After 2011 Shock, Singapore Votes on More Than a Party

  • Look for cues to future ruling party leader from Friday vote
  • PAP faces challenge of staying relevant after 50 years

Singapore’s ruling party is heading into this election with one eye on the next.

Riding a wave of patriotism during celebrations to mark the founding of the city-state 50 years ago, and in a year where the country lost its first and longest-serving premier, Lee Kuan Yew, the People’s Action Party is widely expected to retain power on Sept. 11. The challenge, however, is positioning itself to stay relevant as it grooms future leaders who will be needed to appeal to an increasingly demanding electorate.

The PAP, which under Lee transformed Singapore from a small Southeast Asian trading port into the region’s wealthiest state, faces a dilemma similar to other parties across Asia that have for decades dominated national politics, often via a strong, continuous leader.

Singapore has long been an island of calm in an unruly neighborhood that has
seen disruptions from coups in Thailand to riots in Vietnam. Having built an economy on a business-friendly environment and strict laws, the PAP has more recently seen its curbs on freedom of speech challenged by a politically-aware populace, fueled by greater debate online.

Now headed by Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Premier Lee Hsien Loong, the party got a shock in 2011 when voters dumped it from several seats amid a perception it was out of touch with public concerns about immigration and limited welfare spending.

That led the party to reassess. Having secured its lowest share yet of the popular vote-- 60 percent -- the government shifted further from a decades-long policy of preserving budget surpluses, boosting spending on lower-income families and the elderly. It limited work passes for foreigners, who make up more than a third of the island of 5.5 million people. Still, challenges remain.

‘More Courageous’

“For those who are looking for genuine empathy and bolder solutions, a number of politicians in the opposition camp today may appear fresher, more courageous, and therefore more electable,” said Kenneth Tan, vice dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “Many Singaporeans may feel that the PAP are not, in their campaign, saying anything that’s new when it comes to policies for dealing with these problems, opting instead to harp on the successes and vulnerabilities of the past.”

The 2011 vote underlined concerns among voters about the wealth gap in the private banking hub. While government figures show the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, fell to 0.464 in 2014 from 0.478 in 2012, unhappiness has remained over the disparity in earnings in the world’s most expensive city.

The premier has sought to frame the election as a longer-term choice for Singapore. That aspiration will require the PAP to start thinking now about its next leaders. The candidates standing on Friday, and the make up of the cabinet announced afterward, will be an important pointer to that.

‘Next Fifty’

“This election will be critical,” Lee said on Aug. 23. “You will be deciding who is governing Singapore for the next five years. But more than that, you will be choosing the team who will be working with you for the next 15 to 20 years. You will be setting the direction for Singapore for the next 50 years.”

Lee, premier since 2004, has indicated he doesn’t want to stay in power beyond 70. The 63-year-old had surgery for prostate cancer this year.

Right now there is no clear successor. Lacking the presence of the elder Lee, the risk is the PAP starts to fracture on how to take the party forward and deal with public demands for more populist policies. That may be amplified when the current premier begins to step back.

“No one can remove the push-and-shove of elections,” said Simon Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “But it will be important to inject thinking that is broader, forward-looking and keeps in mind what is best for the country as a whole.”

While the party has made efforts to bring younger, fresher faces in -- like candidates with a history of volunteer or grassroots work -- it still recruits from the military and civil service, said Gillian Koh, a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Lee said last November his children have no interest in entering politics.

‘Articulate, Authentic’

“These are still attention grabbers for the Singapore voter, but for them to take a second look today they have to be articulate, authentic and come across as being able to understand the ground and the common man’s life,” Koh said.

Lee has two deputies: Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Minister of Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean, a position Lee held before becoming premier. Heng Swee Keat, Tan Chuan-Jin, Lawrence Wong and Chan Chun Sing, who entered parliament in 2011 and were promoted to ministers in their first term, are part of the “nucleus” of a new team of leaders, Lee said this week.

In this election, the PAP has several candidates running with the potential to become ministers quickly. They include Ng Chee Meng, a three-star general who resigned as chief of the defense force to stand, Chee Hong Tat, a civil servant since 1998 who was principal private secretary to the elder Lee, and Ong Ye Kung, director of group strategy at Keppel Corp.

Administrative Competence

“The PAP has had to start thinking in terms of political appeal and political skills rather than administrative competence,” said Michael Barr, an associate professor of international relations at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia and author of The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence.

The party has a history of adapting, said Wai Ho Leong, a Singapore-based economist at Barclays Plc. who used to work for the trade ministry.

“What’s important for markets is policy continuity and policy renewal, and logical extensions to existing policies,” Leong said. “Continue to upgrade, continue to push for productivity, continue to renew the line up of personnel, so we continue to have leaders who can give us innovations which are not disruptive.”

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