Next Friday, September 11, Singapore goes to the polls. Many are of the opinion that this election will be a barometer of the post-LKY era. There is also every reason to think that these will be watershed elections for Singapore, and that the opposition is set to win more seats than the last general elections in 2011.
The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is no doubt hoping for a “LKY vote.” Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew died in March this year and there were massive crowds at his funeral. The PAP is hoping the massive outpouring of grief will translate into votes – basically the last endorsement of LKY’s Singapore Model.
There are several reasons to think this will not work. Although there is little doubt that PAP will win government, there is also every reason to think that its share of the popular vote will go down and the opposition will gain additional seats.
To start with, for the first time in living memory, the opposition is contesting almost every constituency. In many previous elections, the opposition were not able, or willing, to contest all the seats. In fact, in several past elections the opposition went for less than half the seats, ensuring that the PAP won government on nomination day. The idea was that Singaporeans would be more comfortable voting for opposition if they thought it was for more opposition voices in parliament rather than for a regime change. It did not really work.
In addition, the opposition appear to be highly motivated. All the major opposition parties sat down to discuss how they would fight the PAP. Although they were able to agree to a one-to-one contest in all the Group Representation Constituencies (GRC), they were not able to come to the same arrangement for the Single Member Constituencies (SMC). Nevertheless having a one-to-one fight in all the GRC is a major achievement for the opposition.
It is doubtful the opposition would have been able to come together in the same manner in earlier elections.
Second, the issue of foreign talent has really taken off. The PAP’s policy goal of increasing Singapore’s population to 6.9 million, up from the current 5.4 million, has triggered a considerable negative reaction from ordinary Singaporeans. Many do not buy the government’s explanation that a small population, with a rapidly aging population, is not economically sustainable. Ordinary Singaporeans are more concerned about the pressures on public space, transport, health and education an influx of foreigners would create. Many Singaporeans also fear the loss of the unique Singapore character with a large influx of migrants from outside the region, especially India and mainland China. Some of the most popular social media postings complain regularly about the behavior of these foreigners and their inability to adopt the local way of doing things.
Others are worried that just be sheer number, foreigners will take over. Recently, a Filipino heath worker posted the following to Facebook:
“Now Singaporeans are losers in their own country, we take their jobs, their future, their women, and soon, we will evict all SG… REMEMBER PINOY BETTER THAN AND STRONGER THAN STINKAPOREANS”
The post went viral. The worker lost his job and the Singaporean police charged him with sedition this year. Yet the sentiments expressed in the post capture the fears that many ordinary Singaporeans have about the large number of foreign workers in the country.
Another incident that will have a bearing occurred shortly before Christmas in 2013. About 300 Indian foreign laborers were involved in riot in Little India (the junction of Race Course Road and Hampshire Road), which lasted for around two hours. Alcohol was a major contributing factor. This riot was highly significant as it was the first seen in Singapore in more than 40 years, since the 1969 race riots. What was disturbing to ordinary Singaporeans was the inability of the police/civil defense to put down the riots in the crucial first hour. One of the PAP’s strongest selling points is strong law-and-order, giving Singapore a reputation as one of the safest places in the world in which to live and work. The riots broke the myth that PAP can guarantee safe streets.
Third, the PAP has lost ground on social media even before nomination day. A survey of the social media landscape in Singapore, despite its tight control, showed the PAP is losing almost every argument put forward by bloggers and ordinary Singaporeans. The government shutdown of the popular socio-political site, The Real Singapore, has added to the negative perception that the PAP cannot accept any criticism, no matter how mild.
Moreover, the use of social media to engage Singaporeans by some senior PAP members have backfired spectacularly. In one infamous incident, a senior PAP minister reposted a story about SGD$1.80 ($1.26) chicken rice at a hawker center, obviously to show that the cost-of-living was still low. Netizens who went to investigate the story found that the price was a promotional price, not the usual price. In another famous posting, a PAP member of parliament posted a hawker meal costing SGD$3. Again netizens checked, and found that the MP had received a discount on the meal.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s use of a defamation suit against a blogger who was writing about the Central Provident Fund issue, Roy Ngerng Yi Ling, has also created much negative perception among Singapore’s online community. When Ngerng used a crowd funding website to raise money for his legal defense, he managed to raise more than SGD$110,000 (about $78,000) within a month.
Stories such as these suggest that the PAP’s online media strategy is not working and Singaporeans are increasingly willing to believe negative reports about the PAP.
Fourth, the trend is quite clear. In the 2013 Malaysian general elections, the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and BN lost the popular vote for the first time since independence in 1957. Although UMNO remained in power, due to the first-past-the-post electoral system, it lost almost the entire urban vote. Urban voters were simply fed-up with a party that has ruled since independence and felt a change was needed to move the country to the next level. This mood was led by young people.
In Singapore, too, there is a sense that young voters are feeling anxious about their futures. Many young Singaporeans feel that the PAP has lost touch with their generation and that the old steady-as-she-goes PAP model is simply not working for them anymore. The rising cost-of-living, a major issue for the opposition, is gaining traction. Some voters openly tell pollsters they would migrate to the West if the right opportunities arose.
The most recent Singapore by-election, the Punggol East Single Member Constituency (SMC) in January 2013, shows this trend clearly. The Workers Party candidate was able to defeat the PAP candidate in a constituency that comprised mostly young professionals with young families.
Finally my prediction: unless something extraordinary happens, I expect the PAP to win but with the opposition making major gains. The opposition will probably win another GRC on top of the Aljunied GRC won in 2011, meaning they will win two GRCs. However, it is almost certain that the PAP will win less than 60 percent of the popular vote.
James Chin is Director, Asia Institute, University of Tasmania.