Singapore, a one–party dominant state
By: Saddiq Basha (Book Prize Participant, Winner)
With the collapse of the Barisan Nasional (BN) in Malaysia’s 14th General Election, Singapore remains the last regional bastion of the one-party dominant state, with the People’s Action Party (PAP) holding on to power since its independence in 1965.
This essay builds upon the PAP’s ability to win general elections (GE), due to its ability to define Singapore’s political culture. As a result, the PAP can effectively influence voter preferences and define the rules of the game. Furthermore, this essay argues that it is important for PAP to remain credible, especially considering that factionalism within any political party is detrimental.
Firstly, by shaping Singapore’s political culture to value valence considerations coupled with its successful policies, it enhances the PAP’s credibility, allowing them to capture the majority of the votes in the upcoming GE. Since the political culture in Singapore places valence considerations on a pedestal, the electoral competition entails who is best able to fulfil these expectations when elected. Hence, through its hegemony, only the PAP has a proven track record for ensuring that Singaporean’s material needs are safeguarded, making Singaporeans compelled to vote for them.
Secondly, the party’s ability to circumvent the rules of the game for the opposition makes it challenging for parties to ideologically oppose the PAP, whose values have been deeply entrenched into the Singaporean society. In Singh’s book, he acknowledged that one aspect of the Opposition’s continuous weakness is in its “lack of an alternative and attractive ideology”.  As Oliver and Ostwald have explained, the PAP does not have a defined ideological foundation that could be placed on the political spectrum. This is evident in the contrast between the government’s ‘rightist’, pro-market economic policies and their ‘leftist’, welfare-oriented domestic policies. Hence, this undefined ideological framework makes it arduous for opposition parties to provide an alternative because the PAP’s basis of governance, one of the non-ideological pragmatism, gives them the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances.
However, not all opposition parties are ideologically opposed to the PAP and in fact, the Workers’ Party (WP), which is the most formidable opposition in Singapore politics, is attuned to PAP’s ideology and stance. According to Abdullah, WP has been able to achieve its electoral success since the 2011 GE precisely because it “does not seek to challenge or replace the People’s Action Party’s accounts of meritocracy, multiracialism and economic pragmatism.”. Thus, instead of challenging the PAP ideologically, the WP questions the PAP’s ability to meet the standards that it has placed for itself. This is evident during the 2011 GE when the WP epitomised the rising income inequality and cost of living in Singapore, blaming the PAP for failing to ensure the material well-being of its citizens.
Hence, the 2011 GE saw the PAP receiving its lowest count in the popular vote since independence with 60.14%. Ostensibly, this can suggest that the WP could and should replicate this successful formula in the upcoming GE, if they want to have more representation in parliament.
Also, it could be argued that the formation of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) symbolises a revival of an antagonistic political movement that developed from dissatisfaction within the PAP itself, promising to serve as a political alternative to the PAP and revitalising the Opposition movement in Singapore. As Dr Tan explains, his departure from the PAP was due to an irreconcilable difference that stemmed from a fundamental change within the PAP.
Dr Tan argues that the PAP of today is plagued with misgovernance, specifically with the “erosion of transparency, independence and accountability” and thus differs from the old PAP, which he perceives to have championed the ordinary Singaporeans. This is a significant development in Singapore’s contemporary politics because it is the first instance of an opposition party, consisting of ex-PAP politicians and cadres, to have challenged PAP’s legitimacy. Thus, Dr Tan and the PSP are significant in developing Singapore’s political future because not only do they have the potential to invigorate the Opposition but it has laid the foundation for future dissenting PAP members to replicate their actions of forming their own party and joining the opposition.
With that said, some might cast doubts on the significance of Dr Tan’s PSP, arguing that it is merely an anomaly and that the PAP is largely intact despite Dr Tan’s departure. However, the issue of unity may arise during the approaching transition between Lee Hsien Loong and the 4th Generation (4G) leaders in the upcoming GE. This period of baton passing could potentially disrupt the unity within the PAP and lead to a schism, especially when instances of irreconcilable differences surfaces. As Mutalib had observed, such a scenario had occurred in the past, between the 2G and 3G PAP leadership.
Firstly, he observed that the departure of the ‘old guard’ or in our case, the 3G leadership, will pose a challenge to the PAP because it will lead to the erosion of some of its existing principles as the 4G leaders experiment with new methods of governance that could alienate the voters. Furthermore, the loss of an identifiable personality like PM Lee Hsien Loong, might be problematic as it raises doubts on the capabilities and experience of the new leadership in meeting their needs.
Secondly, during the previous transition period, Mutalib observed that there were rising tensions between Goh Chock Tong and Lee Hsien Loong, who both possess differing personalities and governing styles. Mutalib suggested that with two polarising personalities, the cabinet members could potentially develop loyalties based on their support on either one of them.
Such developments have been hinted to have occurred recently when Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, in his freudian slip, revealed that there were instances of lobbying for positions for younger cadres within the PAP. The fact that such occurrences are ongoing suggests that factionalism may jeopardise the foundation of the PAP. Hence, it could be argued that these possible conflicts and factionalism within the PAP could lead to some PAP politicians following the footsteps of Dr Tan – leaving the PAP to set up their own party and challenging the PAP itself.
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Singh, Bilveer. Is the People’s Action Party Here to Stay?: Analysing the Resilience of the One-Party Dominant State in Singapore. Singapore: World Scientific, 2019.
Saddiq Basha is a second-year Political Science major from the National University of Singapore. He has a deep interest in the political developments and history of Southeast Asia and South Asia. If he’s not drowning in his readings, he’s busy educating people over the excessiveness of saying “chai tea”.
Views expressed here are strictly those of the author(s) and not of the organization.