With Mahathir winning, will the PAP fall?

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By: Vernon Chan/

Tun Dr Mahathir’s resounding defeat of Barisan Nasional, which has been in power since the Federation of Malaya was granted independence in 1957, has raised speculation whether Singapore is in position for a similar spring-cleaning.

PAP detractors online make the argument that if Malaysia can do it, so can Singapore. PAP supporters insist that what happened in Malaysia is a one-off, the factors contributing to the fall of BN do not apply here, and make the (unsurprising) prediction that this regime change will be disastrous, both economically and politically for Malaysia.

From a Bourdieuian perspective, such speculation is pure political posturing, with most of the players attempting to craft a narrative of Malaysian election sympathetic to their respective positions and interests in Singapore politics. Pierre Bourdieu himself might even add that these players, with their instinctive speculation, have far less understanding of Singapore politics than Malaysian politics.

Singapore and Malaysia are more similar than we think?

Vulcans and Romulans: not so different actually

Singapore and Malaysia remain fairly similar after more than 50 years of separation. Geographic neighbours Singapore and Malaysia are not far apart in the World Values Survey (WVS) , which broadly measures population attitudes towards traditional vs secular values and survival vs expression values, and accurately indicate changing trends in political and social values.

Despite the philosophical differences between Malaysia and Singapore (meritocratic vs bumiputera policy), how people behave, what opinions they have, how they relate to authority and political structures in both countries are largely similar. Some have argued that political elites and the middle class of Singapore and Malaya used to attend to the same schools, while the civil servants imbibed the same mindsets of the colonial civil service.

This similarity is reflected in the political news, stories, gossip, and rumours circulating before and on election day itself, after polls closed and counting was underway, and when early results were trickling in. The army and police would impose a coup or emergency measures to void the election entirely in case of a freak election result. The electoral commission has gerrymandered voting districts to a ridiculous extent. Senior members of the institutionalised patronage network were actively participating in voter suppression. The partisan and politically co-opted civil service would either be purged or purge themselves following a resounding Pakatan Harapan victory. Dr Mahathir will recreate the BN alliance in Pakatan once UMNO members defect in droves, and the new ruling coalition will be indistinguishable from the old ruling coalition. These stories are by and large identical to the ones that crawl out of the woodwork each Singapore general election.

Both Singapore and Malaysia are more similar to each other than they are to other countries, so much so that both are considered outliers in the WVS. Singapore scores far more ‘traditional’ for a developed/developing nation. Ironically for the “Chinese Singapore” narrative, Singapore also scores far more traditional and self-expressive than most Confucian nations. Malaysia itself is far more ‘progressive’ and less ‘traditional’ for a Muslim nation. As a result, both countries tend to be excluded in the Inglehart-Welzel cultural map visualisation of the WVS. But if you’re curious, both Singapore and Malaysia tend to be located slightly off centre, usually -0.5 to -1.0 on both axes.

Why doesn’t a BN rout automatically mean a PAP rout?

The arguments by PAP detractors can be reformulated as: If an institutionally entrenched ruling party can be dislodged in Malaysia, the same can happen in Singapore.

The arguments by PAP supporters can be reformulated as: There is nothing in Singapore politics that looks like Malaysia, so the same cannot happen in Singapore.

The domino theory ignores the specific context of Dr Mahathir’s Pakatan victory, while the uniquely Singapore theory forgets to ask if those specific conditions are also present in Singapore. We start our evaluation of both theories by noting the similarity in cultural and political values in Singapore and Malaysia.

Corruption itself not the cause of BN fall

The ruling parties in Singapore and Malaysia are seasoned practitioners of clientelism and possess extensive patronage networks. In Singapore, the patronage system is passed off as a strong state-dominated economy. In Malaysia, the patronage system is passed off as the racially based bumiputera policy. In either case, a group of approved insiders (government linked companies and the usual group of contractors servicing these companies) are institutionally sanctioned and rewarded for their participation in rent-seeking behaviour, ironically in the name of racially redistributive fairness (certain races must benefit) or meritocracy (in order to compete you must already have a minimum paid up capital or track record).

Some might see this as unfair, institutionally corrupt. Ultimately the patronage system in Singapore and Malaysia is accepted and acceptable, and has become part of the political contract — so long as the wealth and opportunity trickles down.

Broken political compact was the cause of BN fall

Malaysians did not vote for a more socialist, left-wing government; Dr Mahathir’s platform was not at all similar to Keadilan’s previous election platform, nor did Parti Sosialis Malaysia or Parti Rakyat Malaysia do well at all in last week’s polls (they were nearly wiped out instead).

Najib’s venality nor the 1MDB scandal did not cause the fall of BN; otherwise, Pakatan would have turned out BN an election cycle ago when the corruption rumours began to look credible and damning. It was the establishment’s reaction to the 1MDB scandal that veered horribly off the accepted patronage system narrative.

Certain businessmen got very rich off brokering deals for their political leaders. That’s the story of Malaya since the British arrived, not just post-independence. But unlike other businessmen, Jho Low and Najib did not, were not seen to redistribute these gains downwards. They were seen to benefit only themselves, their immediate family, and close political supporters.

Rosmah and her many Birkins and diamonds

The civil service was never seen to be sufficiently independent of the political leadership. “Politically co-opted” is a nice way of describing the state of governance both sides of the Causeway. That’s the story of Malaya since the British arrived, not just post-independence. But unlike other co-opted mandarins, key appointees at the MACC, police, and AGO were not seen to preserve a degree of plausible deniability and political disinterestedness. They were seen to be actively bagging it for their masters when they cleared Najib of corruption.

Most damning was the failure of BN and UMNO to secure growth and prosperity for Malaysians across the board over the past 2 election cycles. Unlike previous leaders, Najib and friends were seen to be epically venal and self-interested while being epically incompetent, while rising costs of living have finally reached a tipping point for a workforce experiencing stagnant salaries.

Has PAP broken its political compact with Singaporeans?

These then are the signposts that Singaporean political watchers should look out for instead, given various reactions and volte faces by PAP ministers in the past week.

1. Have rising costs of living and stagnant salaries crossed the people’s pain threshold?

2. Is the “Future of the Singapore economy” seen as a load of reassuring talk, and the leadership is seen as out of credible ideas for growth?

Economic and consumer confidence indicators should be transparent enough to provide the answer in the coming months.

3. Is the PAP leadership seen to be misusing the organs of the state to protect themselves?

Reactions to the Oxley Road scandal might serve as a gauge to public sentiment.

4. Is the PAP seen as departing from values, principles established by its classic brand and accepted as a social compact? Is the PAP seen as trampling on the rules to ensure a victory, rather than just rewriting the rules?

What divided Singapore last year was a racially reserved presidential election. What was most dispiriting wasn’t the inevitability that the PAP’s preferred candidate would win, or that it would resort to rewriting the rules, or that it would manufacture consent by involving the organs of the state and gang-pressing the establishment. Instead, it was how the PAP could never convince the need for a racial quota given its decades of meritocratic policy.

5. Given the corruption scandal at Keppel and Prof Walter Woon’s denunciation of Singapore’s response as insufficient, is the PAP seen as protecting its patronage class from its publicly visible wrongdoings?

Opinion polls in Malaysia did not predict the groundswell of opinion away from BN and UMNO. People hid their disappointment and sense of betrayal well. To most data-centred observers, the result came as a shock. Singaporeans are unlikely to express any real voting intention to pollsters, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t signs and signposts to look out for.