Singapore’s PAP has little to fear from Malaysia’s political transition

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By: Kai Ostwald and Steven Oliver/

Pakatan Harapan’s recent defeat of Malaysia’s long-dominant UMNO-led coalition came as a near universal surprise, not least to the coalitions’ respective leaders Mahathir Mohamad and Najib Razak themselves. While the popularity of UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) had been in a decade-long decline, massive advantages in access to resources and a deeply biased electoral process seemed a sufficient guarantee of continuity.

UMNO’s defeat raises questions about the prospects of a similar transition in neighbouring Singapore, as the two systems bear extensive similarities. In the words of Dan Slater, ‘Malaysia and Singapore have long had authoritarian regimes that looked like no others in the world — except for each other’.

While Singapore’s dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) is free of the major scandals that have plagued UMNO, it has had a series of smaller missteps and is not projecting regime-typical efficiency in its internal leadership transition. UMNO’s unexpected defeat at the hands of an opposition coalition headed by a former UMNO prime minister also appears to have inspired renewed efforts by a number of Singapore’s fragmented and fractious opposition parties to organise a similar coalition.

What does Malaysia’s surprise election mean for Singapore, which must hold an election of its own by early 2021? The answer is relatively little, as despite regime similarities, the PAP relies on substantially different political foundations to build mass support.

The PAP has fostered a political environment in which Singaporean voters focus primarily on valence considerations — in other words, on party trustworthiness, competence and professional qualifications —  rather than on ideology or policy positions. This provides the PAP with several fundamental advantages. Its penetration of Singapore’s high capacity state, for instance, gives it access to a pool of talent for recruitment that is largely unavailable to the opposition. Meanwhile, its position at the helm during Singapore’s half-century of developmental successes allows it to refer to a concrete record that the opposition can counter only with hypotheticals.

Simultaneously, the overwhelming focus on valence politics crowds out discussions of ideological alternatives that are incompatible with the PAP’s platform. The centrality of valence politics, in short, allows the PAP to leverage its comparative advantages over the opposition while limiting its vulnerability to ideational challenges. This presents the opposition with a fundamental dilemma: it is exceedingly difficult to effectively challenge the PAP on valence considerations given the structural advantages held by the dominant party. At the same time, campaigning on ideological or policy-oriented appeals does not resonate with a sufficiently large proportion of the electorate to secure victory at the ballot box.

By contrast, UMNO made ideological and policy issues — primarily in the form of bumiputera (indigenous Malay) privileges — a central part of its platform. This left it vulnerable to parties like the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and Bersatu, which were able to occupy similar policy spaces and disrupt UMNO’s exclusive linkage to relevant voters. The growing irrelevance of UMNO’s peninsular coalition partners undermined efforts to appeal on other policy positions, allowing the former opposition to capture most of the non-bumiputera vote in West Malaysia.

This does not mean that the emphasis on policy stances was absolute. Valence considerations also came into play. The scandals around Najib Razak clearly hurt UMNO’s credibility and pushed many former Barisan Nasional voters away.

But unlike in Singapore, Malaysia’s former opposition also had sufficient credibility to pull voters towards it on valence considerations. This results in part from their considerable governing experience at the state level, as well as the history of significant opposition presence in parliament. The central position of Bersatu — essentially an UMNO-splinter party — in the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition also ensured that a post-transition government would be led by a figure that many Malay voters viewed as trustworthy and competent, as well as likely to maintain some degree of policy continuity.

Predicting elections is an inherently risky endeavour, as Trump, Brexit, and now Malaysia so clearly exemplify. But those political contestations involved relatively thin margins. That is not the case in Singapore, where the PAP maintains a substantial buffer that should remain robust for the foreseeable future. The timeframe for a transformation of political culture sufficient to open space for meaningful competition on positional issues is likely well more than the next election or two, as is the timeframe for building a credible opposition on a scale that could unseat the PAP on valence considerations.

The only clear danger to the PAP’s grasp on power is the erosion of its own credibility. With its fate in its own hands and only its own missteps to fear, it is perhaps not surprising that the PAP has been rather reticent in addressing a range of contentious issues from inequality to housing and social change, as well as in passing the baton to its fourth generation of leaders.

This article was first published on the East Asia Forum.

Kai Ostwald is an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy & Global Affairs and the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is also the director of UBC’s Centre for Southeast Asia Research.

Steven Oliver is an assistant professor of political science at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

This article was based on the authors’ journal article ‘Explaining Elections in Singapore: Dominant Party Resilience and Valence Politics’ published here.