Last month, a former member of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which has governed the city-state since its independence, announced that he would be forming a new political party. The announcement was just the latest in a series of developments that have heated up the country’s politics ahead of an expected general election that could take place as early as sometime in 2019 or 2020, with potentially important implications for Singapore’s domestic politics and foreign policy.
As I have noted before in these pages, the PAP, one of the world’s longest-serving ruling parties, has governed Singapore since its independence in 1965 and won election contests fairly comfortably, with the last one coming in 2015. But scrutiny on the country’s domestic politics has increased over the past few years as the PAP begins a gradual transition process that will see the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, son of PAP founder Lee Kuan Yew, eventually step aside as prime minister in the next few years. Singapore’s next election is due by early 2021 but likely to be held earlier.
Against this backdrop, individual developments have called attention to what PAP succession will look like and what the shape of the country’s politics might be moving forward. That has only increased attention around various storylines, be it the ongoing family feud between Lee Hsien Loong and his younger siblings or views within the PAP about leadership succession and the party’s future. The transition process factors into broader questions about Singapore’s politics, including interest in the future of opposition politics and fears of how a more contested political landscape could undermine the domestic consensus necessary to address growing uncertainties abroad.
The latest instance of this came when Tan Cheng Bock, a former longtime member of the PAP and previous presidential candidate, said he was planning on forming a new political party, the Progress Singapore Party, which would include ex-members of the PAP. The expected endorsement of Tan by Lee Hsien Loong’s younger brother Lee Hsien Yang only further intensified the focus around that announcement.
Tan’s interest on this front is far from new, and the announcement is just one of many developments we have seen in terms of opposition politics in recent years. But beyond the headlines, the announcement has attracted attention in terms of its broader implications, including for the strength of the opposition ahead of Singapore’s next elections and the future position of the PAP amid other dynamics including leadership succession.
How exactly this will impact the evolution of Singapore’s domestic politics remains to be seen. For all the challenges it has endured, the PAP still retains significant strength, while opposition parties continue to face major structural obstacles in not only increasing vote shares, but translating those gains into seats and then sustaining that over multiple elections. For all the speculation about Singapore’s politics and the PAP’s position, it is worth recalling that the PAP won all but six of 89 elected seats in parliament in the last election back in 2015. The secretary general of the opposition Worker’s Party, Pritam Singh, recently admitted that there was a legitimate prospect of further losses of seats in the next election, including a total wipeout.
Nonetheless, as speculation continues about an early election date amid wider foreign and domestic considerations, including commemorations of the bicentennial of Singapore’s founding this year, developments in Singapore’s politics will continue to generate headlines and will remain important to watch.