Singapore’s Social Contract Is Starting to Fray
from Asia Program and Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

Singapore’s Social Contract Is Starting to Fray

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong attends a media briefing in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 16, 2023.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong attends a media briefing in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 16, 2023. Esa Alexander/Reuters

The PAP has made unbending integrity central to its identity, magnifying the damage the recent scandals have done to the party.

Originally published at World Politics Review

August 23, 2023 11:16 am (EST)

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong attends a media briefing in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 16, 2023.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong attends a media briefing in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 16, 2023. Esa Alexander/Reuters
Article
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Since Singapore’s independence in 1965, the People’s Action Party, or PAP, has dominated Singaporean politics. Co-founded by the late Lee Kuan Yew—Singapore’s founding father and longtime elder statesman—and currently led by his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the PAP has won every election the country has held, albeit in a political environment Freedom House calls “partly free.”

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Yet despite what experts like Freedom House call a restricted electoral environment, the PAP long has enjoyed genuine and significant popular legitimacy for its tremendous accomplishments in developing Singapore into a global financial hub and respected voice in regional affairs. It also won plaudits for creating a national social contract that emphasized meritocracy, a forward-thinking bureaucracy, and the rule of law, underpinned by a sense of fairness in society, at least outside of politics, as Freedom House has noted. To be fair, there has always been significant income inequality between ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Nevertheless, that sense of fairness and meritocracy permeated the island-state.

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In addition, the PAP delivered consistently high economic growth, shepherding Singapore through various stages of development and moving the city-state up the value-added chain. Meanwhile, the PAP attracted some of the brightest minds and most capable people on the island and gave them room to think independently within the bureaucracy and government. The party then used that talent to dominate the few weak and tiny opposition parties come election time.

But now Singapore’s social contract increasingly seems to be breaking down. The PAP is battling corruption scandals and struggling to find the same level of talent to fill its ranks. Meanwhile, the Lee family is at war with itself, and the bureaucracy is reportedly losing its ability to come up with groundbreaking ideas. To top it all off, the PAP now faces credible challengers at the ballot box.

The PAP’s troubles began in early July, when the special police unit designed to fight corruption arrested Transport Minister S Iswaran in a graft probe. At the same time, it arrested a billionaire Malaysian tycoon, Ong Beng Seng, for questioning about his dealings with Iswaran. Shortly before those arrests, there had been significant public scrutiny of Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam and Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan for the prices they paid for prestige properties, but a review cleared them of wrongdoing. Then, in late July, it emerged that the speaker of parliament, Tan Chuan-Jin, was having an affair with another member of parliament and fellow PAP member, Cheng Li Hui, forcing both to resign from parliament and the party.

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The scandals may not compare to those in some other countries. For that matter, two top members of the opposition Workers Party also recently resigned after they admitted to having had an inappropriate relationship. But that incident received less attention, because the Workers Party has not made unbending integrity so central to its identity. The PAP has, magnifying the damage the recent revelations have done to the party. Channel News Asia, the national broadcaster that is essentially controlled by the state, has called the fallout from the scandals the “most severe crisis of public confidence in recent times.” The Straits Times, the national newspaper that is also essentially owned by the state, ran a column under the headline, “Is the PAP brand in trouble?”

Such coverage of the ruling party, which almost never would have been seen in these outlets in the past, is an indication of how shocking the scandals have been to the Singaporean public. In a speech in early August, Prime Minister Lee himself admitted the PAP, which has made unbending integrity so central to its identity, had “taken a hit.”

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Meanwhile, the Lee family, which has been a kind of glue for the city-state, has become embroiled in a long-lasting and increasingly bitter quarrel that could do lasting damage to its prestige. The dispute centers on how to handle family patriarch Lee Kuan Yew’s home. Lee supposedly wanted it demolished after he died so that he would not be turned into a lasting icon, but the government wants to keep it intact as a monument to Singapore’s founding father. The dispute has resulted in a police investigation of Lee Hsien Loong’s brother and sister-in-law, who want to destroy the house, for allegedly lying about Lee Kuan Yew’s will. The couple subsequently fled into exile, claiming they would be unable to get a fair trial in the city-state.

