don’t just have a voice once every four to five years. The right to organise and assemble – particularly for matters that are more activist and political in nature – needs to be respected beyond the boundaries of Hong Lim Park, currently the only space in which Singaporeans can hold protests. The press needs to be freed to be able to provide the information, the analysis, the platform and the space for all citizens to understand and debate important issues. Free speech needs to be better understood and respected by all, so that we practise it while engaging with others. And then, of course, the electoral system itself also needs to be changed so that we can all be assured that the playing field is level and no gerrymandering has taken place.
The assurance of democratic and political rights benefits everyone in the long run. The PAP, like all other political parties, will ultimately benefit from more informed and engaged voters. And should they ever be voted out, there will at least be the assurance of a fair system and political environment through which they can perhaps get voted back in.
And so it’s important for us to question, at every election, the necessity of continued PAP dominance. Not because we’re opposing for the sake of it, but because skepticism of every politician and political party is key to making the informed choices that keep a democracy working as it should.