Sunday, May 07, 2006

Elections Commentary

I have been working on this post since before the polls started. It seems that a lot of what I had wanted to write has now become irrelevant. There were a number of things that I had hoped to see, but I take comfort in the fact that a message -has- been sent to the incumbent, albeit not as strong as what I wanted to see. On the other hand, I realise that the opposition has no choice but to attempt a long-term play.

Since I have a number of US-based readers, I will attempt to summarize the Singapore political system here.

Since Singapore's independence some 40+ years ago, Singapore has been dominated in one party - the (P)eople's (A)ction (P)arty. In US terms, this would be the equivalent of having a super-majority in both the House and the Senate. When I say super-majority, I mean having enough legislative seats to amend the Singapore Consitution at will. Also, since the Executive Branch is essentially nominated from the legislative (different from the US, I know), the head of the Executive Branch, the Prime Minister, is also a member of the PAP. So are all the ministers (about equivalent to the various Secretaries and the Vice Presidents).

There is a lot more I can say about the incumbent, but I won't. Do a little research on "Lee Kwan Yew", "Lee Hsien Loong", "Lee Hsien Yang" and "Ho Ching". The connections should be fairly obvious.

What I will instead focus on is the role of opposition parties in Singapore.

Given the overwhelming strength of the PAP, Opposition parties have very little legal power in Singapore. Indeed, many mothers (including my own) worry about their sons and daughters running for Opposition Parties - which tends to turn into a career death sentence in many ways.

However, what they increasingly have is symbolic power. They are the Little Engines That Could. The Parties that Just Won't Quit. They represent the underdogs forgotten by an over-sanitised system that has no place for old men, unemployed graduates, and retrenched middle-managers. There is a significant and growing minority of voters that have had it with the Singapore System, and want alternatives.

There are a few indications that I have seen these elections that lead me to believe that there is a growing dissatisfaction with the incumbent's methods of government.

(1) This is the first set of elections that our current Prime Minister has had to undergo. The PAP under his leadership captured 66% of the nation's votes. This is 6% higher than the absolute -worst- performance of his predecessor (which I note, wasn't during his inaugural election).

(2) The Prime Minister of Singapore, faced against 6 aged 30-something complete political unknowns, fared a little worse than the national average of 66.6% votes cast FOR the PAP.

(3) In spite of thinly veiled threats against long-time opposition consituencies, these constituencies still voted opposition. In some other consituencies, the loss against the incumbent was very close.

I suspect that the PAP has two possible strategies ahead. It can either (i) crack down more on opposition politicians or (ii) find a method of coopting or engaging the disenfranchised, which I note, are either the youngest segment of voters, or the oldest. The former risks turning these politicians into political martyrs, the latter undermines their own symbolic strength by implicitly admitting "weakness".

Either way, the Opposition can only grow in strength.


Chuang Shyue Chou said...

Did you manage to vote?

Anthony said...

Nope. Uncontested. Old Man's home turf, what do you expect?

Tym said...

Amen to your last sentence!

Al Yamani said...

Ha, I have a 100% non-PAP voting record. But it is interesting to look at the current crop of ministers and realise that NEH is probably the only one who might work as a long-term successor to LHL if the PAP still wants to be the party-of-party-pooping-party-poopers. Any intermediate stage looks like TCH, also somewhat in the same mould.

Zachary Drake said...

Thanks for the primer on the politics of Singapore. I didn't know how the system worked/didn't work. I hope that elections become more contested and that the opposition becomes more viable.

-ben said...

Well, if the opposition can keep itself from self-destruction first. The image I have of (some of) them is that they are a bunch of incompetant bumbling idiots.

Anthony said...

Al Yamani,

I'm not terribly impressed by the current crop of ministers we have, to be honest. Saying that NEH and TCH are the only viable long term successors is a bit like saying Hillary Clinton is the only viable Democrat candidate - true, but it doesn't fill me with good vibes.


Singapore politics don't work. The Singapore -government- works VERY well...for now. Like many Singaporeans I hope to see a greater opposition representation as a check and balance on the incumbent.


That may be the case a few years back. I don't think it can hold true anymore. The election strategy of WP this election was well-played. In fact, I think the WP's greatest coup this election is the fact that they cannot be discredited as being a non-viable alternative, casting doubt as to why the PAP still holds the overwhelming number of Parliamentary seats.

israphale said...

my GRC was a walkover too.

It's interesting how you assume that opposition can only come from an organised party external to PAP machinery. Actually, I think the PAP has probably already been co-opting potential dissenters into the government. The PAP doesn't seem to have a coherent ideological position but covers left, right and centre whichever is the most convenient for the specific policy, and I'm not sure how much of that is due to internal politicking? If the effect of co-opting dissenters is that more minority, non-mainstream interests are represented within the main party, surely these factions can act as a kind of opposition?

I wouldn't be surprised if opposition arises from within the party ranks themselves if the PAP carries on this strategy. Witness the growing number of unhappy, disenchanted scholars educated abroad and keen to bring their newly-gained liberal (read: seditious) views home.

Haha, I guess this means that if I continue to live in Bishan I will probably never get to vote for decades to come!

Anthony said...


I expected someone to bring that argument up.

The problem with the cooption theory is that the PAP coopts only dissenters that are successful politicians -by PAP standards-. That is the one fatal flaw to the PAP ideology of "meritocracy in government" - the meritorious standards are decided by what the PAP -thinks- dissent and politics are. When was the last time the PAP has coopted, say, a retrenched middle-management engineer, for example?

I think this election amply demonstrates a basic fact - you don't need to be a scholar, lawyer, banker or accountant to mount an effective opposition. That is one of the reasons for the overwhelming success of the WP and why true opposition cannot come from within the ranks of the PAP.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Anthony, you're mistaken. PM Lee's opponents in Ang Mo Kio were mostly not "thirtysomething".

They were "twentysomething".

Anthony said...

Mr Wang,

That's even more impressive in that case - impressive by the fact that they will have that much more time to develop themselves as politicians