Singapore’s General Election: First signs of a chink in PAP’s armor?

Posted on | mei 25, 2011 | 3 Comments

Map of 2011 Election results

On May 7th Singapore held its 16th parliamentary election (its 11th since independence from Malaysia in 1967) with the governing Peoples’ Action Party winning 81 of the 87 seats in parliament. While the result was never in doubt, it is testament to the unequal and undemocratic nature of the country’s political system that the result has been widely hailed as a major setback for the government.

Singapore’s political system for those who don’t know is one of the most heavily loaded in favor of a governing party anywhere in the world. Indeed the length to which the PAP has gone to create an institutional framework to ensue their hegemony is almost unique among countries that ostensibly claim to be both liberal and democratic.

The most blatant example of this institutional engineering is the Group Representation Constituency. First introduced in YEAR the GRP was ostensibly introduced to ensure minority representation in parliament. However in practice it has become another means to hinder the ability of opposition parties to effectively compete against the PAP. A GRC is effectively a ‘super-constituency’ that elects between four and six MPs. Unlike in a single-member constituency, where an MP is elected on a simple plurality, in a GRC political parties field ‘teams’ of candidates and a simple plurality across the GRC sends ALL members of the team to parliament.

While the GRC arguably perversely accentuates the tendency for plurality electoral systems not to reflect fair shares of the overall vote, it has also proven to be a major obstacle to weak, poorly resourced opposition parties for a number of other reasons. Firstly the cost of competing in a GRC is very expensive. In the May 7th election each candidate was required to place a deposit of $16,000, which in the largest GRCs meant the opposition had to place a deposit of $96,000. What the GRC has meant is that opposition parties have been rarely willing to commit large proportions of their limited budgets to contest such constituencies. In addition the rules for ‘teams’ stipulate that the team must include candidates from a single party (so no coalitions) and include candidates from the island’s minority populations, principally Malay and Tamil. Finally since their introduction the PAP has consistently headed its GRC teams with prominent Cabinet ministers and often, most notably in 1997, shifted high profile figures to head teams where PAP believed their slate was more vulnerable. The net impact of this has been that a large number of elections in GRCs since 1988 have been uncontested. For example while only the Tanjong Pagar GRC was uncontested in 2011, in 2006 seven GRCs were uncontested returning 37 of PAP’s 81 M.P.s!

To understand how we can interpret the May 7th election as a relative setback for the PAP and a triumph for the opposition we have to crunch some numbers. Firstly the PAP’s share of the vote fell from 66.6% to 60.14% making this the worst performance by the PAP since independence in 1963. Secondly although the opposition only won six seats in parliament, this was a new record, up from a previous high of four in 1991. However the greatest psychological blow for the PAP, was its first ever loss of a GRC to the opposition. With 54 per cent of the vote the Workers Party won the Aljunied GRC. This was a double blow since it meant that the country’s Foreign Minister George Yeo, a two-decade veteran of Singaporean politics, lost his seat in parliament. Elsewhere PAP’s share of the vote fell precipitously in a number of other seats. In the East Coast GRC PAP’s vote fell by 9 per cent from 63.86% to 54.83% while in the Joo Chiat Single Member Constituency Charles Chong narrowly held on by 382 votes from his challenger. In Potong Pasir the margin was even narrower with the wife of the leader of the Singapore Peoples’ Party falling short of victory by 114 votes.

Such results are even more of a surprise given the array of mechanisms by which the PAP has ensured an uneven playing field. Singapore’s mainstream media (print and television) is compliant with nine of the country’s newspapers controlled by the government owned Singapore Press Holdings. In addition all seven of the free-to-air television stations and 14 radio stations are owned by MediaCorp which is owned by Temasek, a holding company wholly owned by the government of Singapore. Satellite television is illegal (since private ownership of a satellite dish is prohibited) although some foreign stations are accessible via the country’s only cable provider, StarHub, which is also partially owned by Temasek. Naturally such controls ensure that opposition access to the media is extremely limited and coverage of elections is by at best pro-government by default and at worst a tool of the PAP.

