Are Singaporeans ready for a two-party system?

Partyforumseasia: The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), a research center of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, discussed this question on January 25th. After the other dominant political party in the neighborhood, Malaysia’s UMNO, was defeated in May 2018 and goes through one crisis after the other since then, many were asking whether the hegemony of Singapore’s PAP would eventually shrink or even end as well. In fact, it did shrink by 8.6 per cent in the last election in 2020 but won with 61.2 per cent a still rather comfortable absolute majority in parliament, compared to the increasingly precarious results for the catch-all parties with long government experience in other parts of the world. Singapore’s British-inherited first-past-the-post electoral system rewarded the PAP with 83 out of the 93 elected members of parliament. The total number is 104, including two “non-constituency” MPs (NCMP) which were given to the best loser, the new Progress Singapore Party (PSP), and nine Nominated MPs, who are supposed to offer non-partisan views from different sectors of the society. The nominated MPs are a relic of the times when the PAP won all seats, when many were not even contested by opposition candidates, so-called “walk overs”, meaning that the PAP candidate had already won before the election. In the June 2020 election, the results suggest that a two-party system is evolving with the Workers’ Party (WP) increasing its number of elected MPS from six to ten, winning two Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), one with five seats and one with four, plus one single member constituency. The leading opposition party showed a remarkable resilience and growth over the last years after winning a GRC for the first time in 2011. Apart from the surprise success of the new Progress Singapore Party, due to the leadership of a popular challenger for the last presidential election, a former PAP MP, the nine other competing opposition parties could not win any seat at all.

So, what does the question of a two-party system actually mean for Singapore? Would it be close to the US-system, where two main parties compete for the governing mandate, with smaller parties restricted to a spoiler role in some elections, or more the British model, where the two long-term competitors alternate in government but sometimes need a coalition partner from a third party like the Liberal Democrats? In Singapore, nothing like the Workers’ Party taking over the government can be imagined, even in the longer term. The PAP rule over the last half century has been seen as efficient and successful and winning the trust of the voters, even considering that the party has massively highlighted its own achievements in the media and questioned the competence of the opposition parties. However, this type of “valence politics” or “competence voting” has changed already  in the 2020 election. A survey with 4,000 respondents by the Institute of Policy Studies late last year shows that the Workers’ Party’s credibility rating has risen remarkably close to the PAP results. While the PAP credibility has fallen in all age groups, the Workers’ Party’s ratings have improved nearly at the same rate, especially so among the older generations who were always supposed to be staunch PAP supporters having witnessed the spectacular development of the island “From Third World to First” as Lee Kuan Yew described it.   


Source: Straits Times, 2.10.2020

Some Singaporeans criticize the WP leadership as being too moderate and not challenging the PAP enough. Knowing that they are extremely far from any chance to take over the government, it is true that they did not come up with alternative grand visions for the future of the country but focused instead on constructive suggestions and contributions in parliament. This strategy and the recent smooth transition of the chairmanship have been successful in the election and earned WP-leader Pritam Singh the title and office facilities of opposition leader.

Another aspect which distinguishes Singapore in the region is the apparent absence of money politics. A comparison with neighboring Southeast Asian countries with their wild swings in party and coalition developments, the stable but not static Singapore situation reveals its value. Throughout the region money plays a decisive role in party politics and all too often leads to the personal enrichment of politicians, while poor candidates practically cannot win an election.  Singapore does not only rank close the top in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index but has the tightest and best controlled regulations for campaign costs as well. Given the PAP’s government control and experience, this is not yet creating a completely level playing field but at least facilitated the Workers’ Party’s steady rise in the last few years. There is always criticism of the high ministerial salaries in Singapore, but except on this top level, political engagement on the ground is not financially attractive. That is and should be the norm in liberal Democracies.

