Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party retained power with the smallest margin of popular votes since independence amid a record turnout that tripled the number of opposition members in parliament.
The party that has ruled Singapore for more than five decades won 81 out of 87 parliamentary seats and 60.1 percent of the popular vote in yesterday’s polls, according to the Elections Department. A record 2 million ballots were counted.
The run-up to the election brought out tens of thousands of Singaporeans to rallies in support of the PAP and the opposition parties, which resonated with citizens complaining about the rising cost of living and competition with foreigners for jobs and housing. The result adds pressure on Lee, 59, to reach out to the growing number of Singaporeans who have questioned government policies.
“The political landscape has changed forever,” Suzaina Kadir, a senior lecturer at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “There’s serious questioning of the PAP’s continued dominance. Now the work begins for the opposition.”
Politicians competed in single-seat wards or multiple-seat districts called Group Representation Constituencies, or GRCs. The party that gets the most number of votes in a district sends all its members to parliament. The PAP lost a GRC for the first time in this election. A record 82 parliament seats were contested by six opposition parties.
The Workers’ Party won the five-seat district of Aljunied and the single-seat Hougang constituency, the only wins by opposition parties. Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang and Chairman Sylvia Lim, who called for a stronger voice in parliament and more affordable public housing, led the Aljunied effort, while Yaw Shin Leong won in Hougang.
“Your votes tell the world that you want Singapore to mature as a democracy, and you want to tell the government that you want a more responsible, inclusive, transparent, accountable government,” said Low, who has been in parliament since 1991.
The Workers’ Party also fielded lawyer Chen Show-Mao, who advised on deals like Agricultural Bank of China Ltd.’s $22.1 billion initial share sale, in Aljunied.
The only uncontested constituency was that of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, 87, the Cambridge University-trained lawyer who led the island from British rule and was its first premier. He’s also the father of the current prime minister.
The parliament dissolved last month had 82 PAP lawmakers, two elected opposition politicians and 10 non-elected members. The PAP won about 66.6 percent of the votes cast in 2006, down from 75.3 percent in the 2001 elections. The worst showing for the PAP before yesterday was 1991, when it won 61 percent of the popular vote.
The PAP has ruled Singapore for more than five decades and delivered a 41-fold jump in gross domestic product, combining a focus on education, homeownership, business friendliness and strict laws to boost the wealth of citizens. Lee’s more recent efforts to spur the economy include the opening of two casino resorts, bringing Formula One races to the island and attracting foreign workers. GDP grew a record 14.5 percent last year.
The party encountered a more vocal electorate than before, prompting a rare apology from Lee for failing to build enough public housing and expand transport links as the population grew. “If we didn’t quite get it right, I am sorry but we will try and do better the next time,” he said at a rally on May 3.
“While voters have given the PAP a strong mandate, many voters including some of those who have voted for us have also clearly expressed their significant concerns, both on issues and on our approach to government,” Prime Minister Lee said in a speech after the victory. “We hear all your voices.”
Foreign Minister George Yeo, who lost his seat in Aljunied, had promised to lead a push for reform within the party. He was one of two cabinet ministers who lost power in the election, the other one being Lim Hwee Hua.
“There is considerable resentment against the government and its policies and some of them run deep,” Yeo said in an interview with the Straits Times on May 5. “We have to listen harder to what people say.”
Singapore’s economic success has widened the income gap, with the world’s highest share of dollar-millionaire households contributing to higher property and consumer prices, leaving some citizens behind.
Singapore’s Gini coefficient, a gauge of income inequality, rose to 0.48 last year from 0.444 in 2000, according to the statistics department. A reading of zero means income equality, while a reading of one means complete inequality. Inflation accelerated to a two-year high of 5.5 percent in January.
The growth and widening income gap has also been fueled by an influx of foreign workers to expand industries such as construction, shipbuilding, hospitality and banking. Foreigners make up more than a third of the population, with only 3.2 million citizens out of 5.1 million inhabitants.
Singapore’s gross domestic product was about S$285 billion ($231 billion) last year, compared with S$6.9 billion in 1960, based on 2005 market prices. The government plans to spend S$6.6 billion on benefits for citizens in this year’s budget to ease the burden of inflation.
“Policies will still be on track, except the big difference is the government will have to articulate them better and communicate them to the citizens better,” said Song Seng-Wun, an economist at CIMB Research Pte. in Singapore.