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Singapore 2011-2015: A Tale of Two Elections

The electoral authoritarian regime of Singapore has experienced two very different general elections in 2011 and 2015. The first was a watershed election that allowed the opposition to capture the largest number of seats ever, including a group representative constituency, which was once believed to be impossible. It had also fielded the most candidates ever, running in all but one constituencies. The latter, however, was a major setback for the opposition which had to suffer a significant reduction in the share of popular vote. As the ruling party won in a landslide, the opposition Workers’ Party even lost one seat that it had gained in a by-election in 2013. Opposition supporters, who had hoped to make additional gains, were devastated. Observers even saw in the election result a clear victory for the soft-authoritarian regime. This paper, however, argues that Singapore, in spite of the 2015 election, continues to be on the path to a fundamental political transformation. The majority of Singaporeans still wants a responsive government with sufficient checks on arbitrary power. The ruling party now has to be much more responsive to popular desires and quirks than in the past and can no longer act according to what it claims to be the long-term interests of the country. In addition, it is important to recognize that the 2015 election was conducted under extremely favorable conditions for the ruling party including Singapore’s 50 year celebrations and the death of the «founding father» Lee Kuan Yew. Overall, this demonstrates that the ruling party’s hegemonic position is in decline while it remains to be seen how the ruling party will fare in the upcoming leadership transition amid growing challenges and the lack of a clear successor.

  1. Introduction

In 2011 and 2015, Singapore experienced two general elections which can be seen as polar opposites of each other. The 2011 election signified political change as the opposition could make its largest gains in post-independence history. For the first time, the election had truly been competitive even though the chances of an opposition victory had remained slim. The fact that the opposition Workers’ Party was able to capture six seats, including a group representative constituency, was seen as a watershed event in the political development of Singapore.[1] This has raised hope that Singapore could be on the verge of democratization because competitive authoritarian regimes have shown to be more likely to democratize than other more closed authoritarian regimes.[2] In contrast, the 2015 election saw a massive swing in favour of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which was described as a landslide victory.[3] Although the Workers’ Party managed to retain all but one of its seats (it lost one it had gained during a by-election), the election was regarded as a major setback for the opposition and came as a great shock to many supporters. The strong support for the PAP seemed to indicate resurgent support for the authoritarian government among the Singaporean public.[4]

This paper, however, argues that despite the electoral setback, Singapore’s political system continues to be on the path of fundamental political transformation. Although the process of political change is slow, the ruling party has significantly altered its principal modus operandi. In order to gain support, the PAP has shifted toward less technocratic and more populist politics to counter its declining support and rising demands for pluralism. Moreover, Singaporeans still want more pluralism and an effective opposition in parliament. Finally, the large vote swing in the 2015 election can also be seen as a result of the strategic timing of the election by the ruling party. In fact 2015 was both the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence and the year of the passing away of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, often referred to as the «founding father» and credited with the country’s rapid economic development.

The remainder of this article is focused on the study of Singapore’s political evolution as highlighted by the 2011 and 2015 elections. But, as a further preface to it, it is important to stress that the Singapore’s political evolution between 2011 and 2015  occurred against an economic background which was characterized both by sustained growth and increasing social disparities. Indeed, by 2015 Singapore had become one of the most advanced economies in the world with a GDP per capita that, according to the World Bank, is higher than the United States of America.[5] Even in recent years, the city-state has still been able to record modest growth with 6.2% in 2011 and 2.9% in 2014.[6] While the unemployment rate has remained low at around 2%, Singapore continues to have a very high degree of inequality with a Gini coefficient of 0.412 after taxes and transfers, which is much worse than most developed countries although, according to government data, it has declined slightly in recent years.[7] Moreover, the city-state has also become one of the most expensive places in the world lo live in.[8] As shown below, this has led to changes in politics. However, the democratic development has been lacking as the country continued to be ruled by an elitist party in the form of an electoral authoritarian regime and the political opposition has remained deeply divided. While there has been a slow liberalization process since the 1990s, the government has maintained strict limits on the development of civil society, the ability to protest, and the use of free speech.

