by Prof Donald Low
Like many observers, I had also underestimated Singaporeans’ (especially younger Singaporeans’) desire for fairness, accountability and decency in our political system. The results, as many have pointed out, bode well for Singapore. I think we can all be proud of the way we seized the opportunity this General Election (GE) offered to send a signal on the kind of politics, and the kind of People’s Action Party (PAP) government, we would like to have.
The prospect of having a courageous, young, and likeable Workers’ Party (WP) team in Parliament (Leon, Gerald, Jamus, Tingru, Raeesah, and possibly Nicole)—capable of questioning and scrutinising government, demanding accountability and checking potential abuses of power—must have been one of the reasons the WP did well in this GE. (Btw, the WP’s overall vote share in the places it contested was higher than 50 percent.)
But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. The PAP is still dominant and fully in control of the levers of power. The results also do not necessarily mark the start of a transition to a fairer, more democratic system. There is nothing inevitable about democratization.
Older Singaporeans like me know that we’ve been here before. In 1991, the PAP also performed poorly in the first GE after Goh Chok Tong became PM, winning 61 percent of votes and losing two more seats to the Opposition. PM Goh had gone into that GE promising a kinder, gentler style of government. The PAP’s main response to the 1991 GE results was not to make Sg’s political system more representative, competitive, or diverse.
In fact, it did the opposite. For example, GRCs were enlarged from a maximum of 4 seats to 6 seats. Gerrymandering became more blatant; in the following GE in 1997, Marine Parade GRC stretched all the way to Serangoon Gardens. The use of law suits against political opponents, often bankrupting them, became almost routine.
Likewise, after the shock of GE2011, the PAP responded with a combination of social policy reforms (this explains Tharman’s popularity) and (especially after 2015) hardball and repressive politicking (attacking the WP’s management of the town council, the reserved Presidential election, POFMA, the vilification of political opponents including private citizens, etc.)
Nonetheless, I’m hopeful that this time would be different. For one, unlike 2011 when people voted against the PAP because of its lapses on bread-and-butter issues (housing, transport, immigration) I think the signal that (younger) voters care about more than bread-and-butter issues could not be any clearer in this GE.
The PAP went into this pandemic elections promising that it would look after our jobs and health—you really can’t get more obvious reminders of the PAP’s appeal in terms of its reliability and a safe pair of hands. Paradoxically, it was because voters were confident that the PAP would deliver on these issues that they were confident enough to signal that they wanted more from our political system—that fair process matters as much as good performance.
Second, I think voters are coming round to the idea that diversity in our political system and humility in our political elites are virtues. The PAP went into this GE assuming that people would rate its handling of the pandemic as world-class or at least above average. When confronted with criticisms of its pandemic response, it has been prickly and defensive. (A senior 3G minister even haughtily characterised such criticisms as “dyspeptic”.)
In short, the PAP probably underestimated the deep undercurrent of discontent and scepticism at the government’s management of the pandemic; it really should not have assumed that people would rush to give it a strong mandate simply this was a serious crisis. In this GE, enough Singaporeans indicated with their votes that it’s precisely because we’re facing a crisis of historic proportion that we need to tap on a wider array of ideas in society, and that political elites should always remember that they are servants of the people. (I had earlier written a piece on why diversity and humility are the real lessons the Singapore government needs to draw from this pandemic)
Beyond the style of governance, I’m also cautiously optimistic that we might just see a substantive change in policies in the next few years. Of course, this initial optimism is justified only if the PAP does the necessary housekeeping to remove, or reduce the influence of, its hardliners and to elevate the role of reformists in the party. This is also why I think the PAP should press on with the transition to its 4G leaders (especially those who did relatively well in this GE, eg. Ong Ye Kung, Lawrence Wong), rather than delay it any longer. (I wrote another piece on the thinking that should inform our policy reforms to deal with a pandemic-disrupted future)
For these reasons, I’m hopeful we’d see a better-governed and politically more inclusive Singapore in the years ahead.