Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is Asia’s most quotable leader.
In May, soon after the surprise victory of his Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance in elections, he quipped that Singaporeans “must be tired of having the same government, the same party since independence”, a clear reference to the republic’s ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) almost six-decade monopoly on power.
Mahathir, as history will tell us, is no fan of Singapore.
Understandably, the 93-year-old’s pronouncements on the city state since returning to power have drawn a lot of attention.
Intrigued by the possibility of change in Singapore, Team Ceritalah travelled across the causeway to see what local residents thought of Malaysia’s historic election and how – if at all – it would impact them.
“It was exciting that PH won. But I think that Singaporeans will still vote for some semblance of the status quo,” says Try Foo, a 25-year-old Southeast Asian Studies student at the National University of Singapore.
“There’s a lack of factors for an opposition win – like the 1MDB [financial scandal] and Najib [Razak],” explains Martino Tan, co-founder of independent media platform mothership.sg.
Indeed, former prime minister Najib Razak and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition faced three critical obstacles.
First, it was dogged by a strong sense that Malaysia’s economy, under the BN’s watch, was failing to deliver equal opportunities against the backdrop of rising food prices and costs of living.
Second, a much-hated and little-understood sales tax (better known as the GST) seemed to have accelerated inflationary pressures on many everyday staples. Its introduction back in 2015 shocked and angered millions of Malaysians, who for the first time felt the brunt of consumption taxes, prompting, in turn, calls for greater scrutiny of government spending.
GST’s introduction in 2015 happened just as the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal – which implicated the then-premier – exploded into the public arena. The revelations served to erode the government’s already shaky credibility and further spurred popular disaffection.
Enter Mahathir. Having never lost an election since 1969, the nonagenarian wove together a simple narrative uniting the failure of trickle-down economics, the introduction of GST and Najib’s alleged corruption into a powerful electoral message.
Could the same happen in Singapore?
Certainly, it’s true that the economy is beginning to make life tough for ordinary Singaporeans.
Many like 34-year-old Melissa Teoh (not her real name), a mother of one and an Operations Associate, have had to grapple with the rising costs of living.
“I buy my 4-year-old’s milk powder from Malaysia. One tin there is 64 Malaysian ringgit (HK$124), versus S$64 (HK$368) here. Our cost of living is so high … we worry for our children.”
In March 2018, The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Singapore as the most expensive city in the world out of 133 for the fifth consecutive year, outpacing Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris. Singapore’s own GST is already 7 per cent – higher than Malaysia’s former 6 per cent.
But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s political travails pale in comparison to Najib’s.
Lee’s worst “scandal” to date – if one can even call it that – was a mid-2017 spat with his siblings, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling over the fate of 38 Oxley Road, the former residence of their late father and Singapore’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew.
“I was really worried when the siblings made the argument public – we had just lost Lee Kuan Yew. I was worried the government was going to fall through,” Melissa recalls.
Yet, as Martino observes, “It’s still not enough. There’s no popular figure among the opposition who is well-known across the young and old, who can rally and mobilise Singaporeans to consider the possibility of a change in government”.
Some Singaporeans are pinning their hopes on Pritam Singh, secretary general of the Workers’ Party (WP) and leader of the opposition.
He was part of the WP team that seized the Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in the unprecedented 2011 general elections. However, the 41-year-old has yet to attain Mahathir’s stature or accomplishments; the WP retained Aljunied in 2015 by a margin of less than 2 per cent.
Moreover, Singaporean politics arguably lacks an issue – besides the rising costs of living – to rally voters to effect change.
Like it or not, Singapore is not Malaysia, despite the many things that bind them together.
Malaysia’s highly emotional moment of democratic change is certainly something Malaysians and Southeast Asians can be proud of.
Nonetheless, with neither the headline controversies or opponents with gravitas, Singapore’s PAP looks like it won’t be going anywhere any time soon.
At least for now.