COM 05/2016

Singapore: Flight to Safety Trumps Performance Legitimacy

Michael D. Barr, PhD, Associate Professor in International Relations at the School of International Studies of Flinders University, Australia


On 11 September 2015, the people of Singapore gave the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) its strongest mandate ever. A 10% swing brought its share of the vote up to 70% and reduced the number of opposition MPs from 7 to 6. This is not the highest vote the PAP has ever received, nor is this the lowest number of opposition MPs ever in Parliament, but these outcomes set new benchmarks because they were achieved in the first election since independence in which every constituency was contested. They were also won in the age of the internet, Facebook and Twitter and when the opposition had already a string of electoral successors, capitalising on a string of government policy and administrative failures in the areas of housing, transport, immigration and many aspects of the cost of living. They were also achieved in the first election under the “new normal”, a paradigm established in the 2011 General Election, whereby the PAP cannot presume that it holds the moral, intellectual and electoral high ground, so that its leaders know that they have to win and retain supporters, much like politicians do in Western democracies.

The opposition was naturally disappointed with its showing and the PAP leaders were naturally pleased, but in the case of the Cabinet Ministers, there was a more telling reaction written in their faces, speeches and body language: they were amazed. Only two nights earlier, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had addressed a PAP rally and by all conventional measures delivered one of his worst speeches ever. He was fumbling, flustered, defensive and pleading. He highlighted all the issues on which his government was vulnerable – “housing, transport, immigration and health care” – simply to plead for support on the rather weak basis that the government was working hard to fix them. To make it worse, there were many awkward silences where the small crowd listening was supposed to cheer or laugh, but were missing their cues. No one is going to convince me that he did not walk onto that platform in a state of near panic, and walked off thinking he was a loser.

But he wasn’t a loser. Far from it. Clearly, something drastic had happened in the four years since the 2011 General Election, or possibly as recently as the week of the election campaign itself.

Learning politics

First I suggest that the PAP leadership used the four years since the last General Election to learn how to do politics. By this I mean that, recognising the reality and implications of the “new normal”, Cabinet set out to win back lost support, moderate and correct unpopular policies, deflect criticism, and be seen to be caring representatives who listen to the people. It initiated programmes of welfare-style handouts, and health care and housing reforms designed to target hitherto neglected segments of the constituency: the young unmarrieds, the aged and the poor. (Admittedly, some of these reforms were already in train in more modest ways before 2011.) Uncharacteristically, it also engaged in slick, expensive and very effective public relations campaigns to reach out to the beneficiaries of these campaigns so that they were fully aware of what was available – and who they had to thank for it.

The government also denigrated selected members of the opposition, took a series of steps to silence and frighten critics and brought the new media (internet blogs, etc.) more fully into the ambit of the government’s regulation. All the while they worked through the Ministry of National Development to engage in a major campaign targeting opposition’s managerial competence, based on the record of management of the only Town Council run by the opposition. They used the Town Council issue as a meme to suggest that an opposition victory (which was technically a possibility since all seats were contested) would bring Singapore crashing down.

Except perhaps for the heightened levels of direct repression, such measures are the very grist of ordinary political engagement in most functioning democracies, but until 2011 they were outside the experience of the current crop of Cabinet Ministers, most of whom come from privileged backgrounds and all of whom were parachuted into politics after being plucked from their chosen careers. They had not fought to get their positions and had little notion of how to relate to ordinary people, with whom most had enjoyed little understanding or natural empathy. Since the 1980s, PAP leaders had slipped into lazy habits when it came to winning elections: bullying opposition candidates (by libel and other legal actions); harassing opposition parties and civil society organisations (by restricting and closely managing their capacity to organise and speak); managing the media and trying to manage the internet; bullying constituencies (by threatening to deprive them of housing upgrades); and manipulating electoral boundaries just a few weeks out from each election. The exercise of receiving feedback and finessing policies with an eye to responding to popular opinion was part of this mix, but it was not a high priority. Hence they were blindsided in 2011 when the opposition, even working under such repressive conditions, found itself able to build a base of popular support sufficient to propel them into Parliament in a serious way.

Popular Support

The second major factor in the PAP’s victory is even more basic: that the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans – including, it seems, the internet generation – have accepted, and even welcomed the PAP as their security blanket. As much as they might grumble about the government, complain about their many failings and enjoy poking fun at them, even young, educated, and well-travelled Singaporeans could not endure the thought that Singapore might have to manage without the PAP and the managerial regime it represents. Perhaps the decisive moment was the final night of rallies when they saw Lee Hsien Loong on television or on the internet in a state of near-panic – with his personal vulnerabilities on display for all to see – but the message was probably firmed up long before this. Given this framework, the main task of the Government’s political messaging was simply to provide a trigger to activate this fear.

If this analysis is sound, then the likelihood of fundamental political change in Singapore is bleak indeed because it means that into the foreseeable future, the quest for 70% of the electorate, securing a safe harbour is always going to emerge as more than concerns about ‘performance legitimacy’. Singaporeans are now willing to accept an ordinary Singapore where the trains break down regularly, the government routinely makes mistakes and then apologises, and where the government deals with criticism by silencing the critics. Such shortcomings have always been present, but unlike in the past, they are now public, acknowledged and acceptable.