Will voters veer left in landmark election?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 May, 2011, 12:00am


Once the classic tale of economics trumps all, the 'Singapore story' can take an unexpected left turn come polling day, tomorrow.

In what is turning out to be a landmark election, Singapore's opposition parties are challenging 82 of 87 seats, or 94 per cent, a record high since independence in 1965. With almost every seat contested, voters have a greater opportunity to loosen the ironclad grip of the economics-savvy but socially conservative People's Action Party, and steer governance a tad closer to liberal democracy.

The frontier of this election can be said to be a battle fought on a simple choice - maintain the status quo or try something new?

If Singaporean voters opt for the former, then they are sanctioning the continuance of right-leaning policies. Although the party has incorporated elements of socialism in its policies, like the mandatory national pension plan, its social aid philosophy is based on notions of self-help, which justify its embrace of economic pragmatism. The party believes that the best way to help Singaporeans is to prioritise financial viability over social comfort, as evident from its decisions to build two casinos and import high numbers of foreign workers.

While unpopular, the surge in immigration over the past five years has been credited, in part, for the 14.5 per cent growth of Singapore's economy last year.

On the contrary, most opposition parties are championing some form of leftist agenda on bread and butter concerns, as well as issues of civil liberty.

Take the Workers' Party. It aims to reduce the prices of new public housing flats and increase the tuition grant for local undergraduates. In terms of civil liberty, it hopes to introduce a Freedom of Information Act and review Singapore's strict laws on public assembly.

Meanwhile, the Singapore Democratic Party wants to implement a minimum wage for workers and abolish the goods and services tax on basic commodities. It also wants to end the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial.

Similar socialist stances can also be gleaned from the manifestos of other opposition parties, like the National Solidarity Party and the Reform Party.

Given this onslaught, will Singaporeans veer left and embrace change? One must qualify that change is a nuanced concept in Singapore politics. The ruling party holds 82 out of the current 84 seats, and few analysts are speculating that it will lose its two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Judging by the mood of critical thinking on blogs and social networking sites, no one would be surprised if it loses more single member wards to the opposition this time. The sign of a significant change, however, will be seeing the party lose a group representation constituency, an electoral division comprising three to six candidates who are voted into parliament as a group. Losing two group constituencies or more would be nothing short of a revolution.

Nazry Bahrawi is a socio-cultural critic pursuing doctoral research at the University of Warwick