Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP)’s response to the growing inequality in the Republic has been “largely defensive,” according to Bridget Welsh, an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Cabot University.
In her summary of 2018, which was published on 31 Dec on East Asia Forum, Welsh wrote: “With the blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians featuring the Singaporean super-wealthy in the backdrop, the year saw intense debate about inequality.
“Discussion was ignited by the January release of sociologist Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like and reignited in October after Oxfam ranked Singapore in the bottom percentile for failing to reduce inequality.
“From the minimum wage, the fairness of the tax structure to limited spending on social safety nets, Singapore has been painted as unwilling to redress the widening income gap and social disparities,” she added.
Welsh observed that in addition to “trends pointing to a widening class divide, further reinforced by gender and ethnic cleavages,” PAP’s defensive stance has been further prompted by “regional developments,” most notably in the wake of Pakatan Harapan’s success in the 14th Malaysian General Election on 9 May.
“The victory of Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia took Singapore’s leadership by surprise and brought with it a deterioration of bilateral relations. Spats over territory suggest a return to the strain of earlier decades.
“The PAP’s response to Mahathir contrasts sharply with the warm relations that it enjoyed with Malaysia’s former government under Najib Razak, now a burden for the Singaporean government to deal with,” Welsh noted.
The series of government crackdowns was also a running thread in 2018, as suggested by Welsh in her citation of the high-profile AHTC case and civil rights activists being tried for alleged “contempt of court” and “defamation”.
“In October, the strongest opposition party, the Worker’s Party (WP), was sued in a civil proceeding for making alleged improper payments in their management of two town councils.
“While the lawsuit was not the direct action of the PAP government, it is widely perceived as part of a broader effort to discredit the WP.
“Facing potential bankruptcy, party leaders appealed to crowd funding and managed to raise over SGD$1 million (US$729,000) for its legal defence in two days,” Welsh wrote.
“Civil society activists also faced greater pressure for raising questions about governance and the PAP’s legitimacy. Multiple charges were filed for political organisation, protesting or (re)posting views.
“The most prominent was the trial, also in October, of activist Jolovan Wham and politician John Tan who were convicted of ‘scandalising the judiciary’ or posting an article on Facebook that compared the Singaporean judiciary with that of Malaysia.
“Prime Minister Lee also filed a defamation suit in December against a blogger who shared an article that tied his leadership to Malaysia’s kleptocracy 1MDB scandal,” Welsh wrote, alluding to Leong Sze Hian’s case.
“These events occurred after the chilling tone of the controversial Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods’ parliamentary debate on alternative academic views and public discourse in March went viral,” she noted.
Welsh warned that while “the committee report published in September called for a substantive multi-prong approach to address the problem of fake news,” the aforementioned events have “simultaneously reinforced perceptions that the government is increasing interventions to control the online national narrative”.
“These actions served to reinforce positions across the political spectrum. The opposition’s fortunes are dependent on ongoing efforts to forge cooperation among fragmented parties and personalities,” she added.
Highlighting that last year was an “eventful” year for Singapore, Welsh warned that PAP’s decision to remain steadfast to what she branded as the party’s “conservative” norms in the face of growing uncertainty and disruption in the regional and global socioeconomic and sociopolitical landscapes “has opened itself to greater risk as the country faces increasing headwinds”.
Touching on the appointment of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as “the prime minister-designate” in November, Welsh said that it has “reduced speculation about the hierarchy in the party’s fourth generation leadership and provided an answer — at least for now — to the question of who will succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.”
While “Heng represents a safe choice, known to the cabinet as a team player, a consummate and tested PAP cadre, and a technocrat in the area that poses the biggest challenge for Singapore — its economy,” Welsh predicted that Mr Heng will be faced with “daunting tasks of winning over the increasingly sophisticated public and coming out of the shadow of the Lee family.”
Welsh concluded that while Singapore is known to thrive “in uncertainty, finding strength in its proactive governance, long-harnessed diplomatic ties and impressive economic success,” the events in 2018 denoted that “the mix of flavours in the country’s rojak are not as balanced, with a sour note overpowering sweetness and spice”.