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Lion at the Crossroads: Singapore’s Most Significant General Election Since 1963

Lion at the Crossroads: Singapore’s Most Significant General Election Since 1963

The city-state's political scene is undergoing its largest shift in more than half a century.

Lion at the Crossroads: Singapore’s Most Significant General Election Since 1963

2400 1600 Michael Petraeus

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s if global pandemic wasn’t enough, 2020 appears to be quite an important year in global politics. First Taiwan voted on its president – giving pro-independence Tsai Ing-wen her second term. Then Israel finally managed to form a unity government, after two failed attempts in 2019. In Europe Poland is voting for president, in an extremely tight race which may have a profound impact on the entire EU. And, of course, everybody is waiting for November, when USA is going to vote in hugely important presidential election.

In the middle of it all, in just two days, on July 10, citizens of a small city-state in Southeast Asia are going to the polls in a race that isn’t nearly as observed as the ones I mentioned above. And it should be, because Singapore may be tiny but it commands significant influence and the outcome of the vote may shape quite a lot more than its own course.

End of an Era

Incumbent PAP – in charge of the country since 1959, before it was even an independent state – is emphasizing it as a critical vote during a crippling pandemic and aims to secure another strong mandate that would ensure good governance during difficult times. Indeed, Covid-19 and its impact on the economy – especially in a country so badly dependent on international trade – is of course of paramount importance.

But behind this narrative there are bigger issues that Asia’s greatest national success story is facing – political and ideological shifts that the country hasn’t seen in a very long time.

In fact, the last time an election was this significant was in 1963, in the lead up to which divided and broken PAP lost majority in the parliament and had to fend off threats of political opponents (including outright communists), just as it was in the middle of a process of exiting from under the British rule and joining Malaysia. After bitterly fighting tooth and nail throughout 1963, Lee Kuan Yew emerged successful in September, securing a 2/3 majority, albeit winning just 47% of the popular vote – the party’s lower result ever.

That was enough, however, to cement his rule as he guided the country through its formative years, no longer opposed and winning huge public support, until stepping down after 30 years, in 1990.

Since 1963, PAP hasn’t faced much competition. Opposition parties have for long tried to make a dent in its steady rule over Singapore – generally with little success. Of course they scored some small milestones along the way – winning their first seat in 1981 and the first 5-seat GRC 20 years later, in 2011.

So far Singaporeans have favored stability – and so has the world, rewarding Singapore’s predictability with trust and ample investment. Especially in its region, the island has for long been an oasis of prosperity, peace and common sense that there’s no competition to for thousands of miles in each direction.

Alas, wealth tends to breed complacency and shifts personal priorities, shaping the values of people and affecting their political choices.

Few people realize how tremendous progress Singapore has achieved since the last financial crisis. Back in 2008, Singapore’s GDP was $40,000, and about 12.5% lower than in the European powerhouse: Germany and nearly 21% lower than USA.

By 2019 it has jumped ahead of the Germans – who have largely stagnated – coming from behind to today outpace them by a whopping 40% and matching the figures reported in America. When adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity – i.e. how much you can actually buy for the money – Singapore ranks among the Top 3 both in the IMF and World Bank rankings, leaving Americans (56% lower) and the Germans (a stratospheric 91% lower) for dead.

In other words, in the past 10-12 years Singapore has matched or even outmatched the world’s leading economies, while maintaining price levels that allow the population to enjoy significantly more value for their money.

In the past decade Singaporean productivity has gone up by over 30%, hand in hand with household incomes which have increased by a similar factor in real (adjusted for inflation) and over 55% in nominal terms.

Median gross household income in Singapore today is at around US $80,000 per year – above ca. $65,000 in Germany or the US – while the locals enjoy much lower tax rates and relatively higher value of their salaries.

Despite all of this, it is not uncommon to hear cries of complaint – but that’s the nature of life: on a personal level some individuals will always feel left behind, regardless of what statistics say about the society as a whole.

