Smooth handover of power on horizon
On May 1 two Singapore politicians set out to mark International Labour Day in the manner that they each thought most appropriate. The first travelled to the gates of the presidential palace on Orchard Road where he intended to sell a few campaign books and give a speech about how working people were faring during the downturn.
The topic was timely. Thousands had been laid off during the worst recession in a generation and there was widespread concern about when conditions would start to pick up. Recent tax proposals that would raise the share of government income taken from the poorest were also in the news.
The second politician headed for a trade union rally, attended by a reported 800 delegates. He wanted to tell the crowd that workers should remain flexible, that jobs were available and the government would ensure that no one was made worse off by the impending tax changes for some years.
Although the men's concerns were in some ways similar, they fared very differently. The first - Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Chee Soon Juan - was quickly surrounded by police at the palace, warned that he was breaking the law, and bundled into the back of waiting van. He is due to appear in court later this month to face charges of wilful trespass and providing entertainment without a licence.
For the second - Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - things went more smoothly. The gathering was authorised by the necessary authorities and went off without a hitch. 'Our workers must also adapt to the new, changing environment, learning new skills, and accepting new work conditions, including less convenient work locations,' the man set to take the reins from Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said.
The day's events tell the observer a great deal about the state of politics in the city-state in the first decade of the 21st century.
The opposition remains marginalised and some of its leaders chafe against what they see as unnecessarily restrictive laws that stifle free speech, including the requirement that all gatherings must be authorised by the police. As he has done on several occasions before, the SDP head signalled his determination to disobey the law on May 1 in advance.
Getting arrested by swarms of police - including some in plain clothes - in front of the media's cameras is part of a calculated, ongoing challenge to the authorities. Unsurprisingly, Mr Chee is also embroiled in several other cases, each of which highlights the tightly regulated nature of Singapore's political process.
By contrast, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) remains the commanding power in the political arena. In office since self-government was granted in 1959 and the only administration that Singaporeans have known since independence in 1965, the party of Mr Goh, Mr Lee and his father, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, is utterly dominant.
The PAP's near-total command of the political landscape is buttressed by its ability to secure repeated endorsements at the ballot box, nurture the economy, and keep its rivals off balance. As two Canada-based academics put it in a just-released study: 'Despite restrictions on political freedoms, and in spite of a desire to see more openness . . . as long as the government delivers the goods and meets and contains the high expectations of Singaporeans, they will continue to support the Singapore system and PAP rule.'
The latest test of the PAP's legitimacy came at last year's general election in November, the first to be held during a recession. As the brief, rule-bound campaign was under way, the only question was not which party would win, but by what margin would the government return to the business of governing.
The answer was predictable. As the opposition put up candidates in less than half the 84 seats on offer, the government secured another solid parliamentary majority before a vote was cast. When polling day did arrive, the opposition held on to its two seats, but at reduced margins.
In remarks just hours after his third election victory at the helm, Prime Minister Goh said he was gratified by the result, especially given the tough economic conditions. 'The people have given us a very strong mandate,' he said. 'Right away we would form [an] economic committee to look into the medium-term restructuring of the economy but immediately we would look to soften the blow of the recession.'
Elsewhere that election night, Mr Chee's bid to win the hearts and votes of the citizens in Jurong East - a working class constituency - was roundly rejected as the PAP comfortably defended the multi-member seat. The battle with the incumbents was especially ill-tempered, and has spawned a raft of defamation lawsuits between Mr Chee and his opponents that have yet to be settled.
With the election now long past, attention is turning to the forthcoming leadership transition - Singapore's second since independence. Prime Minister Goh has long made plain that he wants to step down before the next national poll is due in 2007, and as expected he has endorsed Deputy Prime Minister Lee as his successor.
When the recession was at its height, Mr Goh had suggested that he may delay the transfer of power to cope with the economic slowdown. But with this year's recovery under way, he is now expected to relinquish office either next year or, at the latest, in 2004.
Although the handover will be orderly, the switch does raise some important questions. First, will Senior Minister Lee want to remain as an integral part of the government when his elder son has secured the prime ministership? Second, will the voters take to the younger Lee as they did to the country's first two leaders? And third, what style of government can Singaporeans expect from the new man, whom they already know well from his near two decades as a politician?
For answers to the first two points, observers will have to await the actual switch, but there have been plenty of hints about the third issue in recent months. 'I think that we should try to preserve a certain social cohesion, so that there is a dominant mainstream view of the way the country should go,' he told an interviewer earlier this year. The country should also maintain 'a consensus that these are our problems and these are our ways of dealing with them', he added.
While there have been signs in recent years that Mr Goh has allowed a fraction more political space for competing points of view - including from his own backbench MPs - Singapore's basic authoritarian framework remains. And from what his successor has said, that is unlikely to change much when he does realise his long-held dream of taking the top job.