Singapore’s long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has called a snap election for September 11, well in advance of the five year term it is allotted. As I noted in a piece this week for World Politics Review, the PAP is probably gambling that the outpouring of emotion in Singapore after the death of founding father Lee Kuan Yew in March will reflect well on the PAP and its record of governance, and will help it in the election. The year of 50th anniversary celebrations of the city-state’s independence also may well add a shine to the PAP’s credentials. The fact that the opposition, despite its strong showing in the 2011 election (at least, strong for Singapore), is fragmented and had some financial difficulties running a town council the past four years, also might work in the PAP’s favor.
However, Singaporean politics have been changed by the 2011 vote, and no combination of nostalgia for the Lee Kuan Yew era, shifts in PAP policies such as restricting immigration, and PAP outreach to social media and younger voters will change the fact that the city-state is likely headed for a more competitive political system over the long run. But for now, the PAP has virtually no chance of losing power in this election. The Workers Party, the largest opposition party, is not even contesting a majority of seats in Singapore’s parliament, and the opposition generally has presented itself as offering a check on the PAP’s power, not as vying to replace the PAP as the party of government in this election. But another election in which the PAP’s share of the popular vote declined would certainly be taken by the ruling party as a worrying sign, as would losing two or more group member constituencies. The loss of a constituency containing one of the most prominent cabinet members, like Foreign Minister K Shanmugam, also would be a symbolic blow to the PAP.
Still, given that the PAP is almost sure to win the election, what policies might it enact in a new term? Immigration will remain a major flash point within Singaporean society. Many Singaporeans believe that the city-state has become too reliant on immigration, but Singapore’s business community has chafed at the restrictions put in place since the last election, worrying that they have created a too-tight labor market. Singapore’s defense establishment also worries that without a continued high immigration rate, the city-state will ultimately be unable to mount an effective defense, since its birthrate remains so low.
If the PAP wins a strong mandate, it might loosen some of the restrictions on immigration in order to boost the economy, even though this decision would probably be unpopular with many Singaporeans. In the run-up to the election, the PAP has been vague about the future of immigration policy, giving itself some room to adapt its strategy on immigration after the election.
With a strong mandate, a new government also would potentially continue its combination of loosening some of Singapore’s older restrictions on social freedoms while maintaining Singapore-style rules about freedom of expression. Although religious leaders in the city-state protested changes like the inauguration of a gay pride parade on the island, a new PAP government would likely to continue to relax constraints on social freedoms. Relaxing the social environment also helps attract international talent to the island. But do not expect a new term of government to include an end to PAP ministers suing journalists and others for libel/defamation, a strategy that has been utilized effectively by the PAP for decades. If the opposition does not make significant gains in this election, the PAP may conclude that its carrot/stick approach remains effective in handling opposition politicians and civil society. Lee Hsien Loong has sued blogger Roy Ngerng for defamation and won; the blogger and activist is likely to be forced to pay damages of at least $150,000.
In addition, a new term of government might include Singapore moving even closer to the United States and slowly shifting away from its policy of publicly maintaining warm ties to both Beijing and Washington. Singapore is already the United States’ closest partner in Southeast Asia, but in the future a treaty alliance is not out of the question. Although Singapore certainly prides itself on its long relationship with Beijing, and on how Chinese leaders view the city-state as a model, many Singaporean officials say that Singaporean ministers were shocked, three years ago, by how little information they (or anyone else) could get about China’s political transition when Xi Jinping, then their heir apparent, suddenly vanished from public view for nearly two weeks. Growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, as well as the fact that other Southeast Asian nations are taking a harder line towards Beijing, also may prompt the Singapore government to shift even closer to the United States.