May 7 was a turning point in Singapore’s political history. Singaporeans went to the polls that day in the country’s 16th parliamentary elections, and by the next morning it had become clear that the political mood has shifted in this island nation. While the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) was returned to power with 81 out of the 87 seats up for grabs, it suffered the biggest loss to the opposition political parties in Singapore’s 56-year history as an independent country.
Parliament now has six opposition members, all from the Workers Party. Although this may seem trivial to outside observers, it is highly significant for Singapore, where there have never before been more than a handful of elected opposition MPs. And opposition parties lost by only 300 and 100 votes in two other electorates. Two additional opposition members will get seats reserved for losing candidates with the highest votes (with voice but not vote).
Singapore’s political scene has been dominated by the PAP since Lee Kuan Yew won the 1959 legislative assembly elections to become the first prime minister, while the country was still a self-governing state within the British Empire. After Singapore became a part of Malaysia in 1963 and following its expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, the PAP won every single seat in every election until 1984, when the Workers Party then-leader J.B. Jeyaretnam retained the Anson seat he had won during a by-election with an increased majority, and Chiam See Tong, who was then with the Singapore Democratic Party, won his seat in Potong Pasir, where he would remain until he chose to contest in another ward this year and lost. Aside from these two opposition stalwarts, there have only ever been three other elected opposition MPs – Low Thia Khiang, Ling How Doong and Cheo Chai Chen.
Critics have often accused the PAP of gerrymandering because there are often substantial changes to electoral boundaries before every election that cannot be anticipated by the electorate or the opposition. In addition, in 1988 “group representation constituencies” (GRCs) were introduced, in which four to six candidates from each political party must contest as a group, thus disadvantaging the opposition parties already suffering from a lack of resources and people and crippled by being criminalised by the PAP, defamation lawsuits, bankruptcy claims and crackdowns on pro-democracy activities.
There has long been a pervasive climate of fear of political participation of any sort, encouraged by the use of the Internal Security Act, Printing Presses Act, Trade Unions Act, Societies Act and other anti-civil liberties legislation to arrest, detain, fine and jail the PAP’s opponents, who are also ridiculed in the mainstream press.
Despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges, opposition political parties were more organised for the 2011 general election than ever before. The Workers Party had begun preparations and started walking the ground months and, in some cases, years before the election date was announced. On nomination day, only one of 15 GRCs (Lee Kuan Yew’s ward of Tanjong Pagar) went uncontested, a landmark change from previous elections that saw average uncontested rates of around 50%. Many Singaporeans, some up to 40 years of age, rejoiced at finally having the opportunity to vote.
In the campaign period, unprecedented numbers of people attended opposition rallies. Some estimates placed up to 40,000 people at the Workers Party rally at Hougang stadium on April 28. Opposition candidates made eloquent and rousing speeches that were recorded and shared over and over again on social media sites. In stark contrast, PAP rallies were poorly attended and sober affairs, with reports surfacing that senior citizens were ferried in buses to and from rally sites and that people were offered money just to carry a PAP flag. Despite this, PAP rallies were given wide coverage in the local mass media.
Opposition candidates questioned and criticised PAP policies, which have Singaporeans concerned about inflation, the rising cost of living, increasingly unaffordable public housing, the lack of a minimum and living wage, the increasing gap between rich and poor, and public infrastructure such as the transportation and health systems that are bursting at the seams while the population continues to rise as a result of increasing immigration. The Workers Party promised to provide checks and balances within the system, and to ensure accountability and transparency in governance.
The Singapore Democratic Party raised concerns about how the PAP’s pro-business economic agenda had affected the welfare of poor and marginalised Singaporeans, and provided alternative solutions for a redistribution of wealth and resources. Other parties, including the Singapore People’s Party, National Solidarity Party, Reform Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance, questioned the dominance of the PAP and sought to provide alternative voices. Perhaps what was most striking was that the PAP could no longer claim to have a monopoly on talent – an impressive number of high calibre opposition candidates were fielded, including top lawyers, social workers, academics and businesspeople.
The Workers Party victories in Hougang for Yaw Shin Leong and their GRC breakthrough in Aljunied for Low Thia Khiang, Sylvia Lim, Chen Show Mao, Pritam Singh and Muhammad Faisal bin Abdul Manap herald a new beginning for Singapore’s political landscape. Singaporeans appear to be shedding their fear of involving themselves in political life, and previously apathetic youth are beginning to get involved.
Opposition parties are attempting to capitalise on the momentum and looking ahead to the next opportunity for an electoral fight. However, as theatre practitioner and respected member of the arts community Alvin Tan has asked, “Will there be a renewal amongst Singaporeans with one another or do we wait another five years because we know no other way except to rely on the hierarchical political structure for social transformation?” The answer to this question can only lie in Singaporeans’ willingness to engage in everyday socio-political life, not just in electoral politics but in civil society, their workplaces, their homes, the cultural sphere and beyond.