But there’s ample evidence that the situation in Singapore has shifted more than anybody dares to admit – and its visible in the attitudes of the people who have grown up during this time, which are markedly different from those of the earlier generations.

When the Workers’ Party snatched Aljunied GRC from PAP in 2011, it was buoyed by negative sentiments about immigrants allegedly stealing jobs from Singaporeans – an indictment against the ruling party which was likely amplified by the turbulences of the global crisis of 2008/09. Ever since modern Singapore was established, the key issues driving local politics have been economic not ideological in nature – jobs, salaries, a sense of security and protection from the difficulties of life.

In response to the yellow card – and a disappointingly low (for PAP) 60% share of the vote, the government tightened the rules on immigration, appeasing some of the voters and rode the wave of national sentiment after the passing of Lee Kuan Yew in 2015, to reclaim 70% of the popular support, although it still failed to win back Aljunied, where it only narrowed the margin to below 2%.

But it was the last election of a passing era.

Death of Lee Kuan Yew was a symbolic end of an age and harbinger of change in subsequent years. In 2018 Low Thia Khiang, the long-time leader of the Workers’ Party stepped down from leadership passing the baton to 42 year old Pritam Singh. This year he announced retirement from politics. Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister and son of LKY, also has already announced his will to leave – a decision somewhat delayed by the current epidemic, but bound to conclude in the next year or two.

Very soon the country is about to see quite a different political stage – with a new prime minister and a renewed opposition. LHL is likely to stay on in some form as a senior minister but the old suggestions of some sort of a dynastic rule of the Lee family are going to be put to rest.

However, the real change – and challenge – is coming from the opposite side of the aisle.

WP: Woke Party

It’s no secret the only challengers to the PAP come from the Workers’ Party – the one that has managed to chip away at PAP’s dominance the most. Recently founded PSP – Progress Singapore Party – led by 80 year old doctor Tan Cheng Bock, a longtime PAP back-bencher, is really just a death throe of the bygone era rather than a reasonable proposition for the country’s future, even if it has a chance to catch a few votes.

Departure of Low Thia Khiang was like a curtain reveal. Away from public view, Workers’ Party – which still bears a red & yellow symbolic that belongs in the Cold War – appears to have transformed into quite a different organization altogether.

The revelation of the televised debates was Jamus Lim – a foreign educated economist who spent 16 years abroad, before returning to home soil just in 2018. Young, educated, eloquent, proficient at foreign languages and presentable, most recently working for Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (prior to his return) – certainly not the kind of a person you would expect to be at the forefront of the fight for workers’ rights.

And he isn’t.

The way he speaks and what he says is more reminiscent of the Western social-democratic left, which has become home of the champagne socialists – the elevated, more prosperous workforce, that no longer toils away in heavy industries and manufacturing, but which wants to feel good about their wealth and the perceived well-being of others.

This is the transformation of the past 10-15 years, which has elevated most of Singaporean society to higher living standards – and new expectations towards politics. This is partly manifesting itself by more middle-class people espousing progressive slogans – since the law of diminishing returns restricted the gains in status from greater wealth. Today more money means less than more moral superiority. And so well-presented feel-good slogans become a valuable political currency that seems to have been well employed at least by some WP candidates.

The sign of the times is also the presence of a controversial candidate from the same Sengkang GRC as Jamus – Raeesah Khan – daughter of Farid, a millionaire former-presidential hopeful of Malay-Pakistani descent. 26-year old candidate effusively underscores her humble acceptance of privilege she was born into (a sign of the “progressive” ideas imported these days from the West, where one’s success is a reason for shame) and her only activity appears to be running a small charity helping Rohingya refugees in Malaysia.

She identifies as an “intersectional feminist” and enthusiastically summed up her beliefs by emphasizing she read every book/publication by a highly controversial american feminist Angela Davis – a life-long Marxist, communist decorated by the Soviet Union and a radical black activist.