  1. Singapore’s electoral authoritarian regime

Even though the Southeast Asian city-state holds regular elections with universal suffrage, it is difficult to characterize it as a democracy. Elections are not unique to democracies as they nowadays exist in most countries around the world, even in those which would be classified as closed authoritarian such as North Korea. However, there are undemocratic regimes in which elections are more than a façade. Unlike in Communist regimes, different independent political parties are allowed to contest although they face severe obstacles to gain power, such as strict limits on the ability to operate and campaign effectively. They face restrictions on the freedom of speech and assembly, while even vote buying is widely employed against them. This hybrid regime form between closed authoritarianism and liberal democracy has been called «electoral authoritarian regime».[9]

This is the case in Singapore, where the electoral system is excessively biased in favour of the incumbent ruling party, which can significantly influence the outcome. Not only, is there plurality voting[10] and gerry-mandering, altering the constituency lines in such a way to favour of the party in power, but since 1988, there has been the introduction of group representation constituencies (GRCs). This means that, particularly in the larger constituencies, the competition is not among single candidates, but among groups of candidates, four to six, with at least one member belonging to a minority ethnic group. This change was introduced in a period, the 1980s, when the opposition was gaining seats, and represents a significant barrier for the development of a stronger opposition, which needs to find more highly qualified candidates.[11] Even more problematic is the lack of a division between local and central government, which not only deprives opposition members from gaining experience on the ground but also means that electoral outcomes can be directly linked to local services including whether residential areas will be renovated. The ruling party even admitted that linking the upgrading of public housing to votes helped it gain support in the 1997 general election.[12] Even today, the management of estates is of great concern during election periods as the ruling party seeks to tie its vote to local issues rather than national concerns. While the vote is held secretly, there are serial numbers on ballots, purportedly to avoid voter fraud, which have raised some concerns among opposition parties and potentially creates fear among voters that their votes could be traced.[13] Political activities are also marked by a climate of fear that runs deep even among opposition party members who still worry about the existence of «moles».[14] The prevalence of surveillance cameras in Singapore and the ability to quickly apprehend politically motivated vandals has strengthened this perception further.[15] Finally, restrictions on the campaign itself also make it difficult for opposition parties to effectively compete. The official campaign period has a minimum of only nine days (which is currently the standard) including the so-called «cooling-off» day on the last day, a feature which was introduced for the 2011 election.[16] Party propaganda and election commercials are not allowed to be made and distributed online.[17] As the mainstream media are biased in favour of the ruling party, opposition parties struggle to get their voice heard.

The ruling party has also constantly adapted the parliamentary system to weaken any potential challenge from the opposition. Currently, there are 92 members of parliament, 89 of them are elected while the remaining three are Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP). In 1984, following opposition successes, the government decided to create a provision that allows it to appoint up to nine losing opposition party members. This move responded to the growing demands for alternative voices in parliament while, at the same time, by ensuring that the opposition would be represented anyway, sought to discourage people from voting for it. In other words, the ruling party tried to reserve for itself the selection of a fair share of the opposition representatives.

Currently, there are two NCMPs in office. Aside from the undemocratic aspect of nomination, NCMPs also do not have the same rights as other members of parliament. For instance, they cannot vote on motions of no confidence or constitutional changes. In addition, since 1990 the government has also regularly appointed Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP) from various social groups for two and a half year terms, which have similar rights as NCMPs. They are supposed to introduce independent voices into parliamentary debates. Finally, in 1991 the President became directly elected. This was not done to enhance the democratic nature of the regime. In fact, running for office came with very stringent requirements including membership in the top élite.[18] Although the President’s role has remained largely ceremonial, according to Lee Kuan Yew the President’s power to block withdrawals from the national reserves is supposed to avoid the possibility that a future opposition government could potentially misuse the funds.[19]

The Singapore government has been able to effectively dominate the national discourse in all public arenas except the Internet. This begins as early as in kindergarten, many of which are operated by the ruling party. The school curriculum stresses and at times even exaggerates the achievements of Lee Kuan Yew, one of the founders of the PAP and the first prime minister of independent Singapore. Although Singapore was one of the most developed Asian cities in 1959, Lee Kuan Yew has sought to create the impression that he and his party have achieved a miracle as Singapore supposedly transformed from third world to first.[20] High economic growth rates, investments in public housing and other achievements have significantly transformed the tiny island nation.

The Singapore government also holds sway of all traditional media, which are owned by government-linked corporations and are thus pro-government. Critics and overseas media have been silenced with lawsuits alleging slander or sedition. Most recently, a defamation lawsuit on behalf of the prime minister was brought against Roy Ngerng for online criticism of the Central Providence Fund, which he had compared with an illegal misappropriation scheme of a local church.[21] It is thus not surprising that Singapore ranks 153rd in the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders in 2015. This is worse than Myanmar, Russia, and Zimbabwe and only slightly better than Libya, Iraq and Egypt.[22] In recent years online media have challenged the government’s control over the public discourse. This has been met with a strong reaction by the government. In order to also contain the challenge from online media, new registration rules have been introduced, making it more difficult for these sites to operate.[23]

