SINGAPORE—Three months after Singaporeans went to the polls in what have been described as landmark parliamentary elections, campaigning is heating up—by local standards—for the Aug. 27 presidential vote.
As announced on Wednesday, four candidates are running on non-party tickets, and the election appears to be more hotly contested than usual, partly due to the outcome of the parliamentary vote.
Singaporeans—in one electoral district at least, where the opposition took five out of its six seats—countered the stereotype that they are apolitical citizens mostly motivated by economic concerns. This is what local pundits are calling the “new normal” in Singaporean politics—an as-yet-untested opposition presence in parliament, and the flowering of critical voices in society.
In the May 7 contest the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) took 81 out of 87 available seats, a landslide by any standards. However Singapore’s first-past-the-post electoral system meant that this glut was garnered with just 60 percent of the popular vote. The opposition Workers Party had its best ever showing, taking almost 13 percent of the popular vote, though this translated into just six seats, plus two addtional non-constituency seats. The National Solidarity Party took 12 percent of the vote, but this was not enough to win any parliamentary seats.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy earlier this week in his Hougang constituency, Workers Party MP Yaw Shin Leong said his party would be a constructive and critical opposition. However, he conceded that despite the rise of online media such as Temasek Review and The online Citizen—which unlike TV and print media are not linked to the PAP—“the odds are stacked against us.”
That said, the “new normal” is seemingly having an impact on the lower-stakes presidential race. On Thursday, in an occurrence that might be dismissed as innocuous elsewhere, headlines were made in Singapore’s largely state-run media as candidate Dr. Tony Tan was jeered onstage during a speech carried live on TV.
His campaign team blamed supporters of rival Tan Jee Say, leading Tan—a former deputy prime minister and one-time deputy chairman of the the government’s sovereign wealth fund—to tell the media afterward: “I think it is deeply disappointing to have people who will not even listen. I hope that during this campaign, Singaporeans will listen to views of all the candidates.”
Tan is regarded as close to the ruling PAP, which if not quite reeling, appeared to be chastened somewhat by the 6.5 percent swing to the opposition in the parliamentary vote. Two of the other four candidates are also affiliated, in the past at least to the PAP, with Tan Jee Say running after a failed bid for a parliamentary seat with the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which is not represented in parliament.
Singapore’s first—and to date sole—presidential vote was in 1993, and outgoing President S.R. Nathan was returned unopposed in 1999 and 2005.
Reacting to the election result at the time, PAP leaders acknowledged that they would have to listen to voters’ concerns more intently in future, with some analysts suggesting that a further 10 percent swing to the opposition would see the PAP out of office for the first time in Singapore’s history.
Ahead of the opening of the newly elected parliament, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong used his National Day speech last Sunday night to counter-attack, pledging more university places and promising more accessible health care and housing for a wider income bracket in the country’s means-tested system.
His speech echoed some of the themes of the parliamentary campaign, which saw sharp divisions and debate over hot-button issues such as immigration, living costs, health care and housing. Seeking to remind Singaporeans of the trade and investment hub’s vulnerability to global economic cycles, he made mention of the post-2008 economic downturn that Singapore hard.
“We have come through the worst storm ever—and Singapore is better,” he quipped.
After a rocky 2009, Singapore’s economy rebounded strongly in 2010, posting 14 percent growth and bucking trend in Europe, North America and Japan. An increasingly strong currency now being touted as “a haven” in financial circles, in a country with a GDP per capita of over US $42,000.
Asked about the opposition’s take on the prime minister’s speech, Yaw Shin Leong acknowledged, “Let’s be fair, they have been given a mandate, and we will not criticize policy for the sake of it.
“But we will scrutinize their proposals and will try to leverage the six seats we have to do out best for Singapore, which means being a tough opposition.”Show