Elections without democracy? Shifting political landscapes in Singapore and Malaysia

by singaporearmchaircritic

Singapore and Malaysia, as highly developed countries that have clung on to their authoritarian regimes, have long been seen as “anomalies” by political analysts of democratization.

But now cracks are appearing in these regimes. Malaysia will see its most closely fought election ever on 5 May where there is a real, albeit slim, possibility of the ruling UMNO being replaced. In Singapore, the ruling PAP had lost more seats than ever in the 2011 General Election and two by-elections, while still holding on to an overwhelming majority of 80 out of 87 contested seats in the parliament.

The diminishing popularity of the PAP may be ascribed to the erosion of its political legitimacy in recent years. In 1959, Lee Kuan Yew spoke about the political culture of the masses that prioritizes material benefits, a political creed that has steered the PAP’s governance of Singapore since then:

The mass of the people are not concerned with legal and constitutional forms and niceties. They are not interested in the theory of the separation of powers … If the future is not better, either because of the stupidities of elected ministers or the inadequacies of the civil service, then at the end of the five year term the people are hardly likely to believe either in the political party they have elected or the political system that they have inherited (source).

For decades, PAP’s tried-and-tested formula of delivering the economic goods to the people while keeping a tight rein on opposition parties and dissidents had worked to augment its legitimacy. Wooing voters with promises ranging from the economy’s sterling GDP growth to HDB flats upgrading, the ruling party had won every election since independence with a high vote share of above 60%.

However, the PAP seems to have lost its “magic touch” in recent elections. This is primarily due to the ruling party’s inertia in response to a shifting political culture, its slowness in adapting to an evolving, politically mature electorate that not only seeks greater civic engagement but also starts to draw a line between the state and the ruling party.

In addition, the PAP’s overzealous application of its political creed, to the extent that economic growth is prized as an end in itself (or perhaps a means to secure ministers’ bonuses) instead of a means to improve people’s wellbeing, has also come under fire. Judging from the PAP’s lackluster performance at the past few elections, many Singaporeans remain unconvinced by the Ministers’ refrain (here and here) about the costs of slower economic growth.

In a way, the PAP appears to be caught in a performance dilemma: the party fears a further erosion of its political legitimacy if it fails to keep economy going; yet in fueling economic growth primarily through population growth, i.e. the massive import of foreign workers, the PAP has generated pervasive discontent among Singaporeans, who bemoan the escalating cost of living and property prices, stiffer job competition, a widening income gap and overcrowding in the tiny island-state. That discontent had culminated in a rare protest with a turnout of thousands in February this year, and has led to PAP’s loss of voter support since the 2011 General Election.

Accompanying the widespread social discontent is the emergence of a nascent Singapore identity among Singaporeans. Whereas national pride has largely been inculcated from top-down through national day celebrations, patriotic songs and so forth in the past, Singaporeans have begun to take ownership in the forging of a national identity.

The society’s quest for a national identity has been sparked by the huge influx of foreigners, and this rising sense of pride is exemplified by the recitation of the national pledge and the singing of the national anthem at opposition party rallies and this February’s landmark Hong Lim Park protest, as well as online social movements such as this and this.

The people’s aspiration for greater civic engagement was not lost on the ruling party, which attempted to collect feedback from Singaporeans through a nation-wide exercise, the National Conversation. The way the ruling party fumbled in this exercise of civic engagement is revealing of a domineering government not amenable to criticisms, especially from a newly vocal electorate empowered by the social media.

This electorate will no doubt be further emboldened should the opposition parties in neighboring Malaysia make significant forays in the impending election. For if UMNO that has ruled Malaysia continuously for more than half a century could also be toppled by the opposition, then the replacement of the PAP in Singapore would not be inconceivable.

Some observers are concerned that should the Malaysia election produce a turnover of government and ensuing political instability, the PAP will use the case to its advantage to discourage Singaporeans agitating for political change. In this unfortunate circumstance, the predicted PAP’s course of action is highly probable. But then Singaporeans are already exposed to the precedent of Taiwan which, after two government turnovers, does not seem to be in a bad shape after all. Furthermore, internet-savvy, well-informed Singaporeans would be discerning enough to tell the differences between Malaysia and Singapore: with a highly competent and institutionalized civil service, a lower level of corruption and no deep ethnic cleavages, it is unlikely that political chaos will prevail in Singapore in the event of a government change.

(This blogpost first appeared on The Online Citizen.)