Finally, it is important to recognize the relevance of Singapore’s strategically important geographical position as a crucial factor for the long-term survival of its electoral authoritarian regime. Indeed the support from Western powers, despite frequent criticism about Singapore’s human rights record, has never been lacking.[24] This support has its roots in the Cold War in which the PAP was staunchly anti-Communist and thus provided the US with its most important ally in Southeast Asia.[25] This has not changed with the rise of China as Singapore has become the most important strategic base for the American «Pivot to Asia».  In early 2015, it was announced that the city-state would increase the number of US combat ships based in Singapore to four by 2018.[26] However, while Singapore needs the US to maintain the balance of power in the region and to guarantee freedom of navigation, it also seeks to build good economic relations with China and thus maintains its official neutrality. For this reason, the government frequently engages in high level diplomacy and «punches above its weight.»[27] For example, in 2015 Singaporean officials arranged a high level meeting between the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents in the hope of improving relations between the two rivals.[28]

While the ruling party remained firmly in control, it needed to find new mechanisms to incorporate rising demands from the public. On the one hand, the government has sought to strengthen its links to the population. Through the People’s Association and its associated grassroots organizations, the ruling party sought to penetrate all aspects of life. However, the lack of freedom for activists often led to a lack of enthusiasm in these organizations, which was reflected in the repeated calls for a more active citizenry. In the 1990s, the government sought to give Singaporeans more space through the promotion of a «civic society», a depoliticized third sphere that would allow activists to promote issues such as women’s rights, human rights, or the protection of the environment without challenging the power of the regime. This sphere was clearly marked as separate from political society, which would be the sole domain of political parties. External influences within this sector would not be allowed. While this constituted only a very careful initial step, it has to be seen as the basis for the increasingly assertive civil society today.[29]

The idea of allowing a controlled liberalization in which the ruling party would stay in firm control but people would be allowed to voice their concerns was also behind the creation of a Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park in 2000. The cosy little park, away from the main business and government areas, would give people the right to speak out on many issues, even if some restrictions remained, such as a ban on discussing race, languages and religion and the participation of foreigners.[30] Over the years, a number of restrictions were relaxed; accordingly in 2004 performances were allowed and in 2008 demonstrations were permitted without the need for a police permit. While Singaporeans showed little interest in the park in its first years, this changed significantly following the relaxation of the rules and the increasing ability on the part of the public to use the internet to mobilize supporters and post videos about protests online. Nowadays, protests are being organized much more frequently than in the past with a few thousand people having joined the most popular ones. The most popular event has been the annual gay rights event Pink Dot, which in 2015 attracted 28,000 people.[31] Protests dealing with other issues such as the massive population increase and the lack of transparency in the case of the Central Provident Fund have attracted thousands of people.[32] The government responded to this issue-oriented protest by making some concessions such as promising to reduce the number of immigrants. The largest political gatherings are opposition election rallies which also attract thousands of people.

The need for control has been much greater in regard to the working class, which remains highly depoliticized. The labour movement, unified under the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), is firmly in the hands of the government as its secretary-general, currently Chan Chun Sing, is a member of ruling party. In addition, the government owns a significant part of the economy in the form of numerous large-scale government-linked corporations (GLCs). As a consequence of the economic development model, the level of income inequality has become one of the worst among developed economies. There is no doubt that many people live in poverty, although it is difficult to quantify their number, as the government has refused to set an official poverty line.[33]

  1. The 2011 general election: The rise of competitive politics

Despite Singapore’s extremely biased electoral process and strong limitations on freedom of speech, there has recently been a shift toward a more competitive political system, which, for the first time since independence, has given the opposition, at least in theory, the possibility of winning an election. This has occurred after years of limited progress by the opposition. In 1981, J.B. Jeyeratnam had broken the electoral monopoly of the PAP in a by-election. Since then, at least two opposition members were elected to parliament in every general election. However, the opposition never fully challenged the ruling party as it contested less than half of the seats. This naturally meant that the ruling party had already won the election on nomination day. This changed in 2006, when for the first time the opposition contested more than half of the seats. Then the ruling party’s vote share declined by more than 8% to 66.6%; at the same time the Workers’ Party managed to gain over 13% of the popular vote, even though it did not increase the number of its seats in parliament. Opposition parties at the time only had two elected members.

