Four days from the election, the opposition sounds modestly hopeful
ON THE evening of September 6th, thousands of people packed a scrubby field next to a housing estate in Simei, eastern Singapore, for a rally held by the Workers' Party (WP)—the largest of the nine opposition parties standing in the country's general election on September 11th. This was just one of many rallies in a week of frenzied campaigning leading up to elections. Elsewhere such voters might chant, wave flags and flog petitions in the hope that their party will govern their country. Attendees at Sunday's WP rally—and indeed the candidates they came to cheer—expressed a far more modest hope.
For good reason: the People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled Singapore since its independence, in 1965. Discontent over immigration and worries over income inequality and the rising cost of living led PAP to suffer its worst showing ever in the last general election: still a tidy 60% of the vote. That gave the party 93% of parliamentary seats, or 81 of a total of 87; the WP won five of the remaining six. The Electoral Boundaries Review Committee, which draws constituency boundaries before each election, is convened by the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and headed by his secretary. Setting aside the PAP's strong record during their time in office, the electoral map makes it all but impossible for them to lose.
And yet the opposition faithful still came out in droves. Terence, a 50-year-old financial worker waving eight WP flags at once, said he was there because "Singapore needs a stronger opposing voice". Asked if he thought the WP could govern, he paused, winced and said, "I believe in time, given the opportunity, they may be able to". He reminded your correspondent that the PAP began as an opposition party, and had to learn how to govern in office. Norman, a 43-year-old logistics manager who has been a WP volunteer for 20 years, was similarly circumspect. When asked about their chances of winning, he sighed and said, "We can’t predict what percentage they'll get. We just have to hope for the best". Even Leon Perera, one of the WP’s parliamentary candidates speaking from the stage, ended his speech not by promising victory and better days ahead, but by shouting: "Please support us to entrench a respectable opposition in Singapore politics!"
Not exactly a rallying cry, but then Singapore does not really do to-the-barricades politics: it is an enviably well-run country where policies tend to shift gradually, at the margins. In response to the concerns over immigration, income inequality and living costs, the PAP has slowed foreign-labour growth, expanded benefits for Singapore's poor and elderly and raised marginal tax-rates for its highest earners. Just before announcing the election, Prime Minister Lee promised to boost grants for public housing (in which most Singaporeans live) and child care. But the core of Singaporean governance—a lean but paternalistic and responsive state that links nearly all benefits to employment—remains intact.
Judging by the mood last night and over the course of this campaign, nobody really wants to change it. This election hinges not on policy, but on more fundamental political questions: does Singapore need more than a nominal opposition? The PAP considers itself a meritocratic technocracy; without an opposition party to keep the PAP honest, does it risk going the way of China’s ruling party, and becoming a narrow, inwardly focused elite concerned above all with remaining in power? If Singaporeans decide the answers to those questions are "yes", then the WP stands to reap the reward—which in this case would not mean governance, but a few more parliamentary seats. It has been selling itself less as an alternative to the PAP than as an essential check on power. In a nifty bit of political jujitsu, it has even tried to claim credit for the PAP’s adoption of more inclusive policies.
Cherian George, a Hong-Kong based Singaporean who remains an astute commentator on Singaporean affairs, says that this line of questioning frustrates the ruling party. At a rally late last year, Mr Lee commented that "for every one more 'checker' we have in the Parliament, there will be one fewer doer, thinker and leader in government to serve the nation, to serve the people". The PAP wants voters to ask who is fit to govern, not whether the country needs a stronger opposition. Asking the latter question risks a freak result: if enough voters cast ballots for the opposition in order to strengthen it, it may well end up in power. Though this is the first election in which opposition candidates will contest all seats, such a result remains highly unlikely; the PAP fears a weak mandate, not a loss of power. But they were shaken up by winning under two-thirds of the vote four years ago. They need a markedly stronger showing this time.