Recent election on May 7th in Singapore brought surprise, continuity, and resignation. Ironically, both the Government and the opposition can be happy with the outcome, even if the next challenges will be bigger than the gains for both of them. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), in power since 1959 (even before Singapore independence) won 81 of the 87 contested seats. In every country this result would be considered a triumph, a landslide of votes.
In the city-state, though, it is regarded as a partial defeat. The opposition, led by the social democrat Workers’ Party (WP), elected six representatives, its best result ever. The PAP never before conceded more than 4 deputies. More troubling is the vote of protest which touched an unprecedented level. Opposition parties reached together 40% of the popular vote. The electoral system, based on the majority of each constituency, penalizes the small parties, but gives a clear indication of the citizens’ sentiment. The PAP held 67% of the popular vote in 2006, 75% in 2001, 87% back in 1968. This system ensures at the same time stability for the Government and free election, even if with some limitations. The WP can celebrate its success, while the ruling party is equally satisfied because can go on, but with less grip on society though.
A striking signal came from the resignation from Government of Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), the architect of contemporary Singapore and father of the current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Long. LKY has been Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, to be appointed Senior Minister until 2004 and then Mentor Minister. He became a leader behind the scenes, an eminence grise, without being formally involved in routine administration. At 87, he leaves the stage to allow a younger generation to freely grow. He is commonly identified with Singapore, its success, its prosperity. Its memoir is proudly called “From third world to first”.
A tiny island, without resource or political protection, was converted in a rich country, second only to Japan in Asia. Everything is clean, well-functioning, corruption-free. The country is widely respected for its competence and integrity. Good results did not come easy, but were achieved with extreme commitment and discipline. Probably the new generations do not recall the old days and see prosperity as a given. They use modern communication channels to spread their ideas. Internet, twitter, blogs gave the electoral campaign an unprecedented dynamism. The Government made Singapore fully wired and now the social networks enjoy the net, even in favour of the opposition. Problems exist in Singapore, too. The cost of living is on the rise, particularly for the housing. The dream to provide all citizens with a property, almost fulfilled in the 90’, has now been reconsidered.
Land is scarce, and is often reserved to luxury condos and expansive office buildings. Moreover, a psychological pressure is widely felt: the Government message is everywhere: prosperity is an achievement to be preserved with sacrifice, study, and hard work. Many intellectuals think of migrating, the labour class fears the invasion of low cost workers from abroad. Last years, the GDP grew 14%, the best result in Asia. The performance clearly was not enough. PAP should learn to rule a more complex society, which ironically is the outcome of its previous own policy. A stronger opposition might be a challenge, not a danger.
For the moment Singapore has the ability to handle a new situation with acumen and vision. If not, in the future contradictions might grow and the opposition may eventually convert itself into an alternative.