Drum beat of discontent in Singapore draws near

3,000 protesters put ruling party on notice that iron fist will not always hold sway in city-state

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 4:56am


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Singapore's biggest protest in decades shows that the ruling party for over half a century is facing a more vocal electorate and must change or watch its popularity slide further, analysts say.

An estimated 3,000 Singaporeans chanted "we want change" and endured heavy downpours on Saturday to reject government immigration proposals, in a rare demonstration in the tightly controlled city-state of 5.3 million people.

Although low by global standards, the turnout was the largest in years in Singapore, where the People's Action Party (PAP) has traditionally responded to any dissent with a firm hand. It provides the government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong much to consider.

"I think the anti-PAP sentiment will build and spread unless there's a very fundamental change in the way the PAP deals with the people, which I don't see happening," political analyst Seah Chiang Nee said.

"I think there's going to be a further decline in the popularity of the PAP between now and 2016," added Seah, who runs the political website referring to the next general elections.

For most at the rally, held at a designated free-speech corner after a Facebook campaign, it was their first time waving placards and chanting slogans against the PAP, which has ruled Singapore for almost 54 years.

Eugene Tan, an assistant law professor at the Singapore Management University, said the turnout showed "we have a more contested political landscape and the PAP will have to deal with a more vocal electorate".

The PAP, long used to winning districts uncontested, has seen its support slide since a general election in May 2011 when it recorded is lowest ever share of the vote at 60 per cent and the opposition won an unprecedented six parliamentary seats.

Since then, the PAP has lost two by-elections, although it still controls 80 of the 87 seats in parliament.

Saturday's protesters were rallying against government projections that the population could rise by a third to almost seven million in less than 20 years, with much of the increase resulting from immigration.

For years, the affluent but worker-starved city-state, built by mainly Chinese immigrants, had rolled out the welcome mat for foreigners, whose numbers rose drastically during the economic boom from 2004-2007.

"Foreigners are going to create a lot of problems, especially the rich ones who buy up all our property. Where are Singaporeans going to live?" tax consultant Kevin Foo, 42, said at the rally.