Ruling party's resounding win in Singapore elections reflects the success of its political model

Tom Plate finds reasons in Singapore's latest election results for taking its governance model seriously

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 September, 2015, 5:57pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 September, 2015, 5:57pm

You don't automatically think of "elections" when thinking of Singapore; many will come to a stop at "authoritarian". Blame the latter perception, if you want, on the first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, for whom dissenting views were an obstacle which a state on a fast-track course of economic development could ill afford, especially if the ruling party had all the right answers, or at least many of them.

But after the iron-willed Lee died, at 91 in March, if you thought that was the beginning of the end of his People's Action Party (PAP), you thought wrong. Last week, the government, led by his son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, surprised the world (and maybe even himself) with a landslide election win that has to be viewed as a vindication of father, son, party and policies - all bound together.

Being bound together is not necessarily so terrible a political thing. Outsiders ridiculed the "nanny state", as the Lees' Singapore has been dubbed. But when it turns out that the "nannies" sport high IQs and aren't stashing the people's money in foreign bank accounts but are on the whole producing positive public policy, such "binding" feels more like the special social glue (or social capital) that is the essence of a successful society.

You know all about the sparkling statistics - a high per capita income, low crime rate, highly rated health system, solid schools and almost a cultural fever for higher education. Problems? There are plenty, including the rich-poor gap, immigrant workers, high-cost housing and so on; but none are remotely unique in the region, much less worldwide; and the Lee government had "street cred" in pushing to solve them.

The late Lee Kuan Yew could be grumpily frank about his tepidity for one-person, one-vote elections. But he also accepted that it gave people a sense of purpose in the polity

To quote a former cabinet member: "The world is changing fast. Governance can't stop changing." To that end, the new government to be formed should, in this post-Lee-Kuan-Yew era, dial up a little more tolerance for dissent and media latitude.

Another anti-Singapore sling has been that it is so tiny, its success is no big deal at all. Wrong again. Half the world's countries - the UN recognises 193 - have populations fewer than 10 million, and many have fewer than Singapore's, including Ireland, Uruguay, Norway, Kuwait and New Zealand. So instead of criticising it for electoral impurity, why not take an open-minded look at its overall governance philosophy.

Policies are to be hatched not in the bowels of multinational corporations or in conference rooms of musty parliaments and half-bought congresses, where the sun rarely shines; but in venues that honour intellect and aim to hatch best practices ( (such as the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy); and with bright and honest government officials who are paid well.

Yet, despite the 50-year streak of achievement, the PAP had feared the worst. The party was still shaking in self-doubt from the 2011 elections, in which a handful of parliamentary seats were lost (a big, big deal in Singapore), the PAP lost some of its halo and Lee Kuan Yew, among other grandees, retired from the government.

Suddenly, the party that had been running things for so long feared voters would tilt for opposition candidates just for the sake of change.

Note that a meaner, more incompetent kind of government - think, oh, of Thailand's - might have pushed panic buttons of delay. Or have risked the system's integrity by sanctioning only well-vetted, like-minded candidates with near-identical perspectives (see Hong Kong's rejection of the 2017 election proposal).

Rather, the Lee government, staying on the high ground, won big, despite a tremendous opposition effort. But, as a noted Singapore journalist put it: "People were so rattled by all the rallies and extensive use of social media, they took flight to safety, fearing big gains by opposition and a weakened government. Shrewd electorate." He may be onto something.

One candidate from the losing Reform Party compared the result to those in China and North Korea: "All this is a mandate for authoritarianism and brainwashing. Singaporeans get the government they deserve. I don't want to hear any more complaints."

Singaporeans, in my experience, are anything but dumb, and talking down to those voters isn't smart. Last week, in their choice of who shall continue to serve as their "nanny", they chose well.

When I first visited, in 1996, I left impressed and wrote a Los Angeles Times column saying that. But American journalists, not one ever bothering to visit or interview Lee Kuan Yew (one columnist called him "Little Hitler"), thought I had lost my mind. I began to wonder whether the US media had lost its.

Two decades later, much of the Western media finally got the story right - that Singapore is a huge success, with a verifiable, empirical reason: it offers good governance. So where can we find more nannies like that?

I sincerely hope the leaders of China are taking all this in. The late Lee Kuan Yew could be grumpily frank about his tepidity for one-person, one-vote elections. He would tell you that such a system risked producing erratic results (inferior leaders). But he also accepted that it gave people a sense of purpose in the polity, and more reasons for the ruling party to stay close to its constituencies.

The Singapore system is obviously not for everybody. That's not the argument here. But there's no reason not to take it seriously, not to mention not to treat it with the respect it deserves.

By the way, have you been following what's going on in neighbouring Malaysia?

Columnist Tom Plate, the author of Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew in the Giants of Asia series, is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles