Former SMU Prof: While Malaysia progresses, Singapore regresses

Prof Bridget Welsh who was teaching political science in Singapore Management University (SMU) from 2009 to 2014 wrote an article saying that the ‘New Malaysia’ under the Pakatan Harapan government is making Singapore look ‘outdated’. She opioned that Dr Mahathir’s triumph in Malaysia’s recent general election has exposed the many shortcomings of Singapore’s current one-party rule.

It’s not known why she left SMU in 2014 after happily teaching there for 5 years. She is currently the associate professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome. Her article was published on Nikkei Asian Review today (10 Jul).

In her article, she said that developments in Malaysia have exposed the many vulnerabilities in Singapore and they are causing problems for “Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party (PAP)”.

“The PAP has become the longest-governing incumbent party in Southeast Asia, and it no longer has undemocratic immediate neighbors. Mahathir’s Pakatan victory mirrors the PAP’s worst fear: its own possible defeat,” she wrote.

She observed that some of the factors that contributed to the loss of Barisan Nasional (BN) in Malaysia are also present in Singapore.

“The first is the challenge of leadership renewal,” she said. She observed that the leading fourth generation (4G) leaders like Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat and Ong Ye Kung are not able to connect with the ordinary Singaporeans.

“The problem is that these leaders are 4G without the connectivity. They are in a highly elitist party, largely unable to relate to ordinary Singaporeans,” Prof Welsh noted.

They suffer from the same issue that haunted BN, namely they are embedded in the system. In other words, they are “from the system and are seen to be for the system”.

The intertwining of the PAP and the bureaucratic state has created singular agendas and resulted in a distancing from the electorate and its needs, she added.

She said that since the resounding victory of PAP in 2015 GE, the more conservative forces within PAP have gained ground, pushing reform-minded leaders such as Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Tan Chuan-Jin aside.

“At the same time, Singapore’s system has moved in a more authoritarian direction, with curbs on social media and attacks on civil society activists,” she added.

Prof Welsh thinks that PM Lee is making the same mistake Najib did after the 2013 polls – depriving the system of a necessary valve for dissent, and moving the country away from needed reforms.

She said, “He (PM Lee) has failed to recognize that greater openness and policy reforms were integral parts of the PAP’s 2015 victory. The dominant mode has been to attack the Worker’s Party, its leaders and other opposition figures.”

She added that these moves do not show confidence in a more open and mature political system, or even in the PAP itself.

PM Lee, a liability to PAP

She also noted that PM Lee himself is becoming more of a liability to PAP.

“Questions have been raised about Lee’s leadership from the very public ‘Oxleygate’ row with his siblings over their father’s home to the managing of Temasek, the republic’s sovereign wealth fund, by his wife Ho Ching,” Prof Welsh said.

Since Temasek is a private company, the public doesn’t get to see the actual accounts of Temasek. Hence, more Singaporeans are beginning to question on the transparency of the country’s reserves.

With Dr Mahathir’s willingness to begin much-needed economic reform in Malaysia, Singaporeans will see obvious parallels with their own country’s economic policies, she said.

And like Malaysia under Najib, much of the GDP growth in Singapore is now being driven by public spending, notably on infrastructure.

“New jobs are not being created in Singapore at the same high rate as in the past. Even more constraining, PAP continues to rely on immigration as a driver of growth, failing to move on from using a combination of low-cost labor and imported foreign talent to expand the economy,” Prof Welsh criticised Singapore’s economic policies under the current PM Lee’s government.

“Population pressures remain real for ordinary Singaporeans, who continue to feel displaced. They are disappointed with the PAP’s tenacious grasp on old and unpopular models for growth.”

Contrary to what the new Senior Minister of State Edwin Tong said about the overall public trust in the PAP government has remained healthy, Prof Welsh said that the pendulum of discontent has swung against the PAP.

“The government opted to increase water prices by 30% in 2017, and this year indicated it will raise the goods and services tax (GST) from 7% to 9%. The electricity tariff has risen by 16.8% to date this year alone,” she said.

“The cost of living remains high; Singapore has topped the Economist Intelligence Unit’s list of most expensive cities to live in for five years running. High costs are compounded by persistent inequalities that are increasingly entrenched.”

She said that many locals feel they are being impoverished on account of foreigners. Also, the social reform measures introduced for the “pioneer generation” and increased handouts before the 2015 polls, are being seen as inadequate to address the current social needs of disadvantaged communities.

By comparison, Malaysia has removed the unpopular GST, and reform pressures for addressing contracting social mobility and inequality are substantial.

And while Malaysia now embraces multi-ethnicity in appointing its new government appointees, Singapore regresses by embracing race-based politics like the Singapore’s Malay-only presidency contest last year.

Prof Welsh added, “This is being compounded by the fact that Malaysia is being seen as bucking regional authoritarian trends, promising substantive political reforms and the removal of many of the draconian laws that Singapore has on its books.”

Finally, Prof Welsh thinks that the changes in Malaysia have now reduced Singapore’s regional comparative advantage.

“It is not just about greater democracy and changes in governance next door but also the attention ‘New Malaysia’ draws to how Singapore has remained locked in the past, moving away from embracing an alternative future,” she concluded.

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