Few observers anticipated a 10% swing to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in Singapore’s general election this month – not even the PAP leadership and its “true believers”. The government received 70% of the vote, an improvement from 60% in the 2011 “breakthrough” election – its worst electoral performance. How did the PAP achieve this?
The PAP’s unbroken 56-year rule in Southeast Asia’s only Chinese-majority state has been underpinned by fear, insecurity and a subtle degree of ethno-nationalism. These features become more apparent when the 2015 and 2001 election results are closely examined.
The 2001 elections were purposefully held just after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The PAP garnered a whopping 75% of the vote.
Stacked in the government’s favour
The 2015 election was held after a nine-day campaign, the legal minimum. The electoral process was far from democratic, with the PAP systematically stacking the institutional odds in its favour. The government’s machinations suggest that, typical of elected authoritarian regimes, it remains hyper-vigilant and insecure.
The vote was held shortly after extravagant National Day celebrations marking 50 years of independence, when nationalist fervour was high. Only months earlier, the nation’s “founder” and former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died, garnering sympathy votes for the PAP.
The Elections Department, an arm of the Prime Minister’s Office, arbitrarily redrew the electoral boundaries. The department abolished “problematic” seats that the PAP nearly lost in 2011, created new ones, merged others and redrew seats.
These changes diminished the electoral clout of key voting groups, particularly the educated middle-class. In the last decade or so, they have tended to be critical of the PAP’s draconian actions against public intellectuals and supportive of opposition parties. Unlike the less well-off, middle-class Singaporeans are not strongly beholden to the government for subsidies and handouts.
A campaign of smear and fear
With the help of compliant media, a “smear and fear” campaign was unleashed against the Workers Party (WP) for supposed financial mismanagement of the Aljunied town council and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) for its left-leaning policies.
Threatened by effective opposition campaigning strategies, the PAP unleashed its well-oiled propaganda machinery, particularly in the last five days of the campaign. The PAP had felt threatened by massive opposition rallies, an impressive line-up of opposition candidates and the WP’s call to send 20 opposition politicians to the 89-seat parliament – an increase from the previous seven. The WP argued that stronger opposition representation was needed to put pressure on the government to institute much-needed reforms.