Singapore went to the polls on May 7 and delivered the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) its worst result since 1963, both in terms of the proportion of votes and the number of seats taken by the opposition.
Despite all the institutional advantages that guaranteed a PAP victory, the party's vote went down to 60.14 percent, from 66.6 percent in 2006 and 75 percent in 2001. The opposition's capture of seats went up to six, from two in 2006 and 2001. For only the second time since 1963, a cabinet minister lost his seat; two ministers, actually, plus the candidate slated to be the next Speaker of Parliament.
So why was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong smiling so broadly afterwards? Because he knew that it could easily have been much, much worse. His party won one constituency by a mere 114 votes and another by 382 votes. Meanwhile, the feared complete collapse of support in a four-member constituency (Holland-Bukit-Timah) failed to materialize, so net losses were restricted to four seats.
All this means a bad result doesn’t look so bad when compared to a potential disastrous result. It also doesn’t hurt that he managed to increase his personal vote to the point where he can avert much of the criticism that might otherwise be directed toward him.
Yet there’s no doubt that the small world of Singapore politics changed, and the world's most successful marriage of modern capitalism and electoral authoritarianism looks like it has just been tripped up.
One of the most significant institutional blows landed by the opposition was that for the first time, they won a Group Representation Constituency (GRC). The introduction of these multi-member constituencies in 1988 is one of the most notorious mechanisms at the government's disposal for throttling opposition challenges. Up to six candidates have to stand as a team in each GRC in a winner-take-all election. Apart from relatively normal institutional barriers presented by the GRC electoral system, such as teams of candidates having to pay deposits of $64–96,000 (as of 2011), GRCs are broken up and reshaped in the Prime Minister's Office just before each election in ways that seemingly have no purpose other than to undermine any inroads that the opposition might have been making in an area.
So strong is the assumption that these boundaries are set capriciously for the purposes of favouring the PAP that, when the announcement of the 2011 boundaries included the surprise creation of a new Single Member Constituency in Punggol East, the local PAP MP proudly announced that his ‘key grassroots leaders’ saw it not as the result of anything so mundane as a population shift, but as ‘an affirmation and confirmation of the good work they are doing.’ No journalist questioned the assumption that the new constituency was created as a function of partisan politics, nor did any government spokesperson deny it.
Much of the significance of the electoral shift is seen in the severity of the blows to some of the most basic legitimating myths of the regime, and these came not from opposition candidates, but from Cabinet ministers as they floundered under withering opposition scrutiny.
Never before have Singaporeans heard a prime minister apologise for government ‘mistakes,’ but they heard it this year, along with opposition candidates pointedly accepting his apology or sneeringly dismissing it. Nor had they heard a senior minister defend one of his cabinet colleagues in terms of him not being as incompetent as some of the others. But they did in 2011, and they can now likely never hope to regain the presumption of professional authority that they previously enjoyed.
The main problem for the government was that it was being challenged on its own preferred terms and found wanting. It has set up an education and social system based on ruthless competition, but argues that competition is bad in politics. It proudly sets the pay scales for ministers by the standards of the CEOs of multinational companies, but then argues that neither individual ministers nor the cabinet as a whole should be held to account when they make mistakes.
And this was an election where government mistakes and its mishandling of issues were the main items on the agenda, manifest in issues such as cost of living, cost of housing, cost of health care, inadequate national infrastructure and public transport, budget overruns, the escape of a terrorist, insults to the Malay section of the population, immigration, foolish investments leading to the loss of national savings—all topped off by ministers’ lack of accountability.
In the past, these challenges wouldn’t have been a problem for the government because information was being controlled assiduously at the centre and opposition activists didn’t have the professional credentials or the political skills to mount credible challenges.
All this has changed, in part because the government has lost control of the flow of information, largely because of the rise of the internet. But the internet is just a facilitator. These developments have been driven by real people and by the opposition's capacity building in terms of members, activists, leaders, candidates, money, ideas, causes, and outreach structures.
Judging from my in-country research before the election it’s clear that the opposition has none of these things in abundance, and yet it’s now obvious that they have all of them to a sufficient extent to make a real impact and provide a base for further development.
One of the clearest indications of this capacity building is the calibre of the candidates, not just in terms of their confidence, capacity to speak, willingness to work, and their intelligence, but also in terms of the seriousness of their CVs (and in qualification-and CV-conscious Singapore, this has more significance than it would in most other places).
This year, the opposition was able to run a selection of candidates who should have been supporters of the government: former winners of overseas government scholarships, former members of the civil service's elite Administrative Service, a former Army officer, and even a former Principal Private Secretary to Goh Chok Tong in the days when he was deputy prime minister. Add to this a few PhDs, one of whom has close family connections to the old establishment, and the odd high-flying corporate lawyer who has been working overseas for decades, and the frontline opposition line-up is starting to look like a team that might have made the PAP proud.
In addition, some of these candidates are clearly more competent as politicians than most ministers. (That said, this is setting the bar rather low, since none of these ministers has had to face serious adversarial interrogation or criticism for decades, if ever).
In the last days of the campaign, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong looked defensive, routinely wandering off message. Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong spent much of the campaign saying and tweeting off-beat messages that required either himself or his colleagues to use up precious air time explaining them or defending him or defending themselves against him.
Don't expect a change of government or anything like serious democratisation in Singapore anytime soon. But this doesn’t mean that Lion City hasn’t changed—and there’s no going back.
Michael Barr is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Flinders University.
(This article is an edited version of an entry that appeared in the Lowy Institute's Interpreter that can be found here.)