LOS ANGELES – It may be quintessentially American to believe that elections are good things and their absence inherently bad — in theory. In reality, everyone knows that elections sometimes seem more trouble than they are worth and can produce unwanted results. This is what happened in the tiny city-state of Singapore last weekend.
First, don’t say anything negative about elections to most Americans — at least out loud. In private, you might quickly mention a few uncomfortable examples to flesh out your point:
• In 1992 the Islamic party won elections in Algeria and when the scared army intervened and coup-ed the winners out, the lack of protest from “democratic Europe” was all but deafening.
• About 10 years ago, in Thailand, the ruling party of gifted but controversial politician Thaksin Shinawatra was elected twice — overwhelmingly. But the powers that be in Bangkok didn’t like that and since 2006 Thaksin has been cooling his heels in exile.
• In 2006, Palestinian parliamentary elections were held, in large part due to U.S. urging, and when — shock of all shocks! — Hamas won the majority of the seats, the reaction from Washington was that the United States would not recognize the winning government!
And so it is with the context of the stunning national elections in Singapore last weekend. The results are both bad and good. It was a bit of an election whopper — at least by Singapore standards. Like many countries in Asia, Singapore has been long ruled by one dominant political party. The good news is the People’s Action Party has produced some of the best governance and highest living standard in the world. The bad news is that PAP’s near-monopoly apparently left many of the otherwise satisfied and sated people restless.
That restlessness has found its outlet in recent years with the pervasive penetration of social networking. To its credit, the PAP government accepted the economic and social value of this technological and social revolution, instead of fighting it like the frightened authorities in China and Vietnam.
But a price has been exacted. Largely in consequence, the ruling party has just been returned to power with “only” 60 percent of the vote. This was the lowest vote for PAP since 1963. In 2001, by contrast, the government’s party won 75 percent of the vote. As a result, the opposition will now hold six of the 87 seats in Parliament — a lame shock almost anywhere else, but a near-tsunami in tightly run Singapore. For the paranoid PAP politician, the trend seems clear.
Consider the symbolism: One of the outgoing members of Parliament is none other than the country’s foreign minister. George Yeo had to run for re-election in one of those oddball group-candidate constituencies that exist in some political systems, though blessedly not in the U.S. (our own system has enough anomalies of its own). When the multiple-candidate PAP team lost, all were suddenly out, including two other ministers besides Yeo.
With his seat in Parliament gone to the opposition, Yeo can no longer serve as foreign minister. The PAP-dominated government will find a suitable replacement, of course. Cosmopolitan Singapore has plenty of talent to choose from. But Yeo was special and his departure from that position will be noted.
Like many successful Singaporeans, Yeo was delightfully over-educated. His professional degree came from Harvard Business School, where he was a Baker scholar; at Cambridge he won the hard-to-get “double first” honor. He was known to be brilliant. In international forums his fast-paced analytical mind was a resource for all parties at many complicated late-night negotiations, and his sudden wit could hit people with the quick flick of an unexpected desert wind.
A practicing Catholic, Yeo often added to policy discussions a dollop of rare historic and philosophical perspectives. His much-noted labors for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — as his country’s foreign minister and ASEAN’s chairman — helped raise its international profile and enhance its credibility.
Exceptional diplomatic talent is not that common on the world stage. Yeo was one of the reasons that tiny Singapore, with something like 5 million people, is often described as a country that tends to punch well above its weight. A key reason is the keen intellect of many of its top people.
To be sure, George Yeo will wind up with some important position. Worry not about him. Even so, his many admirers around the world will wonder why it is so often the case that bad things happen to good people. The truth is elections cannot be trusted to always produce optimal results. But we hold them anyway.
Tom Plate is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies at Loyola Marymount University. His book series “Giants of Asia” has covered Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad. © 2011 Pacific Perspectives Media Center