Singapore General Election 2009 Likely?

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In times of crisis with people gravitating towards the government for assistance in domestic concerns, it is usually a good time for ruling parties (from UK to Singapore) to call for a general election. With recent happenings in Singapore, is it worth the effort of the ruling party of Singapore to call for a general election? In this article, we examine the progress made by the government and the factors that might be for or against their favour in calling for one in the coming year.

With a global financial crisis propagating across the world since late September this year, most countries including Singapore will likely face a long period of negative growth. For some of us, this may be the most disastrous financial disaster in our life times which started off from a subprime mortgage crisis in late 2006. Depending on your own perspective, it is also a challenge because great wealth is usually created in such times.

How does this affect Singapore’s political landscape? Given that the political scene in Singapore is strongly linked to the government’s performance of managing the economy, it may be a possibility for the ruling party to call an election when people will gravitate and rally around a common cause in such difficult times. If you look back to the last two elections held in 2001 and 2006, you will see some emerging trends. The election in 2001 was called after September 11 and the internet bubble bursted. At that point, the ruling party used global events to rally the people, winning a landslide with 75.3% of the popular vote. Compare to the most recent election in 2006 where the economy was recovering, the ruling party only won 66.6% of the popular vote.

What has happened between last election till now? In 2006, Singapore was undergoing an economic recovery followed by the decision to build two Integrated Resorts and organizing the IMF-World Bank event. Within the last two years, Singapore has also brought the first F1 night race into her shores. With the building of the integrated resorts and Singapore’s reputation as a financial hub for southeast Asia, there is a strong growth in private wealth, drawing not just from the rich within the region but from China, India, Middle East and Russia. With such growth, the domestic side of Singapore faced a different reality. The electorate has faced with the rise of the good and services tax (GST) from 5 to 7%, followed by a lot of real estate activity via en bloc sales, and finally led to a year of extraordinary inflation of 4.2% coming from rising costs from NETS payments, transportation, costs of living and utility bills. Of course, there are other issues which took centre stage over the past two years: the University of New South Wales debacle, the ministerial pay increase, the rise of retirement age to 67 with annuities scheme looming over the horizon, the recent purchase of shares on UBS, Citigroup and Merrill Lynch by Temasek and GIC and today, the losses of S$12M made by town councils from the constituencies held by the ruling party. With some issues that threatened and eroded the strength of the ruling party, the option to hold an election during such tough times may not be as appealing for the ruling party as compared to the one in 2001 that is focused mainly on national security.

There are a few factors that could tip the election both ways for the ruling party. Let’s start from an optimistic position for the ruling party. The first will be the vast talent pool that the ruling party enjoyed in her selection of candidates. The strength of the PAP to attract competent talent who might have been dissenting voices against them in the past leaves the opposition very little opportunity in party growth. Even though the Workers Party (WP) has managed to attract professional talent in the last elections, it is still an uphill battle for them to be able to get people to contest in all the constituencies. In fact, in such difficult times, even with the electorate begrudging the high ministerial pay and the rising costs of living, they will prefer to vote for the ruling party with a pragmatic perspective given their strong track record in economic recovery. The second reason is strong grassroots support within the ruling party. The ruling party has a strong grassroots machinery that can be fully utilized to last a nine day election campaign from marketing to canvassing votes. In the last elections, the Workers Party had to rely on very few volunteers to help them with 10,000 flyers over one estate. If the strong infrastructure of the ruling party is not a factor, they have also provided good incentives for the electorate to vote for them, from estate upgrading to progress packages before and after the election.

How about the flip side of holding an election next year? Of course, if you are away from Singapore for the past two years, there are some changes on the ground. Being back from Cambridge for the past three years, I have witnessed one general election and a lot of interesting events moving from cyberspace to the real world.

Social or the “not so” new media has become a new tool for the opposition and civil society groups to take on the establishment on several niche issues. In fact, in the recent rally speech, the PM has made two announcements: (i) to allow political podcast and videocast online and (ii) the opening up of Hong Lim Park for protest. It is a telling sign that the ruling party has come to terms with the realization that there is no way to regulate cyberspace given the power of technology and social practices of netizens to spread information at such a quick rate. Even though the ruling party has adopted the principle of selective liberalization, it has given the society more space and diversity for debate with restrictive conditions. Within weeks of the opening of Hong Lim Park (aka Speakers’ Corner), the online activists have now moved into the offline world, for example, the recent protests made by Tan Kin Lian in a non-partisan effort to seek redress from the financial institutions for the investors who bought the highly toxic structured Lehman products from the banks. If not more, we are also seeing a more outspoken younger generation who even used Facebook to organize a petition against transportation hikes in the polytechnics.

If that is not enough, a lot of young people in Singapore are lately inspired by the campaign ran by Barack Obama calling for change from the younger generation. The social media has transformed various political landscapes within the span of one year from US, Korea to Malaysia. The next election will be exciting because the last election only showed the Internet emerging as a platform to verify and counter checked the news from the mainstream press, like the famous Hougang photo from Alex Au. It has not reached the level of vote canvassing or political donation like the way how the Obama campaign has done with the US Presidential elections.

Recently, I have made a gentleman’s bet (over a pint of beer) with Sze Meng (a fellow colleague here in SA) that the next general election will happen in 2009 (but seriously, it should be 2010). How will be the next general election decided upon? It depends on the people, the economy, and how the ruling establishment plans to navigate the country out of recession.

Author’s Note: This article is originally published in the Temsoc Newsletter at the invitation of Ms Gayle Goh, the Temasek Society; a Singaporean political and current affairs society in the University of Cambridge. Note that I have made some edits to the original article published here.

Author’s Afterword in 2010: So it did not happen last year and looks like I owe one colleague of mine in Singapore Angle a pint of beer. :)

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist