Power Imbalance in the Singapore Government
By Chelsea (Editor)
Even after more than six decades, opposition parties in Singapore have failed to penetrate the political scene effectively; the People’s Action Party (PAP) remains a hegemony, and Singapore a one-party dominant state. How is this so, when political parties all around the world rise and fall constantly?
Although there are 10 opposition political parties in Singapore (as of the 2020 General Elections), PAP remains the dominant political party from independence till today. The opposition’s inability to attain electorate favour and make inroads into Parliament reveals their inherent weaknesses: unable to present themselves as a viable alternative to the incumbent, and internal fractures within the parties itself.
Weakness of the Opposition?
Opposition political parties in Singapore do not (or are unable to) distinguish themselves from the PAP when appealing to the voting public. Policies put forward by the opposition often bear significant resemblance to those proposed by the PAP . Often, the opposition markets itself as a form of ‘check and balance’ to PAP’s hegemony, instead of offering a capable alternative party to the PAP . This sentiment has also been articulated by Pritam Singh - head of the Workers’ Party (WP) and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. Pritam Singh has mentioned that the role of the opposition in Singapore is to ensure that the incumbent does not have a “blank cheque to do whatever it wants” . By positioning themselves as a check and balance to the PAP rather than a contestant to the PAP’s hegemony, the Opposition reveals their inadequacy in challenging the PAP. According to a survey conducted by Bridget Welsh in 2016 , it was observed that the main considerations of majority (71%) of the electorate had when voting were Party leadership, Party (which Party was in power) and Candidates. Evidently, a greater part of Singapore’s electorate was more concerned with the credibility and dependability of a party when casting their votes. Where a large part of the electorate is party-centric in their voting behaviour, the seeming lack of assertiveness and fortitude on the opposition’s part precludes the electorate from voting in their favour.
Internal fissures within opposition political parties have also been a point of weakness. More recently, Raeesah Khan of WP made a fraudulent claim in Parliament, which further led to inter-party accusations and disputes. This incident resulted in Raeesah Khan resigning as a Member of Parliament (MP) and also from WP . Such internal fractures not only taint public perception of opposition parties and discredit them, but also provide the PAP with a means to target the opposition parties’ credibility and reputation as there is a basis to discredit the opposition’s capability to lead as the incumbent party. This supports PAP’s narrative that they should be voted in because they consistently show that they are the only party that can govern Singapore.
Undoubtedly, there exist underlying structural constraints that hinder the growth and progress of opposition political parties in Singapore. First is the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system. The ‘first-past-the-post’ system is a model where the candidate who wins the most number of votes is elected into Parliament - essentially, the number of members a party gets elected to Parliament is not representative of the party’s share of the popular vote. The ‘first-past-the-post’ system along with the mandated permutation of teams contesting in GRCs makes it difficult for the opposition to challenge the PAP in terms of votes. Such constitutional conditions partly explains why the PAP attained 93% of Parliamentary seats in the 2015 General Elections, despite receiving 69.9% of all votes cast . Opposition parties thus find it difficult to overcome such structural impediments in Singapore’s political system.
Second, Singapore’s political culture of ‘communitarianism’ and PAP’s heavily paternalistic role has subsequently led to Singaporeans’ overwhelming political compliance. In a society that exhibits ‘communitarian’ tendencies, as conceptualised by Chua Beng Huat , there is an emphasis on the state’s paternalistic role and limited political pluralism, which arguably effects a climate of political compliance. The notion of ‘communitarianism’ places society over the individual, a tenet overarching many political policies in Singapore. While this largely contrasts neoliberal ideals of democracy and individual rights, the PAP justifies this style of ruling and heavy-handed intervention by asserting that it is imperative for the state’s survival and prosperity. In Chua’s evaluation of Singapore’s public policies, housing systems and multiracial policies, it is evident that the PAP is itself extensively involved . This involvement shows in many aspects, such as housing, education and the economy. As a result of the heavy emphasis on PAP’s paternalistic role and the (arguably) widely-accepted belief that such a rule is pivotal for our nation, a climate of political compliance and depoliticisation of society is fostered. This poses a challenge to opposition parties trying to contest the PAP - it is arduous to disprove the effectiveness of the PAP and undermine its dominance.
PAP’s narrative of ‘survivalism’ in the face of the country’s security and economic vulnerability institutionalised the necessity of a ruling party that is able to reliably deliver stability and prosperity to the country. The idea perpetuated here is that the PAP’s uninterrupted hegemony has preserved stability and prosperity in Singapore . Few can deny this claim, too. Despite Singapore’s lack of natural endowment, the PAP has achieved spectacular economic prosperity; Singapore was even touted as one of the “Asian Tigers”, representing the impressive economic growth in the 70s-80s. The title of “Asian Tigers” suggests that Singapore’s economic growth was not only outstanding, it was recognised globally. PAP’s consistent competency and deliverance of its promises endows the regime with political legitimacy and further entrenches its rule. The PAP has also been able to consistently recruit highly-qualified individuals, maintaining the party’s quality and credibility. As the talent pool in Singapore is considerably small, this will definitely reduce that of the opposition . Such talent provides a promise of political stability, which Singaporeans evidently appreciate.