Again – not quite the candidate you would expect to see in the “Workers’ Party” – especially in Singapore, but certainly a sign of the times as trendy foreign ideologies are imported wholesale from the West and embraced by the younger generations, born into far greater prosperity than their predecessors, so they can afford to seek self-actualization by more vocal virtue-signaling rather than a successful professional career.

The dramatic shift of the Workers’ Party was further amplified by its inability to field any Mandarin-speaking representative for the televised debate in Chinese. To the surprise of many it appears that without LTK there really isn’t anybody who could connect with the Chinese-speaking base left.

All of a sudden it turns out WP has become – at least at its forefront – a party of young, educated, wealthy individuals, espousing imported “woke” ideologies, who have never seen a typical worker’s day on the job.

And this metamorphosis appears to be helping them gain ground – at least on the web and among the younger voters. Whether it is going to help them expand their popularity or rather lead to a loss of their traditional electorate will be revealed on July 10 – especially as a familiar face of Tan Cheng Bock could sway some older opposition voters to support something that they feel more comfortable with.

But even if WP’s surprising shift leads to electoral losses in 2020, it may very well benefit them in the long run, as the younger voters may stick around in the upcoming electoral rounds in the coming 5-10-15 years (while the more conservative and older ones decline in numbers).

This signifies the biggest change in Singapore’s politics since the country’s inception and shows that it has really reached an economically highly advanced status. As long as it has been chasing wealthier economies, jobs and money monopolized the discourse. And while they aren’t going anywhere today, they will be discussed in a different context of general wealth and new, emotional needs of millions of voters most of whom already have the money – and now want to feel good with it and about themselves.

Terrible Timing

As nice as all of it may sound and appear to people, this change comes at easily the most inappropriate timing imaginable. With the slow demise of Hong Kong under the boot of new security laws and ensuing capital flight, Singapore is uniquely positioned to benefit from a wider opening to business and people who seek a fitting alternative – and there is no better one than the independent city-state.

At the same time, few realize that the past half of a century was likely the easiest Singapore is ever going to get. While the PAP emphasizes the importance of dealing with the current epidemic and economic crisis – which is of course exceedingly important – much bigger issues are looming to challenge the country in the coming decades.

For the past 50 years Singapore has enjoyed quick ascent in a region that was badly mismanaged and marred by conflicts and corruption. As it grew wealthier and wealthier, the threats to its position or survival have become tiny. With its strong military and world-class economy, bringing it unparalleled peace, stability and prosperity, Singapore had little to fear.
 
But today it’s surrounded by countries carrying vastly greater populations which are climbing up ever more quickly, filling the gaps that for long protected the city-state’s position. Even if they never quite reach Singapore’s average economic output per capita, the sheer size of their populations means they are going to command a lot more resources.
 
As a result it has never been more important for the city to accumulate even more reserves that it has already long, prudently invested and prepare to defend its competitive advantages from increasingly more assertive rivals. At the same time, ambitions of countries placed even further afield are going to impact Singapore’s position too. China is surely going to want to influence the political situation in the only other independent Chinese-majority state – especially one placed strategically at one of the most important logistical chokepoints on the planet.
 
To tackle these challenges Singapore has to become even more nimble, even more productive, even more innovative and accumulate even more resources that it can leverage to fend off foreign challengers.
 
And it is at this historical juncture that it is soon going to be forced to make choices about how to use its resources – with increasingly louder calls to redistribute more of the accumulated wealth among its citizens, to pamper and protect them from foreign competition even more than it is doing now.
 
Which is why the vote cast in 2020 is just the beginning of a series of electoral campaigns, each of which could be pivotal to the country’s future, as it enters far more challenging times than it has ever seen. And if it falters, drops its guard or relaxes its discipline, the sheer size and pace of its ascendant competitors may ultimately sweep it away, relegating it down from the world’s premier league it has so successfully climbed up to.

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Michael Petraeus

Economist, marketer, designer and business strategist publishing about the past, present and the future.

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