The results of this year’s general election (GE) — which saw The Workers’ Party (WP) winning over the newly-carved Sengkang group representation constituency and alternative parties having an overall higher share of votes — signals the Singapore electorate’s demand for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP)’s democratisation, says academician Lily Zubaidah Rahim.
Dr Lily, whose areas of specialisation include authoritarian governance and Southeast Asian politics, noted in an op-ed for East Asia Forum published on Tuesday (25 August) that “the PAP’s vote share dropped by 8.6 per cent relative to the 2015 election” despite having the advantages of “incumbency and the COVID-19 crisis”.
She posited that Singapore’s authoritarian political landscape “may well be shifting away from one-party dominance, in line with neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia and the Northeast Asian democracies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan”.
Such a shift goes beyond the popularity of PAP stalwart Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam among the electorate and — as cited by Dr Lily — in surveys, in which it was found that a majority of Singaporeans would choose the Jurong GRC anchor minister to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Even within the PAP itself, observed Dr Lily, factions are becoming more apparent as Mr Tharman “reminded his more hard-line colleagues of some hard truths” of Singaporeans wanting a freer democracy where those with different or dissenting views could express their views without fear.
“In a party dominated by social and economic conservatives, Tharman remains one of the handful of PAP reformists with democratic inclinations,” she wrote.
Despite having suitable credentials — as noted by Dr Lily, experience as a “LSE-trained economist and a former deputy prime minister and finance minister” — the PAP’s “sidelining” of Mr Tharman, she argues, “reflects the racialist orientation of the PAP leadership”.
“When pundits speculated about the possibility of Tharman succeeding Prime Minister Lee, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat exemplified this attitude by claiming, without clear evidence, that the numerically dominant Chinese community are not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister,” she said.
Former PAP cadre Tan Cheng Bock’s narrow defeat to the ruling party’s “preferred candidate” in the 2011 presidential election — followed by the inability to run for presidential office as a result of the Malay-reserved election in 2017 and his subsequent formation of the Progress Singapore Party to bring back the ideals PAP used to espouse — also served as an example of “intra-elite divisions”.
Such divisions, Dr Lily posited, “often foreshadow the unravelling of authoritarian regimes”.
While the unravelling of such regimes and the process of democratisation may prove to be “a fluid, messy and meandering process that is susceptible to backsliding” as demonstrated by political rifts in neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, Dr Lily said that the prospect of “strong state democratisation” is not an impossible feat.
Drawing from the examples of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, she noted that “robust state institutions and vibrant civil societies can serve as stabilising anchors for the democratic deepening required to build sophisticated knowledge economies”.
“Decades of strong state democratisation in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan highlight the viability of this trajectory in the next, and arguably more complex, phase of Singapore’s nation-building. The PAP can continue to double down on its elitist and authoritarian governance or embark on a genuine process of political and socio-economic reform — in step with the developmental state democracies of Northeast Asia,” Dr Lily stressed.