Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 01:37 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 01:37 | SYDNEY

Singapore: No revolution today, thank you

30 August 2011 08:46

Dr Michael Barr is Senior Lecturer at Flinders University. His most recent book, written with Zlatko Skrbiš, is Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project.

Dr Tony Tan's election as President of Singapore on 29 August is a welcome relief, but no cause for celebration for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). Dr Tan is a former Deputy Prime Minister and was standing in a field of four as the de-facto government candidate.

He secured only 35.19% of the vote, but thanks to Singapore's first-past-the-post voting system, this was enough to win. His closest rival (also a Dr Tan: former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock) was only 7,000 votes behind at 34.85%. The other candidates (Mr Tan Jee Say of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party and an independent, Mr Tan Kin Lian) secured 29.95% between them.

Under the Singapore constitution, the president has no day-to-day role in government or politics (which made campaigning and candidates' debates problematic and a little tedious), but he has many safeguard powers, including the capacity to veto cabinet and civil service appointments and government expenditure.

Lee Kuan Yew called the presidency 'the second key' that protects Singapore from a freak opposition victory in a General Election. Since a presidential term is longer than a parliamentary term, Dr Tan's narrow victory gives the PAP a clear unobstructed run throughout its current term in office and at least 18 months into the next parliament.

This assures it the space it needs to win back the ground it lost to the opposition in the recent parliamentary elections, when its vote and representation in parliament slipped to a historical low. For this service Dr Tan will be paid S$4.2 million (US$3.5 million) per year for the next six years.

At one level, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong must be dismayed that nearly two-thirds of Singaporeans voted against the de facto government candidate. But he is no doubt consoled by the fact that the runner up is so closely associated with the PAP that his vote is not indicative of outright rejection of the government. In fact, if the vote for the two Dr Tans is taken together as being supportive of the government — which is a reasonable assumption — then the broadly pro-government vote was 70%, up by 10% from the general elections just a few months ago.

The rule-of-thumb in contemporary Singaporean politics is that the opposition enters any election with an electoral base of 30%, so it seems the opposition made no inroads in this election beyond this bedrock. Dr Tan Cheng Bock's record as a dissident within the PAP camp was sufficient for him to syphon everything from the opposition except its core base of support.

The lesson is clear: the voters want an improved, softer and more responsive PAP, but they still want the PAP or something very much like it.

Yet for all these reservations about the limits of the comfort the opposition can draw from this election, this was still an unprecedented battle and should be recognised as such.

The first and major point to recognise is that there was a genuine election. Since the presidency was turned into an elected office in 1993 there have been seven nominal elections, but usually the government candidate is elected unopposed because the eligibility requirements exclude anyone who has not been a senior member of the political establishment at some point. On this occasion the ballot paper had four names (and photos too since all candidates had the same surname), one of whom was actually an active member of an opposition party.

The second point to emerge is a reinforcement of the lessons of the recent general election: the new vulnerability of government candidates to scrutiny, thanks partly to the internet. There can be no doubt that Dr Tan's vote was harmed by an internet campaign accusing him of using his former position as Minister for Defence to give his sons comfortable office jobs during their compulsory national service in the army.

The accusations were made via the internet, and Dr Tan's response was via the mainstream media, but it was a weak response: a general denial of favouritism and an assurance that no rules had been broken. It was not long ago that such accusations would not have been allowed to surface, but on this occasion it was almost enough to derail a campaign. The ongoing concern for the government is that lots of ministers have placed themselves in situations where they are vulnerable to this new style of politics.

Both the PAP and the opposition will now be pouring over these election results, booth-by-booth, to read the tea leaves for the next election, but with the advantage of incumbency, the ruling party will be in the best position to take advantage of the lessons.

Photo by Flickr user YL Tan.