But politics is not the only area where it increasingly seems to many Singaporeans that Singapore’s sense of fairness and standards are deteriorating. Income inequality has also become a focus of attention and popular resentment. In one high-profile online incident earlier this year, a middle-class woman published a social media post celebrating a modestly priced bag she had purchased as a “luxury” item, only to be mocked by more affluent Singaporeans who could apparently afford much pricier fashion accessories. Inflation has also taken a bite out of Singaporeans’ wages, while affecting the poor and middle-class more. And all this in a city that has been ranked as one of the most expensive places to live in the world.  

What’s more, as Farah Stockman noted in the New York Times, the Singaporean judiciary—famous for its fairness, at least in nonpolitical cases—has recently seemed like it holds different standards for the rich and the working class. Stockman noted that in one case, a forklift operator in a container yard was sent to jail for two months for taking bribes of $1 each and roughly $7-10 a day over the course of two years, in a scheme that allowed truck drivers to jump to the head of the line for loading and offloading their cargo. Meanwhile “executives from the Singaporean conglomerate Keppel—who paid millions in bribes, according to the U.S. Justice Department—got off with ‘stern warnings.’” Singaporean judicial officials have said they do not have a strong enough case against the Keppel executives to bring it to trial.

These problems may lead Singaporeans, particularly young people who are most dubious about the government, to wonder about the quality of people now leading and serving the PAP and the bureaucracy—a far cry from the past, when both were perceived as delivering impressive efficiency along with clean governance. What’s more, these concerns come at a challenging time for Singapore: Aging demographics, the challenge of balancing heightened U.S.-China competition in Southeast Asia, and the rise of industrial policy and decline of global free trade all imperil Singapore’s long-term economic health.

The loss of a reputation for both clean governance and efficiency could severely damage Singapore’s image both domestically and globally, compounding the growing economic challenges. And as Stockman notes, Singapore’s bureaucracy, which in the past was encouraged to engage in internal debate, has become much more internally authoritarian and staid, at a time when Singapore urgently needs new ideas to bolster the economy and once again reinvent itself, as it has done in the past.

Meanwhile, with elections due by 2025, Prime Minister Lee—who remains trusted—has reaffirmed his intention to step down, with his successor to be current Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong. But Lee has been unclear on the exact timing of his resignation. One might have thought that Lee would step down well before elections to give Wong time to build up his reputation before heading to the polls. But Lee remains prime minister, and he has suggested he might even lead the PAP in the next election campaign. This is despite the fact that he originally announced in 2017 he would name a successor and step down within a few years.

Lee’s hesitations are not exactly a vote of confidence in Wong, whom Singapore expert Michael Barr suggests got the job in part because of his intense loyalty to the prime minister. Barr further suggests that Wong, a highly capable administrator, has not yet demonstrated skill as a political leader. Moreover, he was only selected as Lee’s successor after Lee’s initial pick, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, withdrew himself from consideration two years ago.

Twenty years ago, Singaporeans unhappy with the PAP could not do much about it, as there was no viable opposition to the ruling party. But now the country has a real political opposition in the Workers Party and several other opposition parties, and voters have moved in their direction. The PAP won about 60 percent of the popular vote in the most recent election in 2020, which, though high, was much lower than in prior elections, and the opposition has become more organized and energized since then.

Singapore uses an electoral system that experts, including Freedom House, have said makes it easier for the PAP to translate popular votes into parliamentary seats compared to the opposition. But even Wong has admitted that the ruling party cannot take elections for granted anymore. Before this rash of scandals, there had been speculation that the PAP would call an early election before 2025. Now, it may try to run out the clock to the last minute, hoping that its plans to boost growth this year and next year pan out—and that voters are motivated more by their wallets than by their memories of scandals or a sense of societal fragmentation.

But even if that plan unfolds to perfection, given the seeming breach in Singapore’s social contract and self-image, the PAP may face its most serious electoral challenge anyway.

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