Asia Pacific / Politics

Why Singapore’s ruling party easily wins big in every election

by Philip J. Heijmans

Bloomberg

If anyone is wondering which party will win Singapore’s election on Friday, just listen to the opposition.

Pritam Singh, the leader of the country’s only elected opposition party in Parliament, warned in June of a “wipe out” that could see the sitting government win every seat. The Progress Singapore Party (PSP), founded by former ruling-party cadres, is more optimistic: It’s urging voters to give the opposition just a third of parliamentary seats.

“There’s no need to worry that the government will be voted out,” Leong Mun Wai, a top PSP official, told reporters during a virtual press briefing last month. “This has been demonstrated again and again in our electoral history, to the frustration of many of my alternative camp colleagues.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has led Singapore since independence in 1965, and the big question is whether it will lose support compared with the 2015 vote or even fail to win a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time. That would mark a monumental shift in Singaporean politics by denying the PAP enough votes to change the constitution, which has been done nearly 50 times, including amendments ranging from dealing with Parliament sessions to forming election rules that opposition parties say make it very hard for them to win.

Plenty of voters happily support the government and don’t see any issues with the electoral system. The PAP has a proven track record of improving living standards and eliminating corruption, helping transform Singapore from a small trading port into one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Per capita gross domestic product soared more than 150 times over the past six decades, and is now higher than countries like the U.S., Germany and Australia.

Yet top opposition figures say more competitive elections would improve accountability and lead to a more robust policy debate during uncertain times, particularly with Singapore facing its worst-ever recession amid the pandemic. Analysts point to a host of rules they say give the incumbents a structural advantage, all of which have been disputed by the Elections Department: Group-representation constituencies (GRCs), the lack of an independent election commission, five-figure deposits for candidates and one of the world’s shortest election campaigns.

A better-than-expected performance for the opposition could potentially have an impact on policy. Following the PAP’s worst-ever result in 2011, the government shifted toward more populist measures such as tightening work passes for foreigners and raising spending on both lower-income families. This time around, some analysts say a slimmer victory margin could also prompt the party to reassess succession plans for Lee, who has signaled he plans to step down by the time he turns 70 in 2022.

“Singapore needs fairer elections before it can have truly competitive elections,” Lee Hsien Yang, the prime minister’s brother who has clashed with him over a family dispute and is backing the opposition PSP, said in a written response to questions. “One-party rule is dangerous for a nation,” he said, adding: “It leads to groupthink, to arrogance and entitled behavior. It means people’s real concerns are dismissed and policies bulldozed.”

In a campaign speech this week, Prime Minister Lee criticized opposition proposals like a minimum wage and universal basic income while pitching the PAP as a competent team that could see Singapore through the crisis. Recounting the PAP’s six-decade record of promoting social harmony and improving lives “beyond measure,” Lee said a strong mandate would reassure investors and prevent Singapore from being “forgotten like so many city-states in history.” His office didn’t reply to emailed questions before publication.

‘Do not undermine’

“I cannot say that such a state of affairs will last forever, but do not undermine a system that has served you well,” Lee said, adding that countries that change governments frequently become more polarized. “People appear to have a choice, but often the more things change, the more they remain the same,” he said. “These countries have not done better than Singapore.”

Singapore inherited its “first-past-the-post system” from its British colonizers, allowing a candidate who secures the greatest number of votes to win office. In the 1980s, it introduced GRCs of four to six candidates — at least one of whom must come from outside the ethnic-Chinese majority, which comprises about three-quarters of the citizenry. The move, implemented to ensure a diverse Parliament without stoking racial divisions, has helped result in the government maintaining a lock on the legislature.

In 12 previous elections over more than five decades, the PAP has never won less than 93 percent of parliamentary seats, despite seeing its share of the popular vote fall as low as 60 percent in 2011. Opposition parties have struggled to field qualified teams of candidates, and have only ever won one of the group constituencies. Of the 93 seats up for grabs on July 10, about 85 percent come from 17 GRCs.