For more comparative details see our 2018 book on party funding and money politics in Southeast Asia:   

ICERD and the elimination of racial discrimination in Southeast Asia

Partyforumseasia: Singapore has just submitted its first report on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which it ratified in November 2017. And multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious Singapore is proud of decades of “racial harmony” and equal rights for everybody. Neighboring Malaysia, in contrast, suddenly belongs to the remaining 14 countries worldwide which have not signed the convention. In force since 1969, the ICERD has been ratified by 179 countries and signed by 4 more. The new Pakatan Harapan government under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had promised to sign and ratify it but bowed to pressure from huge protest rallies by tens of thousands of Malays who feared for their positive discrimination and exclusive rights in the mixed ethnic setup of the country.

KL Icerd rally

On 8 December 2018 about 50.000 Malay Muslims protested against the ICERD in Kuala Lumpur.

The decades of racial politics by the former UMNO-Barisan-governments which helped to win all elections until May 2018 are backfiring now, that a strong Chinese-based party, the DAP, is part of the ruling coalition and accused of being a threat to the Malay majority. And even more backfiring is the focus on Islam by UMNO and especially the Islamist PAS party. Malaysia has a secular and neutral legal system, Islam is formally “the religion of the Federation” but not a state religion. For radical and many other Muslims, though, this is not enough. They campaign for more Sharia-based criminal punishments (hudud), and a right-wing Malay Muslim group,  Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Malaysian Muslim Solidarity), known by its Malay acronym Isma, fights for giving up the secular principle and establish the country as a genuine Muslim state. The political parties which have promoted these social undercurrents for their electoral advantage, now see it as a vehicle to promote their comeback after being ousted in the May election. For the time being, UMNO is split and in disarray, but the ruling coalition is not really strong and united, holding together mainly by the towering personality of PM Mahathir.

With its evident idealistic undertones, ICERD itself may have an open flank by focusing on “racial” discrimination. In Article 1 it defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

But the notion of “race” is in many ways outdated since in terms of species, humankind consists only of the “homo sapiens” variety for the last 40.000 years. Neanderthal and other genes have survived in rather small percentages, and cultural differences may distinguish the existing subgroups a lot more than shades of skin and hair color. Among many pseudo-sciences, race biology has been one of the most destructive, historically an outgrowth of the need to justify slavery and colonial supremacy.

Southeast Asia is characterized by an outstanding number of distinct ethnic groups with their own language and culture, though closely related by phenotype and genetic composition. Indonesia counts over 300 ethnic groups, Myanmar 135, Thailand about 70, and Vietnam 54. Malaysia and Singapore, for administrative and political reasons, have decided to classify along the main racial lines, namely Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Others, thus simplifying the many shades of ethnic and cultural differences on the ground. In Malaysia, the ratio of “immigrant races” and the Malay “sons of the land” or Bumiputera was controversial from the beginning and later developed into a religious issue as well.

Singapore started her independence in 1965 with a Chinese majority of 75%, and the Malay, Indian and Other minorities to be accommodated as equally as possible. With the increasing migration and the ageing of traditionally more homogeneous populations, an ethnic mix will be the future of most countries. It is already and will remain an enormous political challenge, which is hardly understood by political parties in Europe and the US. The ongoing, though imperfect, solutions in Southeast Asia may present some clues for a better understanding, hopefully without the historical baggage of the outdated race biology.