A more significant shift occurred with the 2011 general election, when all but one of the constituencies were contested by the opposition, thus making an opposition victory possible, at least in theory. The opposition parties strengthened their position by avoiding, in many cases, multi-cornered fights, bound to result in the fragmentation of the opposition vote. Moreover, the quality of their candidates had increased significantly, many of them being were established professionals, entrepreneurs, and even former civil servants. Moreover, most of the candidates were highly educated, with a few of them holding PhD degrees. For instance, the Singapore Democratic Party fielded Dr. Vincent Wijeysingha, Dr. James Gomez, and Dr. Ang Yong Guan, while the Workers’ Party nominated John Yam, who holds a PhD in Philosophy. This showed that a growing number of intellectuals were interested in taking an active part in politics, defending pluralist concerns. Last but not least, younger voters, the voting age in Singapore is 21, played a much more active role than in the past. This not only enhanced the competitiveness of the elections but, as I argued previously, marked the change toward a competitive authoritarian regime.[34]

The election result was impressive. The opposition increased its share of elected seats to six, its highest number of directly elected seats since independence. In particular, the opposition Workers’ Party was able to capture the Aljunied Group Representative Constituency (GRC) with five members, which can be regarded as a «psychological breakthrough for challengers».[35] Moreover, the ruling party suffered a decline in the popular vote from 66.6% to 60.1%. Even though this was still a very high vote share, it was the lowest since 1968, when the Barisan Sosialis, which had called on people to boycott the «undemocratic elections for the Lee Kuan Yew puppets»[36] dropped out of electoral politics.

This development was the result of several factors. One was the emergence of online media, which allowed Singaporeans to learn more about the opposition, its manifestos and campaign activities. The Internet provided a low cost option for cash-strapped opposition parties to reach more voters. Accordingly, Singaporeans were able for the first time ever to see the massive turnout at opposition election rallies from the comfort of their home.

In addition to the relevance of the new media, the electoral results were determined by the growing number of bread-and-butter issues facing Singaporeans, particularly the rapidly rising living costs and changes to the central provident scheme meant as a safeguard for retirement. By 2011, the golden years of rapid economic development were over, as economic growth remained modest. The Swiss living standard that had been promised seemed a distant dream for many middle income Singaporeans.[37] The rise of online media also contributed to the fact that, unlike in previous elections, when attacks on the character of the opposition and local concerns dominated, national issues became the central focus of the election. For example, in 2006 the mainstream media were dominated by a story about opposition candidate James Gomez, who had been accused of being a liar after he had made a mistake during the registration process.[38]

Despite the advances of the opposition, it is important to remember that the PAP was still able to garner massive support thanks not only to the many systemic advantages but also its willingness to adapt to the new realities. Most notably, the party engaged with the internet in new ways. The prime minister answered questions on Facebook to allow for some interaction with the leadership.[39] Moreover, despite initial trepidations, the PAP showed itself willing to engage in a televised debate. Finally, the prime minister responded to public discontent by apologizing for all mistakes during the electoral campaign. This was meant to demonstrate a willingness of the ruling party to listen to the public and make adjustments to its policies. By itself, the new populism revealed a major shift from the elitist approach of the past, when the PAP government publicly touted its ability to decide in the long-term interest of the country even if it meant unpopular measures in the short-term.[40]

Subsequent elections demonstrated that Singapore’s politics had become more competitive than in the past. The 2011 presidential election saw four candidates competing for the office with three candidates having a strong following. The candidate supported by the ruling party, Tony Tan, only narrowly won the election with 35.2% of the popular vote and a very small margin over Tan Cheng Bock, who was supported by moderate voters. Liberals and civil activists, who wanted more fundamental political change, supported Tan Jee Say, who promoted the idea of a conferring real political power to the president – who, presently, is a mere figurehead. Tan Jee Say was able to gain another 25% of the popular vote. The election overall demonstrated the problem of plurality voting, especially since there was no second round between the leading contenders. However, it also showed that there was a high demand to have alternative voices in government.

The most pressing issue in this period was the possible impacts resulting from the massive immigration.[41] The largest immigrant group was made up by low-income foreign workers who filled jobs Singaporeans either did not like or would not do for the wages employers were willing to pay. The lack of labour protection for these exploitable workers was another benefit. However, this brought about a reaction, giving rise to new forms of social activism, and a counter reaction, exemplified by the rejection of this new forms of social activism on the part of many Singaporeans. When 171 Chinese bus drivers went on a strike in late November 2012 over unequal pay and poor living conditions, the government declared the strike illegal, arrested four drivers, who were eventually condemned to serve six to seven week jail and deported 34 drivers.[42] Many Singaporeans supported the government decision.[43] The poor conditions of foreign workers also contributed to another major event. On 8 December 2013, triggered by the accidental death of a foreign worker who had been run over by a bus, 400 demonstrators, mainly Indian nationals, became involved in a violent riot in the famous Little India district, which caused massive damage to emergency vehicles. 18 people including 10 police officials were injured.[44] Official accounts have blamed the riot on «misperceptions about the accident and response, certain cultural and psychological elements present in the crowd, and the consumption of alcohol by some members of the crowd».[45] Not included, were social problems caused by the exploitation of foreign labour such as long working hours, little entertainment, and crammed living conditions. This blatant omission clearly revealed the limitations of authoritarianism in Singapore. Not only are the Singapore’s media unwilling to challenge the government’s version of the event, but also the commission was hamstrung in finding the actual cause of the riot not only because government officials such as Lui Tuck Yew had already blamed the violence on alcohol abuse,[46] but also as a consequence of the fact that the workers, because of the precarious nature of their employment contracts, subjecting them to immediate repatriation, self-censored their opinions.

