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Record Number of Singaporeans to Vote as Opposition Widens Fight

Record Number of Singaporeans to Vote
Pedestrians at an intersection in Singapore. Photographer: Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg

Singaporean teacher Roland Lee, 35, hasn’t voted since reaching eligible age in 1996, missing three elections because the opposition didn’t contest the ruling party in his district. This year will be different.

“It’s high time,” Lee said. “The last time I came close to a polling center was when I was nine and I followed my parents to cast their ballots.”

Singapore’s opposition groups yesterday fielded enough candidates to challenge Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party for 82 of 87 parliamentary seats on May 7, in the biggest contest since the island’s independence in 1965. A record 2.21 million eligible voters will get to cast their ballot as Lee seeks a new mandate from citizens facing rising costs of living and competition with foreigners for jobs.

“This is about as enticing as it can get in Singapore,” said Ng Soo Nam, Singapore-based chief investment officer at Nikko Asset Management, which oversees about $126 billion. “There could be some scope for surprises, but nothing that would shake investments in any meaningful way because it’s still quite clear that the PAP would still run government and its policies would continue.”

Since he took office in August 2004, Lee, 59, has lifted a ban on casinos, cut corporate taxes and boosted financial services and tourism to reduce the nation’s reliance on exports.

Record Growth

Singapore’s economy expanded a record 14.5 percent last year and the local dollar has risen to unprecedented levels this month as the central bank allowed further gains to tame inflation, which was 5 percent in March. The currency traded as high as S$1.2301 a dollar yesterday, the strongest level since at least 1981 when Bloomberg data began.

Politicians compete in single-seat wards or multiple-seat districts called Group Representation Constituencies, or GRCs. The party which gets the most number of votes in a constituency sends all its members to parliament, and the PAP has never lost a GRC.

In previous polls, opposition parties left many GRCs unopposed because they require more candidates. The PAP won the 2001, 1997 and 1991 elections by default because opposition groups didn’t field enough candidates.

In the 2006 elections, seven GRCs were unopposed, leaving about 936,000 Singaporeans without the opportunity to vote. In 2001, 10 GRCs were unopposed and 1.36 million eligible citizens didn’t get a chance to vote. Singapore has a population of 5.1 million, of which 3.2 million are citizens.

‘Contested Strongly’

The last polls, held on May 6, 2006, returned the PAP to power with about 67 percent of the votes cast, down from 75 percent in the 2001 elections. The ruling party was uncontested in 37 of the 84 parliamentary seats at that time.

“It’s good that we are contested, and contested strongly,” Prime Minister Lee said in a televised press conference yesterday. “A stronger opposition will crystallize the issues and make Singaporeans realize more what is at stake in these elections. It’s for real, it has very serious consequences.”

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who ran the country from 1959 to 1990 and is the father of the current prime minister, will return to parliament unopposed as his Tanjong Pagar constituency, which has five seats in the lawmaking body, was unchallenged by the opposition.

Singapore law stipulates that as many as nine opposition politicians can get a seat in the legislative body regardless of the outcome of the election. The parliament that was dissolved last week was made up of 82 PAP lawmakers, two elected opposition politicians, one non-elected opposition member and nine non-elected independents.

Market Impact

“If there is a result that’s a lot less than expected for the ruling party, such as if they lose 20 to 30 percent of the number of seats in the parliament,” investors may sell Singapore assets, said Pearlyn Wong, an investment analyst at Julius Baer Group Ltd. “There could be some weakness in the Singapore dollar as the risk premium might actually increase. This is the worst-case scenario.”

Chen Show-Mao, the head of Wall Street law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP’s Beijing office, is seeking election as a candidate for the opposition Workers’ Party. He and other opposition members have said their presence will provide a check and balance against the 46-year rule of the PAP since independence.

“The best way to ensure good governance for Singapore is through the growth of a competitive opposition that offers a credible alternative to the party in government,” Chen said.

Lee disagrees. Yesterday, he urged Singaporeans to vote for the PAP so that decisions on government policies can continue to proceed smoothly without the dissension that has marred policy making in other countries.

“If you are permanently divided and you’re always two-thirds say yes and one-third say nay, and then we argue every issue, then you become like America,” Japan or Belgium, Lee said. “That’s exactly what we don’t want to do and that’s exactly what we fear.”

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