Is there hope?
Despite the numerous difficulties faced by the opposition in gaining traction in Singapore’s political scene, I argue with optimism that there exist opportunities for the opposition to capitalise on and make further progress. The opposition has been able to recruit notable individuals who seem capable of capturing voter’s imagination and support Singapore politics, and to provide diverse voices. For example, Jamus Lim from the WP rose to fame during the 2020 General Elections due to his charisma, charm and intellect. His famous slogan “warms the cockles of my heart” was popularised via social media, cementing his status as a cultural icon amongst a youth population that is becoming increasingly politically involved. Jamus Lim’s team did manage to secure the Sengkang GRC , defeating the PAP by garnering 52.13% of the votes. This demonstrates how the opposition is able to equip themselves with candidates who are able to influence the electorate and make an impact on the political scene in Singapore. Due to their win in Sengkang, the WP now has 10 Members of Parliament (MP) . This puts the WP in a position to provide alternative voices in a government that is dominated by the PAP. The notion of ‘alternate voices’ and ‘checks on the PAP’s power’ are also promises the WP has made to the electorate. Since they now possess a viable way of doing so, it is important that they deliver. Lawrence Wong has also mentioned that “the onus is now on the opposition” to further their conviction of providing alternative opinions and discourse .
Further, the younger generations lack the experience of historical struggles (separation and merger, for example) that the PAP capitalises on to justify their means of governance and unequivocal rule. Hence, the lack of political pluralism - which has been accepted by older generations - may not be as easily accepted by present and future generations. Values and ambitions, along with views of the global world, are fluid. There has been a recent rise of youths desiring more ‘alternative voices’ in Singapore’s political scene . Another point that distinguishes the generations before and generations to come is that the future generations have much less to lose , meaning that the younger generations might be less tolerant when faced with restrictive, paternalistic policies and more unafraid when experimenting with the notion that political coherence and the economy flourishing necessarily comes with the trade-off of political pluralism . This phenomenon, alongside the pervasiveness of social media where highly-educated youths are increasingly exposed to international politics and Western ideals, the younger generation might challenge PAP's rule which emphasises independence from Western neoliberal democratic ideals. Social media, with its ubiquitous influence and effects of an ‘echo chamber’, plays a part in magnifying such opinions and grievances, and this phenomenon can hardly be controlled by the incumbent; social media does not fall under state machinery that the PAP can exact influence on. If the PAP fails to pander to a more accommodating and consultative way of dealing with the upcoming generation (rather than their usual top-down approach), they might be playing into the opposition’s hands. If the opposition is apt in appealing to the attitudes and desires of the upcoming generations, they might be able to overcome the dominance of the incumbent and bolster their credibility as a significant political challenge to the PAP.
The ‘power’ of the opposition in Singapore is undeniably limited due to their own inherent weaknesses and also the existence of structural constraints. Where the political opposition fails to assert themselves as credible, viable alternatives to the PAP, they will be unable to progress in the political scene and will seem defenceless against the label of being ‘pathetic’. However, it is important to qualify the inadequacy of the opposition. With unhindered political dominance from independence and a carefully cultivated narrative that PAP’s hegemony is pivotal to our survival and prosperity as a nation, it is difficult to remove this ‘PAP factor’ that has been institutionalised within Singapore’s political scene. Often, ‘PAP’ is synonymous with ‘government’ amongst Singaporeans - this deeply established dominance is by no means easy to overcome, and is partly a reason for the opposition’s lack of power. In spite of these structural obstacles, there exists much promise, and it will be disappointing if the opposition does not maximise these opportunities. Even if challenging the PAP seems an impossible, daunting task, it is imperative that the opposition tries its best to utilise its position to provide alternate voices in Parliament. After all, this notion of ‘alternate voices’ is what all opposition parties promise the citizenry when contesting in General Elections. In a flourishing society that is supposedly democratic, such alternative voices are essential and conducive to the growth of our nation, and also the people. Especially with the rise of social media and certain contentious issues, the opposition now, more than ever, is in an opportune position to provide such alternative voices, and to ensure that the incumbent’s rule remains to the benefit of our country. The opposition does show promise and has successfully made some progress; however, they ultimately still retain the potential to do much better.
 Hoe Yeong, Lokem The First Wave: JBJ, Chiam & the Opposition in Singapore, Epigram, 2019.
Chelsea is a Year 2 Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) undergraduate. She believes that political awareness and acknowledging nuances in the varying issues facing the world is important, and hopes that through her articles, readers will explore a more balanced and nuanced view of matters. Her comfort activities include listening to music, binge watching Modern Family, and online shopping.