In an article published yesterday (11 May) by The Australian Financial Review, an authority on business, finance and investment news in Australia, an Australia’s professor said that the Malaysian opposition’s winning at the poll this week can serve as a warning for Singapore’s PAP government (‘Mahathir’s victory a warning shot for Singapore’s PAP‘).
The writer is Prof James Chin, the inaugural Director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania. He is an expert on the governance issues in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. He also works on island states in the South Pacific. His views are regularly sought by major news agencies around the world, including The New York Times, The Financial Times, BBC World TV, CNBC and Bloomberg.
He said that for too long, Malaysia and Singapore have been the exceptions to the rule that rapid development tends to bring democratisation in its wake. It has been observed that, for example, as the economies of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan advanced, their political systems came under pressure to open up and democracy expanded “a notch or two”.
But this did not happen in Singapore or Malaysia. Both countries essentially remain a one-party state while their economies have expanded tremendously over the years, Prof Chin noted.
Singapore and Malaysia share many other similarities. Both were colonised by the British and both have multi-ethnic and multi-religious populations. Their cultures are also very similar. Since independence, the same political party or coalition has been in power.
Until Wednesday (9 May), Barisan National (BN) coalition led by UNMO had won every election since 1955. Even for this 14th GE, it was confident in winning again.
“In fact, Najib Razak, the prime minister and head of UMNO, was so confident that he told his inner circles that he hoped for a two-thirds majority in parliament,” Prof Chin commented.
But by midnight of Wednesday, it was clear BN was in trouble and by 5am the next day it was out. The Malaysian opposition Pakatan Harapan led by Dr Mahathir had beaten BN soundly, breaking its six-decade hold on power. Najib, BN and UMNO’s brand had simply become “too toxic”.
Prof Chin opined that Malaysians know UMNO is a business patronage machine but Najib’s 1MDB scandal was just “too much”. He said, “If there was no 1MDB and no $US680 million deposited into Najib’s personal account, he would probably still be in power today.”
PAP brand may become toxic for its association with surging living costs
Meanwhile, Singapore has been ruled by the People’s Action Party (PAP) since 1959, almost the same number of years as UMNO was in power.
“On the surface, PAP appears to be strong. In the most recent general elections, held in 2015, PAP’s share of the popular vote increased by about 10 per cent, reversing after years of decline. Many would argue that the increased vote was primarily due to the death of Lee Kuan Yew six months earlier; Singapore’s voters wanted to give LKY a last hurrah,” said Prof Chin.
But even though no corruption allegations akin to 1MDB have been made about the PAP leadership, Prof Chin noted that there is persistent unhappiness among Singaporeans over the escalating cost of living and the paternalistic style of PAP rule.
“The standard joke is PAP actually stands for ‘Pay And Pay’ party”, he joked.
“Given Malaysians and Singaporeans have a fairly similar political culture, the dismissal of UNMO by their Malaysian cousins may prove inspirational.”
Prof Chin postulated that as more and more Singaporeans associate PAP with surging costs, the PAP brand may become toxic as well. Already, the GST has been confirmed to be raised by a hefty 2% from 7 to 9% after 2021. This was passed by the PAP-dominated Parliament in Feb this year.
“Ordinary Singaporeans already have a negative view of the PAP elite, who graduate from the best-known universities, hold the most prestigious scholarships and serve in the Singapore Armed Forces before entering PAP politics. They are seen as totally removed from the hard lives of ordinary Singaporeans,” Prof Chin also observed.
“History has shown that once a ruling party’s brand turns toxic, voters act. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party was in power for 38 years, a lengthy stint but one dwarfed by UNMO’s and Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party’s 71-year span.”
“These parties knew all the tricks of staying in power but eventually they were overtaken by longevity fatigue,” he added.