After 18 months of ups and downs since Singaporeans went to the polls on 10 July 2020, the country enters the Year of the Tiger in 2022, having managed the impacts of external pressures on its globalised economy, absorbed the effect of Covid-19 and navigated domestic political change.
When the country held its General Elections in 2020, there was some expectation of a flight to safety and a surge in vote share for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), given the Covid-19 pandemic and a looming recession. Instead, there was a significant vote swing of 8.7 percentage points against the party.
Coupled with current concerns of job loss, the rising cost of living and Covid-19 fatigue, Singaporean political activist and journalist Kirsten Han, believes, from what she has anecdotally observed, that there is some disillusionment regarding the present political leadership.
“But it’s hard for me to accurately say how these views represent the population, or how widespread they are,” she says.
Ms Han is not the only one with this view.
A 27-year old political analyst, who wants to be known only as Isaac, believes that there is a sense of disillusionment or uncertainty with the current leadership that “may not have been present before Covid-19”. He attributes these concerns to the rising HDB prices— a worry among the millennials — the rising cost of living which is placing a strain on older Singaporeans with families to support.
Ms Han says there is a desire for more political plurality, particularly among younger Singaporeans, based on the ruling party’s performance in GE2020.
“People do care about fairness and more robust processes than just the ‘ownself check ownself’ method of working that we’ve had for such a long time. This, in and of itself, might not necessarily reflect a lack of faith in the PAP. Even voters who think the PAP have done all right thus far might nevertheless think that we could benefit from having more opposition in Parliament to ask hard questions and bring up different perspectives,” says Ms Han.
But this does not mean that Singaporeans are rejecting the current leadership which has led the country since its independence in 1965.
Professor Bilveer Singh, the deputy head of the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS), believes that this so-called political disillusionment with the ruling party “will amount to nothing in Singapore’s political scene”.
“The idea of being disillusioned is a wrong organising framework to begin with. It works in the West but not in Singapore,” he says, adding that Singaporeans are very pragmatic, and are unlikely to vote in opposition because there is no competent alternative to the current political leadership.
“Singaporeans will complain and still vote for the ruling party. The PAP is a tried and tested ruling party where the entire modern political and non-political entity has been created in its image. It is a simple fact that there is no alternative,” Prof Singh says. He adds that Singaporeans, regardless of the generational divides, have been looking for alternatives to the PAP but to no avail.
In a question and answer session at the first forum of Singapore Perspectives 2022 by the Institute of Policy Studies in January, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung told participants that a two-party political system, such as those in the United States and Britain, is not likely to develop in a small country like Singapore.
Responding to a question about whether the need for a “strong state” is compatible with having a strong opposition or a two-party system, Mr Ong said the existence of a non-politicised civil service and institutions such as the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and Auditor-General’s Office, as well as the presence of opposition parties in Parliament, already provides the checks and balances needed to ensure an effective state.
Ms Han agrees that there are many Singaporeans who want the PAP to continue forming the government, saying that this is because of the widespread belief that the PAP is doing a good job, and “there just needs to be a bit more oversight” on their proceedings. Another reason why Singaporeans prefer the PAP’s leadership is the lack of faith in opposition parties to govern the country, she adds.
The recent Raeesah Khan debacle is not helping the confidence of Singaporeans in the opposition party. Political analysts told Today Online in December that the leaders of the Workers’ Party (WP), who were aware of her lie to Parliament, should not have let it remain uncorrected for almost three months. They said the WP leadership’s conduct over the matter could undermine the credibility of the party and its Secretary General Pritam Singh.
The challenges ahead
Prof Singh believes that the next General Elections will be critical for a number of reasons.
“This country would have gone through a few crises. Both the economic fallout from the US-China trade and political war, and the Covid-19 pandemic have a devastating impact on our economy and our political leaders appeared largely ‘reactors’, not actors or pro-actors, showing how small and helpless we were,” he says.
“Then there is the unexpected political succession crisis that will make Lee Kuan Yew cry. I think no one expected the 3G leaders to fail at this, and Singapore is in a very bad shape in this area. We are still powered by the 3G and 4G leadership. Under the 4G leadership, succession politics has badly failed. Whoever was in charge of this has failed the PAP and Singapore, and history will not look kindly towards them,” Prof Singh adds.
“The worst is probably yet to come, especially if the US-China clash and uncertainties in the region continues. It is very dangerous to have older politicians running the country when, in reality, they should have been in advisory or mentoring roles. This is something I doubt anyone foresaw. The real implications of this remain to be seen in the near future, as the next Prime Minister will be one with little experience of being primus inter pares in the country and in the PAP,” he says.
Changing political needs?
“In the future, we may see an opposition political candidate promising to repeal 377A, since support for the law has been increasing in recent years.” says Isaac. He adds that an “increasing clamour for alternative voices will inevitably shape the political landscape”.
Ms Han echoes this view. “The younger Singaporeans I have interacted with, who are politically engaged, have an openness to push the current political boundaries even more,” she says. From her experience, some younger Singaporeans care about issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, the climate crisis and anti-racism. She notes that the PAP may not be seen as “adequately engaging the issues that these younger Singaporeans care about”. “This does not help persuade young Singaporeans that the PAP is a party that aligns with their values,” she says.
But Isaac cautions against a divided Singapore.
“As Singapore makes more room for alternative viewpoints or ideological contestation, we have to be careful about increasing polarisation or disillusionment in the current political system. Conservative voices may then start counter-movements or whip up nationalistic fervour to accuse people in favour of alternative voices, as being disloyal to Singapore,” he says.
Ms Han believes that even as new political parties emerge or as new candidates are fielded by opposition parties, there might be “criticisms about the quality and calibre of various candidates and parties”.
“But I don’t think that is a problem. I think it is a good thing if Singaporeans learn to critically scrutinise and evaluate those who want to run for office and positions of power. The more we are able to practise exercising our right to vote and our agency of evaluation and choice, the more opportunities we have to learn and mature as citizens,” she says.
Even as the political landscape shows signs of change, Isaac warns that this may not be as “seismic of a change” as expected.
“In Malaysia, we saw how the Barisan Nasional were knocked out in 2018, only for Pakatan Harapan to fall apart and for UMNO to make a comeback last year. This suggests that in states with a historically dominant political party, breakthroughs for the opposition is by no means the end of the story. Even if we see more opposition breakthroughs in Singapore, we shouldn’t think that’s the end of the PAP, ” he says.
Both Ms Han and Prof Singh feel that there is no need to compare Singapore and Malaysia as it is “not comparing apples with apples”.
There may not be change after all
Still, Prof Singh says, “You cannot find (a political alternative to the PAP) that does not exist. Even the Workers’ Party, through Raeesah Khan’s scandal and the issue over management of the town council, has failed Singaporeans and Singapore. Hence, Singaporeans have to go back to the PAP, for better or worse.”
He adds that Singapore is only likely to see political change in the event that the PAP splits, or the opposition parties form a united coalition, otherwise, politics in Singapore is likely to remain “PAP-centric up to the 7G leaders”.