Singapore One Party State? Foreign Minister Loses

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 5/09/2011 09:19:00 PM
When it comes to electoral exercises, Singapore's usually attract next to no global media coverage for obvious reasons. In the past, this has been taken as a "good thing" since continuity and stability have been foundational hallmarks for Singapore's economic miracle. However, a failure to report on the recent elections in the city-state does internationally-minded audiences a major disservice. Indeed, it may be a warning shot to those aspiring to imitate its much-vaunted brand of authoritarian development.

Singapore is, on the whole, better run than any number of Middle East / North African states experiencing turmoil at the moment. However, just-concluded polls seem to betray a general tiredness with Lee Kuan Yew's People's Action Party (PAP) that has been in power practically since Singapore left the Malayan Federation all those years ago. While Singaporean elections are usually a PAP blowout in no small part due to obviously curtailed political freedoms for, shall we say the "other" parties, this result was a rather unexpected one. Think of it as an upset that was made less upsetting by rather severe controls on other parties' abilities to get their message across.

This time round, PAP's saving grace appears to be sticking with a first past the post and a mostly party list-like system. For, had Singapore adopted a proportional representation system, the 40% share of the vote gathered by various opposition parties would have meant so much more than having a total of 6 out of 87 seats won by the Workers Party (one party list of 5 members in Aljunied and a single directly elected representative, Yaw Shin Leong). Still, native Singaporeans--the few of them there are--expressed wariness about expatriates competing for remunerative jobs and driving up living costs (especially of real-estate).

As it turns out, one of the scalps is long-serving Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo. Given the surprising magnitude of losses by Singaporean standards, let's say PAP leadership were unaware that one of their big figures was soon to bite the dust and that they would have to groom another PAP member for that particular post. Given how Singapore routinely punches above its weight in Asian diplomatic circles, this is no small beer for the tiny nation-state to deal with:
"Singapore has been left with no ready replacement for Foreign Minister George Yeo, the biggest casualty of the city state's general election, a leading think tank warned Monday. Yeo, one of Southeast Asia's best-known diplomats, led a five-member People's Action Party (PAP) ticket that was toppled by the opposition Workers' Party in Saturday's poll -- the government's worst result since independence.

One of the most significant outcomes of May 7 has been the defeat of Foreign Minister George Yeo," Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, wrote in the Today newspaper. "Yeo has emerged in the international community as among the best-recognised and respected of this generation of Singaporean leaders. The next cabinet has no ready replacement for him."

While the PAP lost only six of 87 seats as a result of an electoral system in which most seats are contested in groups, its 60 percent share of all votes cast was the lowest ever for a party that has been in power for 52 years. Yeo is a former brigadier general who entered politics in 1988 and held various positions including stints as trade minister and information minister before being appointed foreign minister in 2004.
Yeo in a way foretold his fate as one of the more observant PAP members:
An influential figure in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), he was known as a moderate in a party led by conservatives and graciously accepted his defeat. "A new chapter has opened in Singapore's history, there's a tide which we were not able to overcome," a visibly shaken Yeo told his supporters in a brief speech after his defeat was confirmed in the early hours of Sunday.

On the eve of the vote, Yeo told the pro-government Straits Times newspaper that "there is considerable resentment against the government and its policies, and some of them run deep." He said the PAP, in power since 1959, needed to review its policies regardless of the outcome of the election, or risk further losing touch with the electorate. "We have to listen harder to what people say," he said.
There may be a lesson for even the most progressive of Middle East autocrats (think Jordan or the UAE at least) here. When even one of the most successful examples of authoritarian development suffers popular discontent over heavy-handedness, a lighter touch may be welcome. Try a little tenderness. Note too that these electoral gains have come while gerrymandering to ensure continuing PAP supermajorities has been practised.

If I were the opposition, the new battle cry is clear: "PR" (proportional representation)! Given that PR is usually touted as the solution for breaking through gerrymandering and single-party rule, expect the ruling PAP to be very, very hesitant. Yet, in a city-state as minuscule as Singapore, districting makes very little sense given the scale they have to deal with. Meanwhile, the PAP is likely to give more sops to its people in the form of social services while curtailing migration to appease disaffected voters. It will be interesting to see how Singapore's unbelievably low fertility rate of 1.16 [!] will affect electoral dynamics in the years to come. And do remember that voting is compulsory for Singaporean citizens. It's an odd thing: the PAP has made voting compulsory, but limits the public's ability to entertain alternative opinions and viewpoints.

In the meantime, Singaporean democracy is not an oxymoron.

UPDATE: Lee Kuan Yew has decided to quit his cabinet post in the wake of the elections. For such a seasoned operator, even this limited result in tightly controlled Singapore is flashing some warning signs among the old guard.