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.

85 COMMENTS

    • No need “London Bridge” , just a mere drop to 55% or more 4Gs losing seats may trigger unsteadiness and what if PM gets voted out too. What if all the 2Gs and 3Gs get landslide victory – PAP still can rule with a better experienced & matured team without generals. Nobody can predict nor analyse the future GE.

  1. The SILENT MAJORITY will seal the fate of the PAP! But, will it be the good fate or the bad? Good fate in that the silent majority will vote overwhelmingly for the Opposition and thus ensure that more than one third of the elected MPs in GE 2020 come from the Opposition parties. Bad fate is when the PAP has the virtual dominance of Parliament like what it is today.

  2. Actually after the win by the oppositions in Malaysia it shows the strength, unity, positively focusing on their issues, and moving forward for the betterment of their country unlike the opposition parties in Singapore which are disunited, negative and nothing good, and not a single opposition leader in Singapore can articulate well. Well done Malaysian oppositions. Sad that Singapore oppositions are so pathetic.

  3. The article posits an interesting question. Will the black swan event in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) victory in Malaysia and saw 92 years old Mahathir returns to power happen as well in Singapore?

    A black swan evens is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.

    For 2 black swan events to happen consecutively the probability are not high as Singapore and Malaysia share similar culture but one is traditionally run as a meritocracy while the other is more of a more Malay supremacy type of politics. Even the win by Mahathir and the PH is due to a swing in the Malay vote as the Malay constitute 60% of the voting public as Mahathir was able to cause a big defection of traditional UMNO bigwigs to support him in the opposition.

    For a black swan event to happen in Singapore – there must have been a big dissatisfaction with the current PAP government maybe cause by rising cost of living, poor housing, poor education or high unemployment. In the last election in 2015 the PAP won almost 70% of the vote. For a black swan event to happen there must be a swing of at least 20% of the voters to the opposition. There is no one person in Singapore that can cause such a shift in voting pattern unless you can resurrect LKY back to life and turn him against the party he created.

    More importantly when Singapore have next election at the end 2020 – the new PH govt would have governed Malaysia for 1.5 years already – it would be a good time for the Singaporeans to assess if the new government has delivered on its promise of making the life of Malaysian people better. Remember the Malaysian government is running a big deficit and the new PH government has promised to abolish the 6% GST, abolish all TOLLs on national highway, reintroduce fuel subsidy for the poor, raise minimum wage, etc. It is a tall order to fill as money don’t grow on trees.

    I remembered in the 1970s in Singapore when an opposition politician promised to give free rice to the voters if they voted for him – my parents laughed at them. Even though my parents were simple uneducated people they know that there is no free lunch.

    Singapore and Malaysia are closely intertwined not just historically, culturally and economically. However, we are like 2 cousins living in 2 separate households across the causeways. Both are related , however the parents, political systems and institutions that they grew up under are very different and thus the different route they take in life.

    https://www.dough.com/blog/black-swan-events

  4. The Authorities (PAP)’s propaganda that Singapore will need a population of 6 to 10 million to survive. Hence, will pump into Singapore more and more immigrants (esp.from SEA & India) leading to more New citizens (NC). Surely these NC & their offsprings

  5. The lesson to learn is, first all the medias in Malaysia were same like here. Controlled tightly and to write their story. So they were cooking nice stories depicting opposition is not popular and people are dying for the ruling junta. Same like here. Truth is people were realising that they were taken for a ride. Especially Malays in Malaysia realised that BN was making lip service. I don’t know whether Singapore Chinese have woken up. Many who use their race advantage under this system and enjoying good life won’t vote against the ruling junta. There are realisation that some thing is wrong but not enough to change. If they can buy the story that the best candidate fit for the day cannot be accepted because of his race, need to say more?

  6. Only if opposition parties can unite together and choose their alliance party leader to lead the opposition parties as one then they got a chance to win in the election. If every party want to have their own party leader to lead in the alliance sure difficult to win the election.

  7. I m 76 years and my outpatient charges covered by medisave so far. Recently my surgeon suggest I go for pet scan cos hospital ct scan uncovered no adverse sign. The pet scan cost $3180 and I try medifund only to be told I need to gether all my family members bank to determine my eligibility. WTF is my medisave balance is for if it can’t cover my pet scanning cost recommended by the surgeon.

    • Actually most Singaporeans I believe still wants PAP in power. Just not unchecked like now. All the opposition needs to do on nomination day is to let PAP have 51% to form the gov. Then come election day tell people this 49 % is not make sure they don’t pass any stupid bills.

      Also the strategy for the 49 is to include GRCs like how big a space you need to make babies. I feel rich looking at my CPF, kee chui. And the sob Malaysian stories.

      Leave the 51% for those good ministers.

  8. All the so called “political analyst” together with their Phd and Master in whatever, fail to look at the reality on ground.

    Worse they ignore the warning and signs from reality due to ego and a rush to comfort Najib with their BN sure win analysis

  9. Opposition party in Singapore could only have a chance if ‘GRC’ is scrapped. Why you cannot have a Single Seat constituency contest if the MP can prove they have multi-racial talent to support for the resident. Isn’t it the Single seat constituency serve the resident well with the ground multi-racial volunteer support? ‘GRC’ is basically for new comer join the old guards into the Parliament. Have a 1 vs 1 contest. WP should ask voters to support the scrap of GRC, will then we will see each individual stands for election being elected into the Parliament and not GRC which is used as a tool for ‘SELECTED’ new MP riding on old guards into Parliament.

  10. Malaysia has gained tremendous positive attention and reputation with all that are going on thus far, and that has certainly disadvantaged SG, or rather the SG government. If the government chooses to still be arrogant, stubborn and turn away from people’s opinions, then this May 9 2018 Malaysia episode will happen to SG. It already does not matter if the opposition has any capable beings but Singaporeans want to regain their country. Singaporeans have lost our country to the cabinet governing. The PAP has long forgotten that this country belongs to all Singaporeans, its people.

  11. The self-destruction mode long but activated the day they installed Singapore Inc. with many a meltdown has began since. Now the very danger of converging into an avalanche seemingly unstoppable, the end is near. ‘Malaysia Boleh’ without BN, surely ‘Singapore Can Lah’ too, without PAP.