Contesting in an Uneven Playing Field

by singaporearmchaircritic

Seventeen improvement projects will be underway in Workers’ Party (WP) wards soon, announced the Citizens’ Consultative Committees (CCCs), one of 1,800 grassroots organizations (GROs) under the People’s Association (PA).

Such “generosity” may come as a surprise to those of us who are accustomed to the petty moves of the PA over the years.

Still fresh in our memory, for instance, was how the self-proclaimed “non-partisan” PA swiftly took control of 26 sites previously managed by the PAP-led Aljunied Town Council following WP’s 2011 electoral victory in Aljunied GRC.

The site grab was accompanied by a statement declaring unabashedly that “The PA and its GROs are non-partisan and do not allow any political party or MP to hold activities on PA premises or other facilities managed by the PA … This applies to all political parties and MPs, including the PAP.”

Potong Pasir, of course, was another favorite target. The housing estate was starved of basic services like public transportation, banks and lift upgrading throughout its 27 years under Chiam See Tong.

Today, it seems that the small-minded PA and its CCCs have finally and belatedly woken up to the facts that they should be serving the people of Singapore and not only those who have a penchant for the color white, and that Singaporeans residing in non-PAP wards are also tax-paying citizens.

Or is it more likely that they have grudgingly shifted their stance for fear of further eroding PAP’s dwindling popular support?

Although PAP can no longer leverage on upgrading projects funded by state resources, the political playing field in Singapore is still far from even.

This is evident when access to resources, media and the law is still heavily skewed towards the incumbent PAP.

The Political Donations Act, for one, imposes severe constraints on the funding for alternative parties and ambiguously defined “political associations.” Having less financial resources means the growth of opposition parties is impeded and their ability to organize and compete in elections handicapped. This ensures PAP’s supremacy and prolongs its reign in the political scene.

Press coverage continues to be biased and partisan, whitewashing the incumbent party’s missteps, downplaying controversial policies and glorifying the rare occasion PAP gives away something for free.

Punggol East elected Member of Parliament WP’s Lee Li Lian received no coverage when she worked the ground in her constituency.

But pictures of PAP’s Koh Poh Koon, who was defeated by Lee Li Lian, were splashed across the papers when he went on the rounds in Punggol East.

It appears that the local press is not interested in arresting its falling readership.

PAP: Shooting Itself in the Foot

In Competitive Authoritarianism, Levitsky and Way explain why Singapore is not included in their list of 35 “competitive authoritarian” regimes:

Singapore was scored as fully authoritarian because restrictions on speech and association made it nearly impossible for opposition groups to operate publicly and because legal controls and other institutional obstacles prevented opposition parties from contesting most seats in parliament (emphasis mine).

Fully authoritarian. That was an apt description of our political system until the last two General Elections which saw most of the seats being contested, no mean feat for the alternative parties that are disadvantaged in so many ways.

Still, the stark reality is there are currently only seven WP MPs against 80 others in the PAP camp.

As we count down to the next General Election, one question that keeps popping into my mind is whether and to what extent alternative parties can surmount the hurdles in an uneven playing field to capture more parliamentary seats.

Assuming that alternative parties shall field good candidates, how far can the skewed access to mainstream media be compensated for by online coverage?

While the slew of mostly bad news since the beginning of the year – public transportation fare hike, frequent MRT breakdowns, hospital bed crunch, another foreigner insulting Singaporeans etc. – may be a tad depressing, I wonder if there is a bright spot amid the darkness.

After all, these problems and cracks in the system again point to the unsustainability of the PAP government’s growth-at-all-expense approach.

The real game changer and PAP’s undoing in 2016, therefore, may well be its own policies.

(This blogpost first appeared on The Online Citizen)