By: Lily Zubaidah Rahim
Singapore has been governed by the People’s Action Party (PAP) since 1959. The results of Singapore’s July 2020 General Election sent an ominous signal to the ruling PAP. Despite the advantages of incumbency and the Covid-19 crisis, the PAP’s vote share dropped by 8.6 per cent relative to the 2015 election.
Singapore’s authoritarian political landscape may well be shifting away from one-party dominance, in line with neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia and the North-east Asian democracies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
The PAP’s electoral dominance has been facilitated by propaganda, coercive laws, and constitutional and electoral engineering. Such engineering includes the introduction of multi-member constituencies (referred to as Group Representative Constituencies or GRCs), Non-Constituency and Nominated Members of Parliament, ethnic residency quotas, and the class-biased, race-based Elected Presidency. Restrictions on social media were facilitated by the passage of a controversial “fake news” law in 2019.
Historically, intra-elite divisions have been shown to often foreshadow the unravelling of authoritarian regimes. Former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock ran and narrowly lost to the PAP’s preferred candidate in the 2011 Presidential Election. Blocked from running for the presidency in 2017, Dr Tan formed the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), boldly claiming that the PSP upheld the ideals of the “original” PAP and that the current PAP had lost its way.
Like other opposition parties, the PSP is committed to reforming policies that have given rise to some of the highest rates of income inequality in the world. The PSP’s stature has been enhanced by a patrician recruit in Mr Lee Hsien Yang, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s younger brother and son of the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee Hsien Yang did not run as a PSP candidate, asserting that “Singapore does not need another Lee”.
Within the PAP leadership, policy differences and political orientations continue to fester. Just days after the election, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam reminded his more hard-line colleagues of some hard truths. There was “a desire among Singaporeans”, he said, for “a more tolerant democracy with greater space for divergent views”.
In a party dominated by social and economic conservatives, Mr Tharman remains one of the handful of PAP reformists with democratic inclinations. Mr Tharman, an ethnic Indian and the most popular PAP politician according to opinion polls, has consistently outperformed Prime Minister Lee and other PAP leaders in the multi-member GRC tickets he headlined in the 2015 and 2020 elections.
The sidelining of Mr Tharman, an LSE-trained economist and a former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, reflects the racialist orientation of the PAP leadership. When pundits speculated about the possibility of Mr Tharman succeeding Prime Minister Lee, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat exemplified this attitude by claiming, without clear evidence, that the numerically dominant Chinese community are not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister.
Elite splits have been central in weakening authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the region. In less affluent Indonesia, intra-elite divisions triggered by economic crisis contributed to the ouster of the authoritarian New Order regime in 1998. Two decades later, Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional government was booted out of power following intra-elite divisions spawned by the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB corruption scandal — only to slither back into power as part of the Perikatan Nasional coalition following the sudden collapse of the reformist Pakatan Harapan government in early 2020.
Political permutations in Indonesia and Malaysia demonstrate that democratisation can be a fluid, messy and meandering process that is susceptible to backsliding. But as the developmental state democracies in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan show, robust state institutions and vibrant civil societies can serve as stabilising anchors for the democratic deepening required to build sophisticated knowledge economies.
Singapore’s voters have placed considerable pressure on the PAP to democratise. Decades of strong state democratisation in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan highlight the viability of this trajectory in the next, and arguably more complex, phase of Singapore’s nation-building. The PAP can continue to double down on its elitist and authoritarian governance or embark on a genuine process of political and socio-economic reform — in step with the developmental state democracies of North-east Asia.
Lily Zubaidah Rahim is an Honorary Fellow at the Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. She is the co-editor of The Limits of Authoritarian Governance in Singapore’s Developmental State (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). This article was first published by the East Asia Forum. Read the article in full here.