Lee Turns Focus on Singapore's Young After Winning Election

  • PAP gains bigger share of popular vote than previous election
  • Younger cabinet members to have greater responsibility: Lee

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong signaled an increasing focus on meeting the aspirations of the nation’s younger generation as he prepares to form a new government after winning the Sept. 11 election.

The People’s Action Party boosted its share of the popular vote to 69.9 percent and took 83 out of 89 parliamentary seats in an election where it had faced competition in every district for the first time. After highlighting the PAP’s efforts to increase support for lower-income families and the elderly in an aging nation during the campaign, Lee turned to the future after the party’s victory.

“We have a new generation with better education, with access to social media, who expect their views to be heard and given more weight,” Lee said in a press conference after the Friday election extended the PAP’s more than five decades of rule. The election result “shows that the young people understand what is at stake, support what we are doing,” he said.

The outcome was an improvement for Lee. The party formed by his father and founding premier Lee Kuan Yew swung to its biggest share of the popular vote since 2001. The PAP had about 60 percent of the votes in 2011, its worst showing since Singapore’s independence in 1965.

Lee, 63, said he would bring new faces into his team, “to reshuffle my cabinet so that the younger members are put into positions of greater responsibility quickly.” The prime minister said he wanted to prepare a leadership team during this term that will be ready to take over.

In a rally speech before the election, Lee identified part of the team he is assembling. After bringing in former central bank head Heng Swee Keat and others at the 2011 election, he expanded the group to include fresh faces such as Ng Chee Meng, the former chief of the defense force with a 29-year military career.

After the 2011 election, the government shifted further from a decades-long policy of maintaining budget surpluses to boost 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.

Business Concerns

“The PAP has shown that it can deliver on what had bothered voters in 2011, to the chagrin of many businesses, but it’s brought a shift in voters,” said Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB Private Banking in Singapore. “Despite all the rhetoric, many of the young ones can differentiate between the politicking and are mature enough to think with their minds. While many clearly would like to see more opposition in parliament, they’re clear in envisaging what the government can do.”

The Workers’ Party, the nation’s most successful opposition party, collected six seats in this election, narrowly holding its only multi-seat district after a recount.

“Voters decided it was not a time to experiment, that it was better to go for the tried and tested brand,” said Eugene Tan, an associate professor at the Singapore Management University and a former nominated member of parliament. Regional insecurities and economic uncertainty probably contributed to that thinking, he said.

‘Swung Back’

The PAP’s fortunes were boosted by a groundswell of patriotism that followed massive celebrations last month to mark 50 years since the nation’s modern founding. After the death in March of Lee Kuan Yew, who led the country for 25 years from independence, more than 450,000 people queued for as long as 10 hours for a glimpse of his coffin before his state funeral.

“Support has swung back,” Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said in an interview at Toa Payoh stadium. “Anytime the support levels are like this we actually have to approach it with a great deal of humility,” he said. “Anyone in government has got to take into account all voices. The opposition is part of all voices, but there is also a silent majority.”

The Workers’ Party was re-elected to the multi-seat constituency of Aljunied in eastern Singapore after a recount which gave it about 51 percent of the vote.

“We all know that the opposition wouldn’t form the government, they are far from it,” said student Hendra Darmawar, 25, who attended a Workers’ Party gathering at a stadium in northeastern Singapore. “But they are there for checks and balances. The opposition candidates are not charismatic enough and lack experience. Based on the results, the people are not ready for more opposition.”

‘Do Worry’

The Workers’ Party drew tens of thousands to its pre-election rallies, with Singaporeans packing open fields in the suburbs to listen to Chairman Sylvia Lim speak. Rally turnouts don’t usually translate into votes, Lim told reporters Saturday before setting off on a "thank you" procession through a district her party won.

“Everyone is surprised at the extent of the national swing towards the PAP," she said. “People are probably less upset with the PAP than in 2011 because of the changes that they’ve made.”

The Singapore Democratic Party saw the return of its chief Chee Soon Juan after he was cleared of bankruptcy in 2012. He was declared bankrupt after failing to pay S$500,000 ($354,000) for defaming PAP leaders during the 2001 election. Chee lost in the district he contested.

“I do worry,” Chee said in a televised press conference. “If we continue on in this fashion, the future of Singapore is not going to be where we all want to see it go.”

Political Continuity

Challenges remain for a country facing an aging workforce and doubts over traditional pillars of growth like manufacturing and electronics. The export-driven economy has been damped by China’s slowdown, uneven recoveries in the U.S. and Europe and a commodities slump. The Singapore dollar is set for its biggest annual loss since 1997 and its stock index is the second-worst performing Asian benchmark index in local currency terms this year.

"It means political continuity and stability, which should benefit the economy and local bourse," said Vasu Menon, a vice president at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. "However, it may not be the catalyst for a sustained rally."

A record 2.46 million Singaporeans got the chance to vote, with casting a ballot compulsory for all citizens who are 21 and over. Politicians competed in single-seat wards or multiple-seat districts. The party with the most number of votes in a constituency sends all its members who contested that district to parliament.

“Expectations are raised and the government is trying, as they always have, to meet those expectations, but it gets harder and harder,” said Jonathan Lemco, principal at the Vanguard Group, an investment company based in Pennsylvania with about $3 trillion under management as of Dec. 31. “My best guess is that Singapore over time, will eventually emerge as a democracy with a meaningful opposition.”

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