With more credible candidates stepping up to the plate, voters now have a real choice
By Janadas Devan, Associate Editor
IN THE 2006 General Election, only 47 out of the 84 seats then were contested. The ruling People's Action Party was only six seats short of an absolute majority on Nomination Day itself.
In the General Election today, 82 out of 87 seats will be contested. The PAP was 39 seats short of an absolute majority on Nomination Day.
Not since 1972 has a general election been as widely contested as this. Nobody doubts the PAP will remain the dominant party on May 8, but in no general election since 1963 has the outcome in some seats been in as much doubt as in this.
What happened from 2006 to 2011? How could the political landscape have changed so quickly in so short a time? What can it all mean?
We will be able to answer these questions with greater assurance early tomorrow morning - and better still in the days, weeks and months to follow. In the meantime, we have only hints and guesses, an inchoate sense that something is happening, something has happened. The earth has not moved - there probably will be no earthquake today - but the landscape has changed, and it probably will shift further in the years to come.
If I were to make a stab at defining that shift, I would say this: We are seeing the emergence of ordinary politics in Singapore - ordinary in the context of other advanced economies; extraordinary in Singapore's context. The PAP will have to adjust; the people will have to adjust.
In a way, the PAP itself began this process. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, believing it wasn't healthy for more than half the electorate to not get the chance to vote in general elections, liberalised the rules. The barriers to entry for the opposition parties were lowered by increasing the number of Single-Member Constituencies and reducing the average size of the Group Representation Constituencies. In addition, the Constitution was amended to increase the maximum number of Non-constituency MPs from three to nine.
A dominant political structure is at no greater risk of being challenged than when it liberalises. That is an iron law in politics. The Prime Minister and his colleagues must have known that. Could they have delayed the inevitable then by postponing the reforms? After all, Singaporeans have seen the PAP win power in almost every general election since 1968 with hardly any contest. So why couldn't that regime continue?
The Founding or Floundering Years, The Age of Survival
Primarily because the electorate had changed over the decades. The independence generation had felt little discomfort about leaving the PAP unchallenged, not least because the PAP's only real opponent, the Barisan Socialis, had withdrawn from Parliament in 1966 and no other group had come forward to offer to lead the country through the travails of Separation from Malaysia and the withdrawal of British forces 'east of Suez'.
The PAP became in effect the default choice from 1968 through the early 1980s, with its achievements in government feeding into electoral supremacy in a self-reinforcing loop. The 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1980 General Elections were not really elections as such. They were ratifications.
The Bargaining Era, or the Age of Populism
Things began to change with the 1984 General Election, which witnessed a 12.8 percentage point swing against the PAP - from 77.7 per cent in 1980 to 64.8 per cent in 1984; and further still with the 1991 General Election, which saw the PAP's share of the votes fall to 61 per cent, its lowest since 1963.
Still, at no general election through the 1980s and 1990s was the PAP ever in danger of losing power. Indeed, at its worst performing General Election in 1991, it was returned to power on Nomination Day itself, with walkovers in 41 of the 81 seats then.
The ballot became in effect a bargaining tool, with voters choosing to either withhold or offer their vote depending on whether the PAP delivered what they wished. And the PAP in turn devised means to link the vote directly to material consequences by converting MPs into municipal mayors in charge of town councils and by making HDB upgrading conditional on electoral outcomes.
The 1988, 1991, 1996 and 2001 General Elections thus became carrot-and-stick affairs - with both voters and the PAP wielding carrots and sticks. Voters said 'give me, or no vote' and the PAP replied 'we'll give, depending on how you vote'. And both sides knew perfectly well the PAP would continue in government no matter what, for in most instances the PAP was returned to power on Nomination Day itself.
From the carrot-and-stick era we got a whole slew of populist government programmes - from HDB upgrading to growth share packages, from utility rebates to Workfare - that required massive transfer payments. An objective examination would yield the unavoidable conclusion that the era of Mr Lee Kuan Yew (from roughly 1959 to 1988) was in fact a good deal less populist than the era of Mr Goh Chok Tong (from roughly 1988 to 2001). The carrot-and-stick approach called for a lot of stick - and even more carrot.
What happens when all the walkways that can be built have been built, when all the upgrading that can be done has been done, when all the carrots that can be unloaded have been unloaded?
Well, to begin with, there is always more. In this General Election as in others - indeed, in most elections in all democracies - economic issues will be at the forefront. Incomes have been stagnating at the low end; the cost of living has increased; prices of new HDB flats have risen; the public transport system is overcrowded; health-care costs are an issue.
Though most of the electorate would acknowledge the PAP Government has been remarkably successful in delivering the goods over the decades, the sense of material well-being is always relative. It is not surprising that elections should turn on 'the economy, stupid' even in Singapore whose economy has delivered more well-being across a greater range of the population than any other country in Asia outside Japan.
But in addition to these economic, material concerns, something else seems to have emerged over the past five years, something that we might describe as 'spiritual' for want of a better word.
Mr George Yeo, the PAP's lead candidate in Aljunied GRC, the hottest race in this GE, has spoken of 'a level of anger and resentment towards the Government and the PAP that cannot be ignored'. The opposition 'provides a loudspeaker for those who are frustrated, resentful and angry', he felt, though the people also know 'deep in their hearts... they need the PAP'. He added: 'This contest is a struggle for the soul of Singapore.'
The PAP has been criticised for being arrogant before - often. Many have also said on numerous occasions that it doesn't listen to people, that it always assumes it knows what is best for Singapore. But why have these charges gained so much credence only now - so much as to threaten the political future of Mr Yeo himself?
The perceived arrogance has become more unacceptable, the perceived lack of a dialogue with the Government less tolerable, because the electorate today is not the same as it was in the 1970s or even the 1990s.
A more educated population feels it has to be able to participate in shaping the policies that affect it. There is a genuine desire for more debate, for more checks and balances, for more opposition, even among PAP supporters. If the Prime Minister had delayed the political reforms he introduced to lower the barriers to entry for the opposition, the pressure would only have built - and it might well have burst in a far more unpredictable fashion in future elections.
The reforms have ended up giving the electorate more real choices. Never before have the opposition parties fielded as many credible candidates as they have this time round. It is no longer President's Scholars on one side and bicycle thieves on the other. It is no longer even technocrats on one side and rabble-rousers on the other. Quite a few opposition candidates resemble their counterparts in the ruling party. There is similarity - which makes for familiarity and reassurance; but with significant differences - which makes for real choices.
When there is such a choice, it stands to reason people will choose - and they may not necessarily always choose the PAP. Whatever the outcome today - 87-0, 86-1, 81-6 or some other combination - GEs in Singapore will no longer be ratifications, as they were from 1968 to 1984, or carrot-and-stick affairs, as they were from 1988 to 2001.
For better or worse, we will have politics again - as we did between 1959 and 1966, the period it took the PAP to establish its dominance.