Freedom of speech is also constrained by laws inherited from the British, most notably The Sedition Act, which outlaws ‘seditious speech’ or the distribution of materials with ‘seditious tendencies’. In addition the government has very effectively used defamation laws to silence critical voices. One of the most famous involved opposition leader Chee Soon Juan who it was judged defamed Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tog when he alleged they had used public funds during the 2001 elections. Chee was forced to over $300,000 in damages. Unable to do so Chee declared himself bankrupt and was therefore barred from standing in the 2006 election since Singaporean law forbids bankrupts from running for office. The use of libel, and the threat of it, has been widely criticized internationally, including by the US State Department. In addition the Societies Act limits freedom of assembly since it requires organizations of more than 10 people to register with the government, and police approval for public assemblies.

While the Internet is widely accessible the Singaporean government monitors online material and ‘symbolically’ blocks a whole host of pornographic websites. The government has also threatened bloggers with the country’s libel laws and in 2006 introduced a legal prohibition on political blogs and podcasts during election campaigns. (Since the law was unable to prevent Singaporeans blogging from overseas the ban was lifted for the 2011 election). Furthermore in 2008 the government arrested two bloggers, one for allegedly inciting racism, the other Gopalan Nair for insulting the Singaporean judiciary!

All of the above mechanisms have ensured that Singapore has for all intents and purposes operated as a one-party state for most of its history. Indeed so overwhelming has PAP’s dominance been that between 1968 and 1989 it actually held all seats in parliament. In tacit recognition that this made a mockery of the notion that Singapore was a democracy the government mandated for the creation of non-constituency members of parliament (NCMPs) in 1984 to give opposition parties a voice.

In this light then the results of May 7th can be seen as a major setback for the PAP and perhaps a turning point in Singapore’s political development. Clearly in Singapore, as in many countries around the world, new media are providing means to circumvent censorship and control. Most notably by enabling users to be both consumers and producers of information blogging has become a low-cost way for opposition voices to reach out to a mass audience while social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are facilitating the real-time transmission of information.

We should not overstate their significance however. Most commentators on the election results regard it as evidence that younger voters are no longer ‘nostalgic’ about the achievements of the PAP nor sufficiently motivated by ‘developmental legitimacy’. For a growing number of Singaporeans ‘threats’ against voters who express their support for opposition candidates are regarded as increasingly unacceptable and dissatisfaction with the strictures of control in Singapore have most recently revealed themselves in an Institute of Policy Studies survey which found that over 20 per cent of young Singaporeans want to leave the country. Worse still this group is disproportionately drawn from middle to high-income families, is predominantly English speaking and better educated. Indeed one survey has placed Singapore’s outflow at the second highest in the world, figures only offset by record inflows of foreign workers. In a globalizing world it seems some Singaporeans, not content to wait for political change, are simply choosing to leave behind the strictures of their mother country. For the rest perhaps May 7th will mark the beginning of something new?

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
E-MAIL: [at]


3 Responses to “Singapore’s General Election: First signs of a chink in PAP’s armor?”

  1. San
    mei 26th, 2011 @ 08:50

    Some factual inaccuracies here:

    1. Singapore’s independence from Malaysia was in 1965

    2. NCMPs were introduced in 1988, not 1984.

    3. GRCs also were introduced for the 1988 elections (it says “GRCs were introduced in YEAR”)

    Incidentally, the thing about GRCs is that they are double-edged swords. Parties either win big or lose big. The PAP has been used to winning big, and this was the first time they lost 5 members at one shot (in Aljunied) rather than in scattered constituencies. Maybe all five WP members would have been returned if the GRC was split into five single constituencies. More likely, they would not, the strength of some of their team members carrying the whole team through.

  2. San
    mei 26th, 2011 @ 08:55

    My apologies – the article is accurate on this point – NCMPs were introduced in 1984 and not what I stated earlier.

  3. Scott’s Weblog » 2011 Singapore Elections: Results and Aftermath
    juni 12th, 2011 @ 15:20

    [...] would call a landslide, the PAP lost the popular and experienced foreign minister, MP George Yeo. Yeo was a casualty among other PAP MPs in the Aljunied GRC which was won by the Worker’s Party…. I know nothing about the guy except that his supporters vandalized Orchard with paper stickers, [...]

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