ELECTION a la Singapore, already unique in some ways, is taking on new characteristics that show up a state in transition.
With general elections only months away, it is easy to predict another easy victory – its 11th since independence – for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
But it is also easy to sense a rise in public dissatisfaction, even anger that could erode support for it.
There’s a wind of change across Singapore that makes its margin of win unpredictable. It is blowing from an emerging number of voters who are not impressed – and may even be resentful – of the way Singapore is being run.
After 40 years of unbroken rule, in which the government exercises tight control on many aspects of life, it is hardly surprising.
The PAP has responded partly by some social loosening up and a mixed use of sticks-and-carrots to maintain its hold on power. Some of these measures are unprecedented.
In fact, the party has pulled out all the resources under its influence to fight the election as though its survival is at stake.
The public resentment, the government believes, stems from “heartlanders” who are at the wrong end of a widening economic gap, in which the rich gets richer and the poor are struggling to earn a living.
As polling day draws close, it is distributing S$2.6bil of “budget surplus” to Singaporeans, with the bulk going to the bottom 30% income earners. Leaders strenuously deny it is aimed at winning votes.
Another S$2bil is pledged to upgrade the “hot” constituencies in which the opposition is strongest: all in all a powerful financial package that is not easy to turn down.
Coincidentally, electricity prices are also being lowered for April to June.
These are a lot of dollars for tiny Singapore (total voters: 2.16 million), so whether intentional or not, the money is bound to have an impact on the outcome.
These measures seem out of step with the political realities in a tightly regulated land for a party that holds 82 of Parliament’s 84 seats. This scale of domination is rarely, if at all, known to democratic countries.
Lee Hsien Loong, who is seeking his first mandate as Prime Minister, is breaking two new grounds.
Firstly, his pre-election “goodies” are given out in cash, not just retirement savings top-ups or fee discounts as before. His father Lee Kuan Yew had always frowned on giving money to the public.
Secondly, the gloves are off regarding the billions of dollars of public-funded subsidies for estate upgrading. They will not, it is now confirmed, be given to any constituency that has an opposition MP.
In the past, the policy was sugar-coated by promises that it would be available to all of Singapore beginning with the oldest estate, but with the opposition zones being last in the queue.
The person who made the unpopular announcement was Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, renowned for his open, friendly disposition. He was sent in to recapture the two opposition seats, Hougang and Potong Pasir, and give the PAP a 100% legislative control.
All this is giving the impression that the ruling party is, a little nervously, expecting a tough fight.
In his first visits there last week, Goh temporarily put aside his smiles to play hardball politics that may have done more harm than good to his party’s cause.
He warned voters of the penalty of voting opposition. “I do not want the two constituencies to be left behind, especially Potong Pasir, an old estate. Five years down the road, assuming (opposition) does win, there will be no upgrading.”
The result was a public furore – and a more divided society.
It has, wittingly or not, moved an election debate to an area that the ruling party has always shunned because it cannot possibly win.
The overwhelming feeling is that upgrading uses public money, which should be used equally for all Singaporeans and not to blackmail voters for one party’s gain.
Reactions were predictably strong, ranging from “nauseating”, “Mafia election”, “an unbecoming trick”, “what a letdown!” to a warning to the PAP to, “threaten at your peril”.
“If people give in to this, it will be a sad day for Singapore,” said another letter. “It is downright low in characters (sic) that our Ministers had to resort to this to win votes.”
Goh also tossed out a corny idea to help the two PAP candidates win. He would ask the Prime Minister to lift the party whip from them to allow them to function as opposition.
It could have been done at the spur of the moment, not realising the consequences of creating a new class of PAP MPs – and by extension their constituents – with special rights.
The impact could be a whole lot of unhappy PAP representatives – and their voters – who are under the whip. Unsurprisingly, an embarrassed Goh withdrew the offer a day later.
But the biggest potential harm lies in his bare-knuckle threat to withhold public upgrading funds from opposition wards. It hasn’t gone down well even among Singaporeans who support the government.
“The PAP has history and talent on its side,” observed Seto Hann Hoi in the Straits Times. “It does not need to use (this) as a political tool to win votes.”
It remains to be seen how the party hierarchy evaluates the public feeling. If it is really bad, would it ask Goh to retract it as well?
Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com
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