It's almost two decades since the last contested election. But using tactics that play on voters' uncertainties about the future the incumbent government has little to fear, writes John Aglionby
Tuesday May 2, 2006
The exciting news for Singaporean voters is that this Saturday's general election will be the first contested poll for 18 years. But to say the wealthy island-state is gripped with election fever or on the cusp of political transformation would be stretching reality.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the People's Action Party (PAP), which has dominated since before independence in 1965, will win.
For starters, it already has 37 of the 84 parliamentary seats in the bag due to the opposition not fielding sufficient candidates. This is an improvement on previous polls though; in the last election, in 2001, the opposition contested only 27 constituencies and won only two seats.
On top of this it has an experienced, well-funded party machinery on its side. Virtually everyone who is anyone likes to be seen to be associated with PAP so the party has no problem recruiting candidates, volunteers or cash.
And there is no denying that it has consistently delivered what Singaporeans want. Rarely to be seen are discussions on political debate, curtailment of expression and liberal-western democratic ideals. Instead, the campaign concentrates on security, steady economic growth (most analysts say 5% for this year should be very achievable), good education and healthcare and attention to local issues.
This latter point is particularly important because Singapore has only one layer of government. Footpaths, government housing, the quality of lighting on housing estates or how many floors lifts should stop at in the housing blocks are very much general election issues since there is no municipal council - or perhaps, as wags say, the parliament is little more than a tame municipal council.
Critics would argue, however, that most Singaporeans have been denied the opportunity to make an informed choice about what they want. Expression is tightly controlled, as are rights of association and assembly.
Fear of the unknown is used to stifle dissent and opposition. In a recent discussion with young voters, Lee Kwan Yew - modern Singapore's founder and the father of the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong - was asked whether perhaps it was time for Singapore to loosen up a bit politically to strengthen the nation. The senior statesman, who is still in government with the odd title of minister mentor and is running unopposed in the election, replied: "You mean to tell me that what is happening in Thailand and the Philippines is binding the people, building the nation?" Both Thailand and the Philippines are currently experiencing varying levels of political turmoil.
And like most incumbent governments, the younger Mr Lee's has likewise offered a few election sweeteners. In the February budget, he announced he would pay a record £800,000 to low-income earners this financial year in cash bonuses. He obviously stressed it was unrelated to the election.
Registering opposition by boycotting the polls is not really an option since those who don't cast ballots face fines and having their right to vote suspended.
Non-party institutions, too, are anything but independent. The mainstream media is virtually entirely controlled by the government, resulting in a massive imbalance in coverage between the PAP and the rest and the election commission is a department in the prime minister's office.
In such circumstances, opposition tactics are thus somewhat limited. In the past they've suggested that since the PAP is going to win anyway, there's no reason to be afraid of voting for us. This time around they're campaigning more on the issues but it is still unlikely they will win many more seats.
"If they can get just one or two more seats that would have to be regarded as a success," Sinapan Samydorai, the president of the Think Centre, an organisation promoting greater political openness. "But even that is going to be tough. They could well lose one of the seats they won last time."