A study in politics for Chinese leaders

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2011, 12:00am


While the wave of revolution that has swept through the Arab world has clearly unsettled China's leaders, the more sobering recent development is arguably the unprecedented surge in support for opposition parties in the Singapore general election. Singapore has been in a state of political equilibrium and stability for a long time. What were the factors that led to the lapse in support for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP)?

A troubled economy and inequitable wealth distribution are often cited as triggers for political change. Interestingly, there is mounting discontent with the Singapore government despite exceptional economic performance. The rising costs of living and the influx of foreign labour have proved to be problematic. Of a population of 5.07 million, Singaporean citizens and permanent residents make up only 3.77 million.

Despite the multi-ethnic composition, integrating a migrant labour force of diverse origins has proved difficult. Singaporeans view both the migrant labour and permanent residents as unwanted competition for jobs, and the main reason for rising property prices.

The problem is that the PAP government has been sustained primarily through an economic social contract, and not by ideology or strong emotive allegiance. Although the rising costs of living can be largely attributed to global economic forces, and the import of labour is necessary due to the low birth rate, Singaporeans are quick to shift the blame of any perceived economic hardship to the government.

New media offer avenues to circumvent censorship, promote citizen journalism and facilitate real-time transmission of information. As such, they are often seen as enabling tools for political change. In Singapore, the new media have merely served a secondary role; the chief motivation behind the support for opposition stems from the desire to check the purported complacence of the incumbent government.

Singapore has long been a top destination for the public policy training of Chinese civil servants due to its admired approach to governance.

The election this year has clearly shown that the model of focusing on growth and governance based on an economic social contract and tough controls is not sustainable. Legitimacy falters in the long term when not affirmed through political contest, and support for the government has to stem from ideological affiliation and hard-earned trust. This might serve as an invaluable case study for China.

Loh Su Hsing is an associate fellow at Chatham House, London, and a Singaporean PhD candidate at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University