The government and the People’s Action Party (PAP) in Singapore have been experiencing a rough patch. An unprecedented slump in popularity and a growing chorus of complaints about life in Southeast Asia’s nanny state have left the authorities feeling a little unwanted.
That feeling wasn’t helped by a weekend by-election that was taken by the Workers’ Party (WP). To be fair, the seat has been held by the WP for 21 years, but this by-election is the first since the PAP performed poorly in the general election 12 months ago.
In that election, the opposition grabbed six seats in the 87-seat Parliament, which was substantial by Singapore’s standards. On a percentage basis, the PAP’s total vote slumped to 60 percent. In August, the PAP’s candidate for president barely won, with a dismal 35 percent of the vote.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The government immediately went on the offensive, announcing a slew of benefits aimed at wooing back its lost audience – a populace angered by immigration, a growing wealth gap, public transportation issues and the high salaries enjoyed by cabinet ministers, the highest paid in the world.
The weekend poll was widely touted as a test of PAP policies, and by the end of counting the WP candidate, Png Eng Huat, had won 62 percent of the vote against 38 percent for the PAP. WP Secretary General Low Thia Khiang noted that 80 percent of Singaporeans live in public housing apartment blocks and the government has a policy of providing only limited improvements to housing in districts that elect opposition candidates:
“Why have the residents of Hougang been denied estate upgrading for the last 21 years?” Low told local media. "Where is the inclusiveness? We should be a first world society, not just a first world economy."
The seat of Hougang fell vacant after the WP sacked its sitting member over allegations of extramarital affairs, offering the PAP a chance of winning it back. PM Lee Hsien Loong went on the offensive and campaigned heavily for PAP candidate, 34-year-old Desmond Choo.
Lee, who is also the PAP secretary general, admitted more had to be done, saying, “We've done our best to address important national issues like housing and transportation, immigration and population, economic upgrading and workers’ incomes…We’ve made progress but there is much more to be done.”
Perhaps, but given the prime minister’s basic annual salary tops US$1.7 million, Singapore’s struggling working classes can be forgiven for thinking the PAP is living well beyond the ordinary taxpayer’s means.