Singapore calls snap semicentennial elections


Fresh off the feel-good celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence from Malaysia, the rulinSingapore Flag Icong People’s Action Party (PAP) is moving up elections by more than a year to September 11 — just 17 days from now.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise, and a sometimes-divided political opposition has spent the summer mobilizing to prepare for the vote.

Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong is the son of Singapore’s longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew, who died at age 91 in March and is widely credited with Singapore’s transformation from a colonial-era trade hub (even 50 years ago, it wasn’t quite a sleepy backwater) into a major international financial center. Breakneck GDP growth in the last half of the 20th century, however, is slowing today, and critics argue that Lee Kuan Yew ran an authoritarian city-state with little freedom for speech, organization the press, political opposition or even, in many cases, individual expression.

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RELATED: Is Lee Kuan Yew’s role in Singapore’s rise overrated?

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As China’s economy sputters under the weight of a stock market crash, Singapore’s economy is already feeling the effects. Its GDP fell by an annualized 4% in the second quarter of 2015, and its annual GDP growth rate is now estimated to be between 2% and 2.5%, some of the weakest growth in the country’s post-independence history.

In the most recent election in May 2011, the PAP won just 60.14% of the vote, with the second-placed Workers’ Party of Singapore (WP) winning a mere 12.82%. Still, it was the worst showing for the PAP since it took power in 1959 — six years before independence, when Lee Kuan Yew enthusiastically embraced a role for Singapore within the Malaysian Federation.

In the fragile years after independence, first-generation Singaporeans were more willing to embrace the tradeoffs between freedom and economic growth. And Lee certainly delivered. On a nominal basis, Singapore has one of the world’s highest levels of GDP per capita — and, after Qatar and Australia, the third-highest in Asia. At over $56,000, it exceeds New Zealand, Hong Kong and even the United Arab Emirates. The political marketplace is far less mature. For example, though the country has first-world living standards, Freedom House ranks it as merely partly free, and Singapore ranked just 150th in Reporter Without Borders’s World Press Freedom Index last year — just lower than Burundi, Ethiopia, Russia, Afghanistan, Angola and Tajikistan. 

Notwithstanding the government’s efforts to address growing economic hardship, especially for the elderly, the September election is also likely to mark a new low point for the PAP, though changes to the electoral boundaries in Singapore’s complex matrix of single-member and multi-member ‘group’ constituencies could protect the PAP’s near lock on Singapore’s parliament — it currently holds 79 out of 89 seats.

Under Singapore’s electoral law, nine seats in the parliament are reserved for members of the opposition, and accordingly up to nine ‘non-constituency’ MPs can be appointed following elections. In 2011, because the Workers’ Party won six seats, only three additional NCMPs were appointed (two to the Workers’ Party and one to the Singapore People’s Party, resulting in nine net opposition seats in the parliament).

Singapore’s parliament currently also includes nine additional ‘nominated’ MPs, independent figures who are supposed to be politically unaffiliated and are appointed by the president.

If China’s economy is indeed headed for a sharp contraction (or even a recession), Singapore’s economy will almost certainly suffer, too. By bringing the election forward from January 2017, Lee Hsien Loong and the PAP believe they renew their mandate now, before voters feel the worst effects of a potential economic downturn. But it’s also an opportunity to take advantage of five months of genuflection about Singapore’s role in 21st century China that began with Lee Kuan Yew’s death in March and culminated with the National Day festivities on August 9. Moreover, Lee Hsien Loong has increasingly used the 50th anniversary as a monument to the accomplishments of more than a half-century of PAP rule– and he’s framing the current election as a kind of ‘supervote’ that will set Singapore’s course not only for the next parliamentary term but for decades to come, by elevating a new generation of technocrats in government:

“The election will be critical. You will be deciding who is governing Singapore who is governing Singapore for the next five years – but much more than that, you will be choosing the team who will be working with you for the next 15 to 20 years. You will be setting the direction for Singapore for the next 50 years. You will be determining the future for Singapore.”

Lee Hsien Loong took over the premiership in 2004, and though he has expressed some support for liberalization, at least in theory, Singapore isn’t exactly the most easygoing of regimes, despite one of the most competent and corruption-free civil services in the world.

In the 2011 elections, the Workers’ Party won its first group constituency — the five-MP Aljunied district. Low Thia Khiang, the party’s leader since 2001, has served as an opposition MP in Singapore’s parliament since 1991. In a by-election in January 2013, the Workers’ Party gained a seat from the PAP in the Punggol East constituency after former speaker Michael Palmer resigned from office after engaging in an extramarital affair.

Singapore’s opposition isn’t limited to just the  Workers’ Party, though, and a patchwork of anti-PAP parties have emerged in recent years. Though it won no seats, the National Solidarity Party won 12.04% of the vote in 2011, just shy of the 12.82% that the Workers’ Party won.

The Singapore Democratic Party won 4.83% in the last election, and the newly formed Reform Party won 4.28%. Perhaps the most high-profile opposition figure in Singapore today is Roy Ngerng, a writer who’s been critical of PAP governance, on matters ranging from political participation to LGBT rights. Singapore’s courts found Ngerng guilty of defamation of the prime minister, and Singapore’s leaders have made aggressive use of the country’s libel laws to chill press and opposition criticism of its government.

Ngerng and other opposition voices have criticized Singapore’s retirement benefits system, whereby citizens essentially contribute forced savings to a central retirement fund whose proceeds are invested globally through Singapore’s national sovereign funds. Ngerng and other opposition figures have argued that everyday Singaporeans should receive higher returns on their savings, that Singapore’s government should be more transparent and that its investment arm should even be traded publicly (For more information, here’s Tyler Cowen on the economics of Singapore’s savings and investment, and here’s Chris Balding with a more granular criticism of Singapore’s system).

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