The lesson of the Singapore election

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2013, 4:14am

Singapore's governing People's Action Party is soul-searching as to how it could have lost another election to the opposition Worker's Party of Singapore. Saturday's by-election defeat, the second in less than a year, on top of its worst-ever general poll showing in 2011, leaves it with 80 of the 87 elected seats in parliament. The party, having dominated politics for more than half a century, is unfamiliar with losing, so is bound to put its campaign strategy under the microscope. But as much as there is a temptation to try to win back what has been lost, its energies would be more wisely directed towards how to better serve a more demanding electorate.

The ruling party thought it had done all that was necessary to win, promising policy reforms and massive public spending in the lead-up to polling day. Theories abound as to how its candidate, a noted surgeon, could have lost to a middle-class corporate trainer. Perhaps it was due to a lack of political experience, insufficient campaign preparedness or a perception of elitism. Or maybe the hot Singapore issues of housing, immigration, transport congestion and the soaring cost of living were the main reasons.

Authorities are well aware of growing discontent, especially among young voters. They have moved aggressively to cool property prices, bolster social protections and limit the number of low-skilled foreign workers. But the fast-ageing population brings significant challenges, while policies, such as providing affordable housing, take time to implement.

Policies have to be formulated with consensus in mind. Plans unveiled yesterday to beat the low birth rate and maintain growth by attracting tens of thousands of foreign professionals and granting them permanent residency have caused controversy. If successful, it will swell the population by 30 per cent by 2030, cutting the proportion of native Singaporeans from 62 to 55 per cent. Such a dramatic change requires much debate and opposition politicians have a key role.

The Achilles' heel of Singapore's political system is the lack of a strong opposition party. Effective and credible alternative voices in parliament would ensure that those in power are better attuned and more responsive to the needs of the people. Singaporeans are not clamouring for a change in power, nor is the opposition yet prepared or ready to take it. The PAP would do well to view the by-election loss as an opportunity for improvement rather than a disaster.