Legend of success

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 August, 2001, 12:00am

In 1958, a young Lee Kuan Yew stopped over for four days in Rome. At Saint Peter's Basilica, the future prime minister of Singapore caught sight of Pope Pius XII and pondered the tremendous staying power of the Church.

'The Catholic Church must have got many things right to have survived for nearly 2,000 years,' he later recalled.

Shortly afterwards, when he arrived back home, Mr Lee and his colleagues revamped the structure of the People's Action Party (PAP), modelling it indirectly on that of the Vatican.

Under the new format, a handful of favoured cadres had the authority to appoint the party leader, just as a few dozen cardinals enjoyed the power to appoint the head of the church. The adjustment prevented the infiltration of PAP by the communists, or as Mr Lee put it, 'closed the circuit'.

The move was just one step in the creation of one of Southeast Asia's most successful electoral forces. With the pro-communist left unable to seize control, the PAP went on to sweep Singapore's self-government elections of 1959.

The party has won nine general elections since, and it is significant that these days the communists are paying tribute to Mr Lee's long-standing achievements.

'The two parties should strengthen exchanges, learn from each other's strong points, and jointly explore ways to run their respective countries well,' China's Politburo member Li Changchun said during a recent visit to Singapore.

The compliments and debatable merits of such advice apart, the PAP is set to continue running the country for many years to come.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong must call national elections by next August, and although the date of the polls has yet to be announced, commentators and voters are united in their belief that the outcome is all but a foregone conclusion.

'I think the PAP will continue to carry the ground,' says Lee Chun Wah, associate professor at Nanyang Technological University. 'My gut feeling is most Singaporeans want to see the PAP continue to run the government, although they may feel comfortable giving the opposition one or two constituencies.'

Commentators add that the opposition lacks nationwide support and, compared with the ruling party, is disorganised. Perhaps more importantly, they emphasise that the PAP's record on improving people's welfare over the past four decades has given it a solid base on which to appeal to the electorate. Citizens are eligible to vote at 21 years, and voting is compulsory.

Official statistics show that average per capita incomes in the republic have risen two-and-a-half times over the past 20 years to more than S$35,000. (HK$150,500). Despite this year's recession, unemployment is low by regional standards - less than 3 per cent - while basic services in health, education and amenities are high. Singapore's environment is clean, well-tended and safe.

If the bigger picture points to continued PAP dominance, where will the excitement come in?

Sparks should fly in the few constituencies where the opposition does field candidates.

At the last poll in 1997, the PAP obtained 65 per cent of the vote but secured 81 83 elected seats. In that contest, like most others of the past few decades, the opposition did not field candidates in many constituencies, opting instead to concentrate its firepower on what it viewed as the most promising ground.

Associate Professor Lee notes that the recent formation of an opposition coalition, the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), headed by MP Chiam See Tong, unites his Singapore People's Party with the National Solidarity Party, Singapore Justice Party and Singapore Malay National Organisation.

'They may be tempted to try for a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) rather than a single-member seat,' Associate Professor Lee said, referring to the multi-member constituencies that account for the bulk of representation in Parliament.

The 15 GRCs cover large areas, and to contest one of them parties must include at least one 'minority' candidate, either Malay or Indian. This rule was drafted to ensure that non-Chinese communities - which account for about a quarter of the population - enjoy national-level representation.

'The last election was held during good times in January 1997, before the Asian crisis,' another poll watcher said. 'This time, people will be concerned about job security and paying their bills.'

One well-known face that will not appear in the forthcoming election is Joshua Jeyaretnam, former head of the Workers' Party. Mr Jeyaretnam, perhaps the country's most prominent anti-establishment figure, was declared bankrupt in July, burdened by debts from just one of the many defamation suits he has faced.

As the constitution forbids bankrupts from holding elected office, the former MP was barred from the current parliamentary session and may not submit his name for re-election. Mr Jeyaretnam's removal from the political arena comes after a lifetime of legal challenges, frequently from PAP members, including the case that finally pushed him into bankruptcy.

The predilection for suing opposition members is a hallmark of the ruling party's method of taking the fight to those who choose to campaign against them. Senior PAP members, from Mr Lee down, say it is the most effective way of upholding both their reputations and the integrity of the political process.

Outsiders complain that the legal barrage may dissuade young Singaporeans from active involvement in politics. Amnesty International, the human rights group, says the process 'may act as a powerful deterrent to exercising their right to peaceful freedom of expression'.

With Mr Jeyaretnam out of the picture, his long-time rival and architect of modern Singapore, Mr Lee, may also decide to call it a day. The former prime minister, now senior minister, still sits in the House, representing Tanjong Pagar.

Whether he runs or not, the party he helped to bring into existence appears set to extend its dominance, although it still has a very long way to go before it can begin claim a history to rival that of the Catholic Church.