“These difficulties for the opposition to fill candidates have led to GRCs being seen as the ‘safe seats’ for PAP,” the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a group of current and former Southeast Asian officials whose board includes Singapore’s former deputy parliament speaker Charles Chong, wrote in a report last month. It said opposition parties tend to have less resources and some prospective candidates don’t want to join “due to the stigma and repressive environment political opponents face.”

Running for a seat also requires a deposit of 13,500 Singapore dollars (about $9,700) per candidate, roughly three month’s income for the average Singaporean and about 15 times more than the amount required to stand in a U.K. election. The minimum campaign period of just nine days is one of the shortest in the world, compared with at least 36 days in Canada and 33 days in Australia. Opinion polls are banned during election campaigns.

The Elections Department reports directly to the office of the prime minister, who also appoints a group of civil servants that determines electoral boundaries. Those are often released just before a vote is called, which opposition lawmakers say gives them less time to come up with an effective strategy.

‘Real problem’

“It does give the incumbents some advantage,” said Kevin Tan, an adjunct law professor at the National University of Singapore who has written and edited more than 40 books on the country’s law, history and politics. “Gerrymandering is a real problem because you don’t have an independent electoral commission, therefore nobody knows the basis for writing up the various constituencies,” he said.

In an emailed response to questions about the various opposition complaints and whether it follows all instructions given by the prime minister, the Elections Department referred to previous statements, including one saying it “conducts elections in a fair and transparent manner.” It said constituency boundaries are reviewed just before elections to make sure they are updated, and the review committee doesn’t examine past election results or the profile of voters who may be affected. GRCs were established to ensure “minority racial communities” will always be represented, it said.

“The electoral system and its procedures are clearly spelt out in Singapore law which applies to all political participants, regardless of affiliation,” the department said.

The opposition also deserves blame for the poor performances. While the PAP is contesting for all 93 seats, a record 10 parties are running against it. The PSP, formed just last year, leads that pack by vying for 24 seats even after some members defected to a breakaway party. Although the PAP’s opponents have avoided competing against each other in almost all constituencies, they remain split over the fundamental role of the opposition in Singapore.

“Some leaders think their job is to keep the PAP government accountable, while other leaders have a mission to replace the PAP,” said Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Australia’s Griffith Asia Institute who wrote “Behind the Façade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.” “When opposition parties cannot mutually agree on their goals, cooperation is extremely unlikely.”

When Singapore first debated group constituencies, Goh Chok Tong — who went on to serve as prime minister from 1990 to 2004 — said the move would disadvantage the opposition as long as it remained divided. He defended them as the best solution to ensure Parliament is a reflection of Singapore’s multi-racial society, while saying alternatives like proportional representation would lead to communalism that could divide the country.

“Is it our fault they are so weak? That they can’t get together?” he said back in 1988, the year they were first implemented. “It is not our job to nurture an opposition. It is their job to build themselves up.”

Still, the PAP recognizes the benefits of having some opposition voices in parliament. A constitutional amendment passed in 1984 — after the party swept the previous four elections — guaranteed some seats to the opposition even if they lost under a designation called non-constituency member of Parliament, or NCMP. This time the legislature will have a minimum of 12.

Press freedom

Opposition members, however, say they would prefer a more open environment to compete in elections rather than being guaranteed parliamentary seats: some candidates have even said they’ll reject them if offered. Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 158 of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index — behind countries like Russia and Turkey — due to “judicial and financial pressure” that lead media outlets to exercise self-censorship.

The PAP-dominated Parliament last year passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), which gives officials the power to request companies like Facebook Inc. to block pages if online platforms don’t post a government-issued correction alongside the original article. While the ruling party has said the law is needed to fight against errant online information, Facebook has said the blocking orders are “severe and risk being misused to stifle voices and perspectives on the internet.”

Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, saw his party hit with a Pofma notice for comments made on the campaign trail. He’s among several opposition members over the years to face libel and defamation cases: He was declared bankrupt after failing to pay S$500,000 ($350,000) for defaming PAP leaders during the 2001 election, and was only cleared to run later after paying a reduced sum.

“We’re not just fighting against the ruling party,” Chee told Bloomberg TV this week. “Understand that we’re fighting against the entire state machinery.”

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