Saturday 18 August 2012

Singapore's changing political landscape

By Lydia Lim, The Straits Times, 17 Aug 2012

PEOPLE describe General Election 2011 as a watershed election. In what way did it mark a new phase in Singapore politics?

Singapore will hold its next General Election in about four years' time.

By then, 2016, most of you who are taking part in this year's current affairs quiz will be of voting age, that is 21. More likely than not, you will have a chance to cast your vote, and elect your Member of Parliament. You could say voting in elections is a new norm in the so-called "new normal".

How so?

In the decade from 1991 to 2001, the number of seats contested by the opposition in each election fell, from 40 out of 81 in 1991, to 36 out of 83 in 1997 and finally to just 29 out of 84 in 2001.

That meant that two-thirds of eligible voters sat out the General Election of November 2001.

They did not have a chance to vote because they lived in constituencies where there was no opposition slate of candidates to take on the team from the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

In 2004, The Straits Times coined the phrase Generation Walkover to describe those Singaporeans who reached voting age during those years. They were born between 1970 and 1980, grew up largely in the era of then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, and did not experience the turbulence of the early years of independence.

The PAP was effectively the only party they knew and their main form of political activism was in the giving and collecting of feedback, the ST article said.

The tide turned in 2006. That was the first General Election since 1988 in which the PAP did not immediately form the Government on Nomination Day.

In GE 2011, 82 out of 87 seats were contested. It was the most keenly fought election since Singapore became independent in 1965. It was a watershed because it seemed to signal the start of a new era of political contestation.

The presidential election that took place three months later saw four candidates - all surnamed Tan - vying to become Singapore's head of state. It was the most fiercely fought since 1991, when the presidency became an elected office.

How significant is this change?

Political competition lies at the heart of democratic politics, which Ambassador Chan Heng Chee has said is about "groups of people uniting behind different leaderships to compete, bargain and negotiate in the shaping and sharing of political power and to influence or control policy directions".

That definition is to be found in her seminal essay of 1975: "Singapore the Administrative State: Where has all the politics gone?"

In a recent interview, Ambassador Chan, a political scientist, said what she had seen in the 1970s was "the steady and systematic depoliticisation of a politically active and aggressive citizenry".

From 1968 to 1981, the PAP enjoyed a monopoly of seats in Parliament. The opposition bench was empty during those years after a series of walkouts by Members of Parliament from the Barisan Sosialis, an opposition party formed by a faction that broke away from the PAP over merger with Malaysia.

In 1981, then Workers' Party chief J. B. Jeyaretnam made history by winning a by-election in Anson. He was the first opposition politician to be elected in 13 years.

Since then, the number of opposition MPs has hovered between one and four, rising to six in GE 2011 when the WP finally succeeded in winning a GRC or Group Representation Constituency, namely Aljunied.

Ambassador Chan said she now sees the return of politics to Singapore, in the form of a "more active citizenry, which is more demanding of elected government and MPs' performance".

Another change has been noted by opposition politician Yee Jenn Jong. The WP Non-Constituency MP said "professionals, civil servants and business people are coming forward to help in the opposition movement. The fear element is diminishing".

Change at the top

ANOTHER major impact of GE 2011 was how it sped up change at the top tiers of Singapore's political leadership.

Two weeks after the election, on May 21 last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a new Cabinet line-up. The Cabinet is the team of ministers who govern the country.

The Cabinet shake-up was the most far-reaching since at least 1984, with movement of ministers at the helm of 14 of the 17 ministries.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew stepped down as minister mentor after 52 years in government, 31 of them as Singapore's first prime minister. Mr Goh Chok Tong also retired from Cabinet. He was Singapore's second prime minister from 1990 to 2004, and senior minister after that.

PM Lee described the sweeping changes as "epochal".

He said the outcome of GE 2011 - which saw the PAP receive its lowest share of the vote since Independence - had shaped his thinking on the Cabinet.

"I wanted a fresh start and that's why I'm calling for radical change," he said.

Since then, the Government has acted to remedy policies gone wrong. The new ministers in charge of housing and transport have moved fast to increase supply of both, so as to ensure enough affordable homes for young Singaporeans, and reduce congestion on trains and buses.

PM Lee himself ordered an immediate review of high ministerial salaries, which led to a sizeable one-third reduction in their pay.

That marked a significant departure from the past, as the PAP government had for decades faced down criticisms of, and resentment against, its controversial policy of paying ministers top dollar.

The sense is that the Government now feels a need to be more responsive to the views and sentiments of the voting public.

Certainly, it has, since last year's polls, paid more attention to public engagement.

The Prime Minister has even restructured the ministry in charge of information. To be called Ministry of Communications and Information, it will oversee the Government's efforts to improve public communications and engagement, which PM Lee said "are more important in the age of social media and a more active citizenry".

A new normal?

IS THERE a new normal in Singapore politics?

If new normal refers to a new status quo, then the answer is not quite.

The PAP, which has governed Singapore continuously for 53 years, remains very much in charge. It still has 81 out of 87 elected seats in Parliament and faces no immediate threat to its dominance.

Most Singaporeans do not yet see in any of the opposition parties a credible alternative.

Young Singaporean Tay Jie Ming, 25, eloquently summed up the post GE 2011 landscape: "We have taken mere baby steps and, as a young democracy, we have some way to go before we can seriously consider if there is indeed a new normal."

This primer is the final instalment of a 12-part series in the Opinion pages, in the lead-up to The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

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