Nine New Faces: Singapore’s Nominated Members of Parliament

Partyforumseasia: Singapore is not short of political parties, no less than 28 are registered, but during 49 years of independent statehood the overwhelming dominance of the People’s Action Party (PAP) has not changed much. Though its share of the popular vote has shrunk to an unprecedented 60.14 percent in the last general election in 2011, and two cabinet ministers were voted out, the ruling party won 81 out of 87 seats due to the (British heritage) first-past-the-post majoritarian election system. But for the first time in 2011, the opposition Worker’s Party managed to win a group constituency with six seats. The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) was one of the tweaks to the election system introduced since 1984 and not really seen as making it easier for the opposition.  Parliament
In order to balance the overpowering hegemony of the PAP, however, the constitution allows for a number of unelected members to join Parliament. These are Non-Constituency MPs (NCMP) or “the best opposition losers”, if they can win at least 15 percent in a single member constituency, and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP). These are nominated by the President for two and a half years after recommendation by a parliamentary select committee under the speaker. This year’s committee included two ministers and five other MP’s including the chairman of the opposition Worker’s Party. According to the defense minister, who was part of the select committee, the NMP’s are expected to enrich the debates on issues like “ageing, economic restructuring and productivity, sporting excellence, a better living environment, retaining Singapore’s heritage and appreciation of its history, challenges of working mothers, youth aspirations, and entrepreneurism.” (Straits Times, 12 August 2011, p.1) On sensitive issues like amendments to the constitution or public finances the NMP’s can contribute to the debate but are not allowed to vote.
Among the newly appointed NMP’s are a lawyer, a social entrepreneur, an architect, a medical doctor, a unionist, a historian, an economist, and a banker. The somewhat naughty application of a social blogger who is being sued by the Prime Minister for alleging inconsistencies in how the government is handling the compulsory Central Provident Fund, has been rejected.

To put the NMP scheme into a proper perspective, it is fair to say that Singapore has only a part-time Parliament with MP’s following their professional careers as normal. Apart from the seasonal sittings of Parliament they are involved in intense grass roots work in their constituencies. So it makes a lot more sense to co-opt specialists than in classical full-time parliaments with professional politicians.

More information on Singapore’s political system can be found here:
Tan, Netina, Institutional Sources of Hegemonic Party Stability in Singapore, in: Sachsenröder, Wolfgang (ed.), Party Politics in Southeast Asia, Organization-Money-Influence, Partyforumseasia, Singapore 2014.
The new book is available at Amazon under the following link: Party Politics


An Internet Revolt Against Singapore’s PAP?

Partyforumseasia: Singapore is one of the most successful small countries world-wide, if not the most successful anyway, and much of its success is due to the foresight of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). PAPNearly five decades of practically unassailable rule have allowed the political and administrative elite to plan and implement with a long term view and according to priorities of necessity. One striking example is the water supply for more than five million people plus industry on the island. From the beginning in 1965 fresh water had to be imported from Malaysia which gave the latter a dangerous blackmail capacity, fortunately always avoided. Now efforts of water catchment,  recycling and treatment have made Singapore autonomous and independent, as Malaysia is facing water shortages herself.
The younger generation, mostly grown up in affluence, may take for granted many of the advantages of living in such a well managed country. While the splintered opposition has made it into parliament in sizable numbers since 2011 (eight MP’s from the Worker’s Party – out of 87 ), the relative result for the dominant PAP has gone down to 60 percent.
Among the older generation, the heavy-handed style of founding father Lee Kuan Yew had created a lot of fear and hatred. But as long as the government provided the goods the party could cement its grip on power. Now the fear has faded under the more relaxed and accommodating political style of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, but the hatred seems to resurface among the young. In April, very visible anti-PAP graffiti on housing blocks were fast removed, but the blogosphere reveals more than resentment. A 30-year-old blogger has accused the government of mishandling the billions of dollars in the compulsory retirement fund CPF. Obviously touching a nerve, he collected more than 70,000 S$ in donations for his legal cost when the Prime Minister sued him for defamation, an instrument very efficient under his father. The young man was also sacked by his employer, a hospital.
The social media attacks, called already “internet revolt” by a paper outside Singapore, go on. The newest incident happened on 12 May, when the Wikipedia site of the PAP was massively and rather viciously re-edited, changing the name into “Party Against People”. Parts of the pampered youth of Singapore, used to more freedom than any other generation in Southeast Asia, are obviously allergic against state interference in the blogosphere. But the lightning in the PAP’s logo  mPAPay not be the right answer to address the problem.