Concerns about immigration, rising prices and the frequent problems of the public transport network played an important role in the victory of the Workers’ Party in the Punggol East by-election on 26 January 2013, one of two by-elections in which the opposition party was able to win.[47] Strong demand for alternative voices in parliament convinced a significant number of people to switch their vote from PAP to Workers’ Party.[48] The electoral volatility in these by-elections amply revealed that voters were willing to vote for credible opposition candidates. This stood in great contrast to by-elections in the 1970s, which the ruling party used for political renewal. Clearly, in 2011 the hegemonic position of the PAP was in decline, but, the general election of 2015 was to show, the party still maintained a significant popular support.

  1. The 2015 general election: A major setback or an aberration?

While there was hope for the opposition to make limited progress in the 2015 general election held on 11 September, the loss of almost 10 percentage points led to a massive disillusionment among many supporters. Speaking to television reporters immediately after the results were announced, the head of the Reform Party, Philip Jeyaretnam, said: «I guess Singaporeans get the government they deserve, so I don’t want to hear any more complaints.»[49] This frustration resonated with many supporters of the opposition, who used the response as a meme on social media. So what had happened? Why did Singaporeans seemingly withdraw their support from the opposition? Above all, did this election mean that Singaporeans had «overwhelmingly endorsed a form of technocratic authoritarianism and turned their back on any prospect on the development of a two-party democracy» as Michael D. Barr suggested?[50]

Clearly, the election demonstrated that the ruling party was still capable to generate massive support for itself. The ruling party won the election with 69.9%, which constituted the largest vote share in a long period of time. The opposition parties, on the other hand, were reduced to their 30% electoral base. The PAP even recaptured a seat it had lost during the Punggol East by-election in 2012. Moreover, while the Workers’ Party was able to hold on to the six seats it had won in the 2011 election, its overall vote margin in both Hougang and Aljunied was significantly reduced. Overall, the election was undoubtedly an electoral landslide for the ruling party.

The outcome of the election cannot, however, be explained by reference to a single factor but is function of a number of different factors. It is, moreover, impossible to determine which of the factors actually dominated as it is hard to disaggregate them. First of all, the ruling party continues to rely heavily on the popularity of its traditional policies in the fields of law and order, defence and national security, prevention of corruption, crisis management, and relations between the different «races».[51] Secondly, it needs to be recognized that the PAP has made significant policy changes since the 2011 election, which, while not fundamentally changing the conservative neo-liberal nature of the government, did introduce new social measures that gained the support of many Singaporeans. The ruling party has become more responsive to the public. For instance, it has reacted to demands to limit the influx of foreigners. Also, it has provided more financial assistance to low income citizens. As the pro PAP shift among voters came mostly from wealthier Singaporeans in middle and upper income groups,[52] the hypothesis can be made that the these social groups are expressing their concern at the prospect of greater wealth redistribution, should the opposition gain more influence.

Another important reason for the election outcome is the effective use of timing. Although the election could have waited until January 2017, it was called in a year in which the party could only hope to profit from events that allowed the ruling party to draw attention to its past achievements.[53] The first was Lee Kuan Yew’s death on March 23, which was followed by a week-long period of mourning in which any criticism of his heritage was considered out-of-bounds.[54] Singaporeans stood in line for many hours to pay their last respects to the iconic leader. Television channels constantly broadcast documentaries about his legacy. Any criticism of his actions, for instance the arrest without warrant of political opponents, was considered as disrespectful. These events demonstrated the strength of Lee’s personality, which had provided significant charismatic leadership for the ruling party. When one youngster declared that Lee Kuan Yew was a «horrible person» in a video uploaded to Youtube, at least 20 police reports were lodged against him.[55] He was later arrested and, although charged and convicted for other charges, he served a four week sentence.[56] Similarly, the country’s 50-year anniversary also provided an opportunity to stress past achievements. Despite Lee Kuan Yew’s death, festivities proceeded as planned. These included a massive military parade, which again paid tribute to the late «founding father» of the country. Lee’s speech following Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965, was broadcast on radio. In addition, the celebrations were a boon for marketing as many shops made use of the opportunity to sell SG50 themed products.[57] To one observer, these events «felt like a reminder to the country’s younger, sometimes disgruntled, generation that it should not take Singapore’s remarkable successes for granted.»[58]

