Singapore’s People’s Action Party sweeps elections (again)
“It has been a resounding victory for the PAP [People’s Action Party] and [has] left the Opposition shell-shocked.” The words of former Singaporean Nominated Member of Parliament [NMP] Calvin Cheng, as posted on his Facebook page on Sept. 11, 2015, reflected the thoughts of many who had expected Singapore’s People’s Action Party to face substantial opposition the general elections of September 2015.
Singapore, a British crown colony until 1959, gained independence from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965. Singapore represents an interesting electoral phenomenon: although a parliamentary democracy, the center-right People’s Action Party (PAP) has won every single election since 1965.
September’s election marked the first election in which every parliamentary seat was open for competition. Previously, some seats had been reserved for the governing PAP. Despite all odds, the PAP surprised many onlookers by winning 83 out of the 89 available seats or 70% of the ballots.
The PAP was expected to face a setback in the upcoming elections as a result of a dissatisfied public. Increased immigration of foreign workers has resulted in high property prices; crowded public transport systems and growing income inequality have lowered living standards; youth groups are demanding greater political plurality; and the PAP was faced with nine opposition parties, the largest of which was the social democratic Worker’s Party, led by Low Thia Khiang.
Recent years have also reflected ethnic and political unrest. In 2012, ethnically Chinese bus drivers hosted the first strike since the 1980s because they alleged that they were being paid less than their Malaysian counterparts. In 2013, Singapore experienced its first rioting in 30 years when 400 foreign workers rioted over the death of an Indian migrant worker, who had been knocked down by a bus. The last elections of 2011 resulted in the worst ever record for the PAP, who won 60% of the vote. So why, in the face of this growing unrest, has the PAP remained undefeated since 1965?
Undoubtedly, the most important factor is the PAP’s strength of historical record. The party is accredited with transforming Singapore from a developing country in 1965 to the developed country that it is today. Under the leadership of Singapore’s “Founding Father” and founder of the PAP Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore was transformed from an impoverished and barren island with just 1.6 million inhabitants to a bustling city with a population of 5.5 million.Ranked as one of the top five states worldwide for the highest income per capita in 2002 and boasting a low unemployment rate of just 2% as of April 2015, Singapore’s success is enviable. The Singaporean government also has one of the lowest corruption levels around the globe, enjoys an almost perpetual government budget surplus of 0-20% of its GDP, and is considered by The Guardian to be "possibly the world’s healthiest nation".
Singapore’s success story has largely been attributed to the PAP’s firm leadership and steering of the government of Singapore. Lee openly acknowledged that although Singapore is a parliamentary democracy, it is in practice a single-party state, saying: “I make no apologies that the PAP is the government and the government is the PAP". Office-holders in Singapore’s unicameral parliament are also currently high-standing PAP party members, thus increasing the PAP’s hold over both the cabinet and parliament.
The PAP’s successes in governing Singapore meant that although most supporters doubted that the Working Party would win the elections, many anticipated that the PAP would receive a weaker mandate. So how did the PAP come out of the September elections with an even stronger mandate than it received in 2011?
Part of the explanation lies in timing. In March of this year, Lee Kuan Yew passed away. Lee, who was the founder of the PAP and Singapore’s Prime Minister from 1965-90, enjoyed strong personal popularity among Singaporeans during his lifetime. The outpouring of patriotism following Lee’s death, accompanied with Singapore’s Golden Jubilee celebrations of 50 years of independence this August, may have channeled into support for the current head of the PAP and Prime Minister of Singapore – his son, Lee Hsien Loong.
Another reason for the PAP’s success was that its main political rival, the Worker’s Party, was embroiled in a financial scandal just one month prior to the elections. In August, a managing agent wrote that the Worker’s Party owed it over SGD 3.5 million (USD 2.5 million) in unpaid contract fees for services at the Aljunied-Hougang Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) between April and July of 2015. This put the financial accountability of the Worker’s Party into question, therefore discrediting it in the elections.
Another explanation lies in the parliamentary system itself. The Singaporean parliament has always been seen as a forum for opposition voices, as opposed to a setting for passing legislation. The PAP has shrewdly reorganized the parliamentary system to simultaneously be more inclusive of non-PAP opinions while weakening the demand for opposition candidates. After an election setback in 1984, the PAP made changes to parliament as a buffer against sudden voting fluctuations by creating: three seats for Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs), opposition candidates; seats for Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs), members with restricted voting rights but with rights to speak on any bill motion; and Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) in 1988 to address the issue of minority representation. While the changes in the parliamentary system encouraged the number of opposition voices in parliament, it simultaneously reduced demand for reform and severely limited the powers of opposition members to being able to discuss bills. According to the PAP’s opponents, the validity of the GRC in representing minority opinion is severely limited because it requires three-person teams of a minority to be elected simultaneously by plurality, resulting in a raised threshold of votes needed for these groups to be represented. This in turn, opponents allege, eliminates ethnic party competition and discourages the formation of new parties.
Through the combination of a strong historical record of economic success, astute remolding of the parliamentary system to satisfy demands for greater opposition representation while also restricting the powers of these groups, the weaknesses of opposition parties, and an outpouring of patriotism, the PAP secured a win yet again. It seems that as long as the memory of the PAP’s central role in the founding of modern-day Singapore remains fresh in the minds of Singaporeans, the party will continue to dominate elections.