IDSA COMMENT

The ‘Orchid Revolution’ in Singapore

September 30, 2011

It is often said that the political history of Singapore is synonymous with the rise of the People’s Action Party (PAP). The PAP, which has governed Singapore from 1959 (when it formed the first self-government), has retained its centrality in the politics of the island nation through a judicious blend of pragmatic policies and their efficient implementation.

However, the recent elections, aptly called the ‘orchid revolution’ (named after orchid, Singapore’s national flower), have proved that the PAP’s policies have failed to inspire confidence in at least a section of society. The previous government’s failures in meeting infrastructure demands, rising housing prices and security issues dogged the PAP as it went into the May 2011 elections.

The PAP gained a majority in the general elections held on May 7, in which 2.35 million Singaporeans participated. And in the Presidential election that followed on August 27 as well, Tony Tan, the Lee Hsien Loong-led government’s preferred candidate and former deputy prime minister, emerged victorious by getting 35.2 per cent of the votes. Tony Tan was sworn in as the seventh President of Singapore on September 1, 2011 and will hold the post for six years. Earlier, on May 21, Lee Hsien Loong, leader of the PAP and the eldest son of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), had been sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Singapore.

Although the PAP has clearly won the elections, it has not been a very pleasant experience for the ruling party. In what Prime Minister Lee calls the ‘watershed elections’, the PAP suffered a massive loss in terms of its percentage vote share and the number of seats. Though the PAP managed to win 81 of the 87 seats in the single chambered parliament (the Workers’ Party won the other six seats), its percentage share of votes fell by six per cent in comparison to the share (66.6 per cent) it received in the previous elections held in 2006. That the PAP received 60 per cent of the vote share may seem impressive to an outsider but that’s not how it is perceived in a small City-State like Singapore.

The outcome of the election has not only been perceived as a wakeup call for the PAP but may also be called revolutionary though with ‘Singaporean characteristics’. This is evident from the fact that not only the PAP lost a number of seats in the elections but it also lost a Group Representation Constituency (to the Workers’ Party in Aljunied constituency) for the first time. Group Representation Constituencies were created in 1988 to accommodate and integrate ethnic minorities such as Indians and Malays in the electoral process and mainstream them. Moreover, three former ministers including former foreign minister George Yeo lost in this election. Evidently, the 2011 election is one of the PAP’s worst performances since 1965. The opposition won six out of 87 seats, which is a new benchmark since four opposition MPs were elected in 1991. The PAP’s percentage share of votes had also fallen to 61 percent in the 1991 elections.

One cannot possibly deny the fact that the anti-incumbency factor was at play in the 2011 elections as can also be seen in the unprecedented surge in support for opposition parties. Even Tony Tan won only by a slim margin, which proves that voters were not impressed with the PAP’s style of governance as well as its inability to resolve some issues as acknowledged by Prime Minister Lee himself. One might argue that the PAP sensed the need to bring in fresh ideas and people and therefore introduced 11 new faces in the 14 minister strong new cabinet.

In its half-a-century old control over Singapore’s electoral politics, the PAP has skilfully managed to win over the people. The reason behind PAP’s success, according to Beng-Huat Chua, is “an ideology that embodies a vigorous economic development orientation that emphasizes science and technology and centralized rational public administration as the fundamental basis for industrialization within a capitalist system, financed largely by multinational capital. Culturally, in recognition of the geopolitical situation, multiculturalism, representing so-called Chinese, Malay and Indian ‘cultures’, was emphasized.” He adds that these elements form a conceptual framework for the day-to-day operations of the PAP government and have always been identified as the ‘natural’, ‘necessary’ and ‘realistic’ solutions to the problem of nation building.1

However, over the years, in the process of nation building the PAP has acquired a few interventionist tendencies as well, a fact that Singaporeans are well aware of. While they are appreciative of the PAP’s technical and bureaucratic efficiency in improving their material life they never forget that Singapore is a ‘closed society’. The trade-off for the majority, therefore, has been: improved material life for some loss of civil and political liberties. 2

The rising influx of immigrants, high cost of living, housing and health care along with the widening gap between rich and poor have been major factors in the decline of the PAP’s acceptability. The immigrant issue has been of particular concern to voters as Singaporean citizens and permanent residents make up just 3.7 million of the 5.2 million population. According to media reports, the previous government’s immigration policies have led to an increase in the population by around 20 per cent in the past five years. Most immigrants come from China in search of better career prospects and freedom to do business. This, however, has led to an incredible rise in housing prices and a burden on infrastructural facilities such as transport. Security lapses at the MRT station in the past and the escape from prison of Jemaah Islamiyah leader Mas Selamat Kastari further highlighted the PAP government’s inability to meet the emerging challenges in society.

Another aspect before and during the elections that helped the opposition parties strengthen their voice and shape public opinion was the unprecedented use of cyber space. Facebook, Twitter, blogs and online chat groups provided ample opportunities for Singaporeans to discuss and debate the present and future of governance in Singapore; the country which is often dubbed as a curious example of an open economy in a controlled society. Discussions in cyberspace reveal that slowly but surely a simmering discontent is emerging, particularly among the younger generation and the middle classes, with regard to government policies. In that context, one may argue that the Lee government is going to face a daunting task ahead in building upon LKY’s legacy. The challenge seems stronger due to the fact that this is the first time a cabinet is being run without LKY’s interventions. With the end of the LKY era, the fresh ‘fourth generation leadership’ will have to take firm and wise decisions to keep the promises the PAP made before and during the elections. This is particularly important in the light of the fact that despite a marvellous economic performance there are dissenting voices on the issues of distribution of wealth and wellbeing of the middle class. What makes matters worse for the PAP is that it no longer enjoys an absolute monopoly in shaping Singapore’s political discourse, and any faltering would lead to more troubles in future.

Though the days ahead still seem bright for the PAP and the Lee government, it seriously needs to make itself more responsive to the common Singaporean’s demands in order to remain the single-most powerful representative of the people of Singapore.

  1. 1. Chua, Beng –Huat, Communitarian ideology and democracy in Singapore, (London: Routledge, 1996), pp 58-59.
  2. 2. Ibid, p. 205