Of course, it is important to remember that despite all changes, the ruling party still maintains tight control over most aspects of society. The media, which frame the issues mentioned above, still remain biased in favour of the ruling party. Although many people are concerned with the lack of fairness in the media, traditional media, especially television, remain the primary source of information, the influence of online information being still limited.[59] This happens even because the government is actively engaged in trying to reduce the impact of social media by making use of various means, including tighter registration requirements and lawsuits against individual content providers. In contrast to the situation prevailing on the eve of the 2011 election, the ruling party has become the political organization with the highest number of followers on Facebook, overcoming even the most popular opposition party, the Workers’ Party.[60] This showed that the ruling party was effectively using its access to resources to play an important role online.

The factors mentioned so far suggest that the election outcome was the result of genuine popular support for the PAP’s past achievements and an indicator that people at large believed that the PAP was moving in the right direction. But was it also a sign that the people were content with the technocratic and undemocratic form of governance? There are indicators that, in fact, this was not the case. According to a survey by the Singaporean Institute of Public Policy, a majority of Singaporeans believe that there should be more diversity in parliament.[61] Not only is political pluralism highly valued but Singaporeans attach great importance to the concept of checks-and-balances. Moreover, many voters dismissed the attempts of the ruling party to discredit the opposition with scandals such as the widely publicized administrative problems of the opposition Town Council. Despite this issue, the Workers’ Party was actually able to improve its own credibility.[62] Even Dr. Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, who had been persecuted as well as demonized in the past, made a comeback as many people queued up to get his autograph.[63] Only three years earlier, he had been able to annul his bankruptcy, which allowed him to compete again as a candidate. There was clearly a desire to have an opposition to ensure that the PAP listened to the demands of the public.

  1. Conclusion

In 2011 and 2015, Singapore experienced two very different general elections: the former was a watershed in the way it demonstrated that the Southeast Asian city-state was moving toward a competitive authoritarian regime; the latter, on the contrary, revealed the continuing strength of the ruling party. Whereas elections have remained highly contested, the PAP remains firmly in control. As things presently stand, it is unlikely that the opposition will be able to field a successful challenge, resulting in the transformation of competitive authoritarianism into liberal democracy. This remains the case, even as the Singaporean population increasingly demands more checks on government power.

However, Singapore’s increasingly competitive politics has led to a transformation of the PAP from a technocratic to a more populist party. Whether it can adapt to this change will be the ultimate test for the ruling party. As the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew’s son, is set to retire, a leadership transfer is expected in the near future. As no consensus as hitherto emerged on the name of his successor,[64] an internal leadership struggle could be in the offing. This could further put under pressure the ruling party ability to maintain its hegemonic position.


[1]  e.g. Catherine Lim, A Watershed Election: Singapore’s GE 2011, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2011; Netina Tan, ‘Manipulating electoral laws in Singapore’, Electoral Studies, 32, 4, 12/2013, pp. 632-643.

[2]  Philip G. Roessler & Marc M. Howard, ‘Post-Cold War Political Regimes: When Do Elections Matter?’, in S. I. Lindberg (ed.), Democratization by Elections: A New Mode of Transition, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, pp. 101-127; Jason Brownlee, ‘Portents of Pluralism: How Hybrid Regimes Affect Democratic Transitions’, American Journal of Political Science, 53, 3, 2009, pp. 515-532; Daniela Donno, ‘Elections and Democratization in Authoritarian Regimes’, American Journal of Political Science, 57, 3, 2013, pp. 703-716.

[3]  Kirsten Han, ‘Landslide victory for ruling party in Singapore general election’, dpa international, 13 September 2015.

[4]  Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party called it «a mandate for authoritarianism», cited in Mark Wembridge, ‘Singaporeans vote overwhelmingly to return PAP to power’, The Financial Times, 11 September 2015.

[5] World Bank, ‘GDP per capita (current US$)’ (

[6] Singapore Department of Statistics, ‘Latest Key Indicators’, 2015 (

[7] Mark Wembridge, ‘Singapore ruling party takes flak over wealth gap’, Financial Times, 10 September 2015.

[8] Ann Williams, ‘Singapore still world’s most expensive city, says EIU’, The Straits Times, 3 March 2015.

[9] Andreas Schedler (ed.), Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2006.

