Elections over, Singapore's ruling party must get right back to work

Kevin Rafferty says amid a region in flux, Singapore leaders have no time to bask in their electoral win

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2015, 6:12pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2015, 6:12pm

Lee Hsien Loong, his People's Action Party (PAP) and the people of Singapore confounded critics, pundits and newspaper opponents, who had all been willing the prime minister to suffer a major setback in last week's election. Instead, Lee and the PAP came back with a bigger majority.

Nevertheless, in his moment of triumph, Lee should be looking anxiously over his shoulder. He should be worried about what is happening in the neighbourhood, and the danger of fallout or contagion, especially from Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar, and even China.

His victory should not obscure the questions that remain for Lee himself, his party and for the small and vulnerable island of Singapore. Lee cashed in on the celebration of Singapore's 50 years of independence and on sympathy for the death of his father and Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew. His party rebounded to take 69.9 per cent of the popular vote, up from the miserable 60.1 per cent showing in 2011 and won 83 of 89 seats in parliament.

No doubt in casting their votes, critical Singaporeans were sensible enough to balance the achievements of the PAP and the quality, lack of, of a gaggle of squabbling opposition leaders. Singapore has been called a highly controlled democracy, but Singaporeans are surely aware of what happens when democracy goes rogue.

Prosperous Singapore can do little about its neighbours' democratic deficits, except pray for recovery so that the whole region can benefit together from better economic times

The contrast between Singapore and Malaysia is startling, in spite of both being effectively one-party states. When I went to Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s, the two countries were still splitting the joint institutions that had served both when they were one country. We all had dreams that Malaysia would prove itself superior to Singapore. Malaysia was blessed with natural resources galore, including oil, and space to live and breathe. It was a real country, not, like Singapore, a mere city state just under half the size of Hong Kong, which had to import its water. Now it is no contest. By every indicator, Singapore has proved itself superior.

As a one-party state, Malaysia today is testing Lord Acton's dictum that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Whatever the facts in the particular case of 1Malaysia Development Berhad against Prime Minister Najib Razak, with allegations that US$700 million had been transferred into his personal accounts, and denials of wrongdoing from the prime minister, years of dominance and privilege of the Malays under the protection of Najib's Umno party have turned Malaysia into a rotten state.

Former premier Mahathir Mohamad has jumped into the fray, accusing Najib and demanding that he must go. Mahathir's long rule as prime minister, which saw him destroy three deputies, was an era of ruthless patronage politics that badly damaged the country's democratic framework.

It will not be easy to clean up Malaysian politics because it will mean dismantling the ideology of Malay supremacy from which privileged Malays have profited handsomely. Equally important, it means reaching out to Chinese and Indian minorities, who 45 years ago were 34 and 9 per cent of the population, but were 24.6 and 7.3 per cent of the 28.6 million Malaysians in 2010.

When Singaporeans look further north, they see what happens when democracy is undermined. Both Thailand and Myanmar show the price paid when the military takes over. Nevertheless, the two countries seem to be moving in opposite directions, with the latter opening up for the first free elections in decades, and the nervous Thai military digging in and postponing elections.

Myanmar's military has not given up power, however, and the purge last month of Thura Shwe Mann as chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party suggests renewed military assertiveness.

The Thai military proved after its previous coup against Thaksin Shinawatra that it lacks sophistication and subtlety to run a complicated modern state. The economy is faltering and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha last month drafted Thaksin's former finance minister Somkid Jatusripitak to try to boost growth.

As long as King Bhumibol Adulyadej is ailing, the military will be reluctant to risk an election unleashing popular passions, so Thailand faces tough times.

Prosperous Singapore can do little about its neighbours' democratic deficits, except pray for recovery so that the whole region can benefit together from better economic times. With China's economy suffering growing pains, it is a wretched time for political defaults to be bringing damaging economic consequences across Southeast Asia.

Lee is smart enough to admit that Singapore needs to tackle a widening gap between rich and poor, high prices and local fears of being inundated by immigrants.

But the questions get personal for Lee. Singapore has flourished for 50 turbulent years, effectively under the Lee father and son. There are no evident plans for the succession, even though Lee, now 63, has had two brushes with cancer.

Singapore has other talented leaders, though none with the character of Lee and his father. One leading question is whether Singaporeans would tolerate the same kind of restrictions from another leader as they have from the Lees, where outspoken opponents risk being bankrupted.

Now in the glow of victory would be the best time to dismantle the unnecessary authoritarian scaffolding that surrounds Singapore's democracy: trust the people, who are smart, educated and rich enough to make their own wise choices, and let nanny prime minister concentrate on the big picture.

Kevin Rafferty was in charge of the Financial Times' Asian coverage and went to Malaysia to be founder-editor of Business Times