[10] The «Plurality voting» system, more commonly known as «First-past-the-post» system, is the single turn system where the winning candidate is the one who conquers the majority of the constituency votes, even if it is only the relative majority. Accordingly, in a constituency in which the popular vote is split among several political parties, as a rule the winner is expression of a minority of the popular vote.

[11] Netina Tan, ‘Manipulating electoral laws in Singapore’.

[12] ‘PAP admits upgrading link swung vote in GE’, The Straits Times, 12 January 1998.

[13] Yeo Lay Hwee, ‘Electoral Politics in Singapore’, in Aurel Croissant (ed.), Electoral Politics in Southeast & East Asia, Singapore: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2002, pp. 203-232 (

[14] Interviews with a political activist, August 2015.

[15] The police charged five 17-year-olds who had sprayed anti-PAP graffiti on the rooftop of a public housing estate just three days after the incident had occurred on 7 May 2014.

[16] Sharon Chen, ‘Quirks of Singapore’s Elections’, BloombergBusiness, 9 September 2015.

[17] Chong Zi Liang, ‘Do not produce political films, MDA reminds parties’, The Straits Times, 18 August 2015.

[18] According to Article 19G of the constitution, a presidential candidate should «for a period of not less than 3 years held office:
(i) as Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Auditor-General, Accountant-General or Permanent Secretary;
(ii) as chairman or chief executive officer of a statutory board to which Article 22A applies;
(iii) as chairman of the board of directors or chief executive officer of a company incorporated or registered under the Companies Act (Cap. 50) with a paid-up capital of at least $100 million or its equivalent in foreign currency; or
(iv) in any other similar or comparable position of seniority and responsibility in any other organisation or department of equivalent size or complexity in the public or private sector which, in the opinion of the Presidential Elections Committee, has given him such experience and ability in administering and managing financial affairs as to enable him to carry out effectively the functions and duties of the office of President.»

[19] Hussin Mutalib, ‘Constitutional-Electoral Reforms and Politics in Singapore’, Legislative Studies Quarterly, 27, 4,  2002, pp. 659-672.

[20] Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000, New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

[21] Tham Yuen-C, ‘PM Lee’s lawyers seek «very high» damages in defamation case against Roy Ngerng’, The Straits Times, 1 July 2015.

[22] Reporters Without Borders, 2015 World Press Freedom Index, 2015. (!).

[23] Dickson Su & Natalie Pang, ‘Beyond the Facebook post: A critical analysis of the online public sphere in Singapore’, International Communication Association Pre-Conference: New Media and Citizenship in Asia, 17-21 June 2014, London.

[24] State Department, Singapore 2014 human rights report, Washington: Government printer, 2015.

[25]  Ralf Emmers, ‘Security and power balancing: Singapore’s response to the US rebalance to Asia’, William T. Tow & Douglas Stuart (eds.), The New US strategy towards Asia, Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2015, pp. 143-154.

[26] Franz-Stefan Gady, ‘4 US littoral combat ships to operate out of Singapore by 2018’, The Diplomat, 19 February 2015.

[27] Robyn Klingler-Vidra, ‘The pragmatic «little red dot»: Singapore’s US hedge against China’, IDEAS reports – special reports, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, 2012.

[28] Jake Maxwell Watts, ‘China-Taiwan Summit a Success for Singapore’, The Wall Street Journal, 7 November 2015.

[29] Stephan Ortmann, ‘Political change and civil society coalitions in Singapore’ Government and Opposition, 5, 1, 2015, pp. 119-139.

[30] Toh Yong Chuan, ‘Rise and rise of Speakers’ Corner’, The Straits Times, 26 July 2014.

[31] Lim Yan Liang, ‘Record 28,000 gather at Hong Lim Park for annual Pink Dot rally’, The Straits Times, 13 June 2015.

[32] Candice Cai, ‘4,000 protest against White Paper’, asiaone, 17 February 2013.

[33] Chun Han Wong, ‘In Singapore, Calls for Poverty Line Amid Rising Inequality’, The Wall Street Journal, 11 November 2013.

[34] Stephan Ortmann, ‘Singapore: Authoritarian but newly competitive’, Journal of Democracy, 22, 4, 2011, pp. 153-164.

[35] Netina Tan, ‘The 2011 general and presidential elections in Singapore’, pp. 362-405.

[36] ‘Barisan starts its «Don’t vote» campaign’, The Straits Times, 15 February 1968, p. 16.

[37] Goh Chok Tong, ‘A Distinctive City, A Harmonious Home’, speech at the Redas 50th anniversary dinner, 5 November 2009 (

[38] James Chin, ‘The General Election in Singapore, May 2006’, Electoral Studies, 26, 3, 2007, pp. 699-724.

[39] ‘PM Lee fields more than 5,000 questions on Facebook’, asiaone, 5 May 2011, (

[40] Eugene K.B. Tan, ‘Singapore: Transitioning to a «New Normal» in a post-Lee Kuan Yew Era’, Southeast Asian Affairs, 2012, pp. 265-282.

[41] Of Singapore’s population of 5.26 million, 2 million are foreigners, which amounts to 38% of the total, Department of Statistics 2015 ( In 2013, about 4,000 people protested against a government White Paper which suggested the need to plan for a population increase to 6.9 million and thus indicated a continuation of the rapid immigration numbers. ‘«4,000 turn up at Speakers» Corner for population White Paper protest’, Yahoo! News, 16 February 2013 (—corner-for-population-white-paper-protest-101051153.html).

[42] Chun Han Wong, ‘Singapore Strike: The Full Story’, The Wall Street Journal, 31 August 2013.

[43] Haroon Siddique, ‘Singapore’s first strike in 25 years shines spotlight on racial tensions’, The Guardian, 28 November 2015.

[44] Neo Chai Chin, ‘Litte India riot: 18 injured, 27 arrested’, Today, 8 December 2013.

[45] Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs, Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Little India Riot on 8 September 2013, 27 June 2014.

[46] J.T. Quigley, ‘Singapore’s Little India Riot: Was Alcohol to Blame?’, The Diplomat, 10 December 2013.

[47] Alex Au Waipang, ‘PAP suffers 10.83% swing in Punggol East by-election’, Yawning Bread, 27 January 2013.

[48] Stephan Ortmann, ‘The Significance of By-elections for Political Change in Singapore’s Authoritarian Regime’, Asian Survey, 54, 4, 2014, pp. 725-748.

[49] Cassandra Chia, ‘How did an expected watershed election turn into an unexpected landslide victory?’, The Online Citizen, 14 September 2015.

[50] Michael D. Barr, ‘Singapore’s PAP wins over the youth and secures its future’, East Asia Forum, 15 September 2015.

[51] Chong Zi Liang, ‘GE2015: 7 takeaways from IPS post-election conference that explain PAP’s performance’, The Straits Times, 4 November 2015. The term «race» – although by now devoid of any scientific meaning – appears in the constitution of the Singapore and is used by the Singapore government and by the media to indicate the four ethnic groups in which the population of the city-state is divided: Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other (or Eurasian).

[52] Ibid.

[53] Rachel Chang & Wong Siew Ying, ‘Elections: A question of timing’, The Straits Times, 23 May 2015.

[54] ‘Singapore begins mourning for Lee Kuan Yew’, Aljazeera, 23 March 2015; ‘The intolerance of grief’, Banalysis, 27 March 2015 (

[55] Lucy Clarke-Billings, ‘Teenage blogger who called Lee Kuan Yew a «horrible person» is arrested by Singapore police’, Independent, 30 March 2015; Joyce Lim, ‘Amos Yee, who made insensitive remarks on Christianity in video, arrested’, The Straits Times, 30 March 2015.

[56] He was found guilty for insensitive comments about Christianity and an obscene image.

[57]  The acronym «SG50», namely «Singapore50», indicates the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence.

[58] Tash Aw, ‘A Singapore story: Mourning Lee Kuan Yew’, The New York Times, 30 March 2015.

[59] Chong Zi Liang, ‘GE2015: 7 takeaways from IPS post-election conference that explain PAP’s performance’ (quoted in fn. 51).

[60] As of 7 December 2015, the PAP has 173,427 likes and the Workers’ Party 95,053 likes according to

[61] Tan Ern Ser, ‘Session One: The IPS General Election Surveys’, presentation at Orchard Hotel in Singapore on 4 November 2015 ( /sites/2/2015/10/S2_ES_Explaining-the-GE2015-outcomes-041115_Web.pdf).

[62] Ibid.

[63] Nurul Azliah Aripin, ‘GE2015: 5 most memorable moments from SDP’s first lunchtime rally’, Yahoo! News Singapore, 7 September 2015 (—5-most-memorable-moments-from-sdp-s-first-lunchtime-rally-100725400.html).

[64] Possible candidates include Chan Chun Sing (Minister in the Prime Minister Office), Tan Chuan-Jin (Minister for Social and Family Development), Heng Swee Keat (Minister for Education), and a favourite among many Singaporeans is Tharman Shanmugaratnam (Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance).


Giorgio Borsa

The Founder of Asia Maior

Università di Pavia

The "Cesare Bonacossa" Centre for the Study of Extra-European Peoples