2007 - 2021

Singapore Progress

There was much talk of a “new normal” after the 2011 general election in Singapore. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) had received the lowest share of the vote since they came to power in 1959. It was still 60 per cent, and – thanks to a system in which citizens vote for teams rather than individual representatives – still got them over 90 per cent of the seats in Parliament, but the seeming erosion of popular support was enough to give rise to the hope that the Southeast Asian city-state was finally inching away from the single-party dominance that had characterised politics on the island for over five decades.

Generally speaking, Singapore has done well under the PAP. Upon gaining independence, the country has managed to build upon its strengths – such as world-class infrastructure left by the colonial British – to become an economic powerhouse far surpassing what might have been expected from such a tiny nation. The city is relatively safe and clean, and things, on the whole, work. Supporting the ruling party isn’t just a matter of being a brainwashed sheeple; there are genuine reasons why so many Singaporeans want the PAP to stay in charge.

But many, myself included, say we should do better. Singapore looks good on the surface, but closer examination reveals more issues of concern. Inequality is high, while social security and welfare schemes are nowhere near what a wealthy country like Singapore could afford. Immigration is a constant bugbear as locals complain that foreigners are a threat to the jobs and the local culture, but the hyper-capitalist system that operates in Singapore takes advantage of migrants and locals alike. There is no minimum wage, which makes it easy for salaries to be depressed in a race to the bottom.

2bellaPolitical freedoms, too, leave much to be desired. Public assemblies and demonstrations, no matter how peaceful, are not allowed in Singapore – unless you go to one little park in an easily-forgotten corner of the city, the only location in which public gatherings are allowed without having to apply to the police for a permit. There is no legislation granting citizens the right to freedom of information, so many decisions take place in black boxes that make it difficult for activists and opposition parties to properly engage in debate and policy proposals. Dissent can be quashed: just in the past year alone one blogger was convicted of scandalising the judiciary, another ordered to pay the prime minister S$150,000 for defamation, and a teenager spent over 50 days in remand for a potty-mouthed video criticising Lee Kuan Yew and Christianity.

With an overwhelming PAP dominance in parliament, it felt as if the only way to get change was to change parliament.

Then came the 2015 general election in September. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called it ahead of the 2016 deadline, likely to make the most out of a momentous year: Singapore was celebrating its Golden Jubilee as an independent country, and emotions still ran high from the passing of the first prime minister, the much-revered Lee Kuan Yew.

Still riding on the “promise” of 2011, many of us were convinced that alternative parties would make gains. Rallies held by the Workers’ Party – the only opposition party actually in parliament – were once again packed affairs, as they always are. Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, made an impressive comeback to electoral politics after finally discharging himself from the bankruptcy caused by defamation suits brought against him by members of the PAP. When the polls closed on 11 September, it felt justified to expect at least a few more seats in parliament for opposition candidates.

Then reality bit us all.

1bellaMy friends and I watched with disbelief as the sample polls – released to the public for the first time – predicted devastating losses for opposition parties. This was later confirmed when the official counts were released. Big swings back to the ruling party across the board left the PAP winning the general election with almost 70 per cent of the popular vote.

It was devastating. We’d put a lot of hope in the election, praying that it would push us further towards a more plural, equal society with real debate in parliament. We didn’t think that the PAP would lose, but we were so convinced that more progress could be made in terms of political plurality, only to watch every opposition party – even the more credible ones – get a drubbing at the polls.

The week after the results was a time of moping and self-reflection, of hand-wringing and political punditry. Everyone wanted to talk about the shock result and why it happened.

But there was also anger, and the lines were drawn once again.

Following the 2011 general election, people began referring to themselves according to the vote: the 60 per cent who voted for the PAP and the 40 per cent who voted for various opposition parties. The 2015 election changed this to the 70 per cent versus the 30 per cent, but the idea was the same: you are either Us, or you are Them.

When you watch discussions on social media, it doesn’t take long for this number to come up. Criticism of state policy is often followed by the comment “well, 70 per cent voted for them.”

It’s not uncommon to see “PAP lapdogs” used as a descriptor for those who support and vote for the ruling party. On the other side of the argument, pro-PAP platforms describe dissenting voices as ungrateful complaining rabble-rousers.

It’s easy to be frustrated by the election results, and to regard those who voted differently with disbelief. Yet this Us versus Them mentality is rarely, if ever, helpful.

If any progress is ever to be made, one will first have to accept that there is no 70 per cent. Or a 30 per cent. There are only people who have made their own decisions based on their own value systems and perceptions. What is needed is then the identification of common concerns, and a mature discussion about the different ideas and solutions that exist. No one is convincing anyone if we only see each other as the enemy.

It doesn’t look as if Singaporeans have quite moved away from this bitter division. But it’s a big lesson we have to learn.



Comments (10)

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  1. Clive Scott says:

    In Scotland the pro Indy 45 need to engage conversation by conversation with the pro Union 55. Probably 30 of the 55 are lost causes so come Indyref#2, 6 of the remaining 25 need converting as well as holding the Indyref#1 45. Not easy but certainly attainable. However, the tendency of too many on the pro Indy side to insult the pro Union side does not win conversions and plays into the “Scotland divided” mantra of the Unionist media. Insults simply makes “us” feel better for a short while. Better to constantly point out the many obscenities and absurdities of the Westminster cesspool.

    1. Common Sense says:

      Clive, as a No voter, you strike me as a dangerous man.. Such salient observations are indeed the way that possibly the Yes moment could persaude sufficent of my fellow No voters of what few merits your arguments may have, to win a referendum in your favour.. However fortunatley as you observe far too many of your fellow Yes supporters only want to snarl resentment and belittle the No side, which in a true manifestation of our Scottish character only hardens our resolve to oppose the Yes movement. As I have said before on this site, every insult, every accusation of cowardice, being Quislings, not loving our country, or my personal favourit of being a “feartie”, only pushes further away the day you may win such a referendum, and does not bring it closer.

      1. RabMac says:

        And yet here you are, immediately having a go at Yes voters.

  2. C Rober says:

    Perhaps the slogan “Scotland is better together” could very well be apt , where the together is Scotland without Westminster.

  3. Alf Baird says:

    Economically Singapore is a brilliant economic success story, and today one of the world’s richest nations. However I would disagree that this was in any way due to “world-class infrastructure left by the colonial British”. In fact all the major port and airport infrastructure in Singapore today was created long after the British left, same as in Dubai, and in other ex colonies which have gone on to become major trading and travel hubs after securing independence. Singapore port today handles more trade by value than the whole of India, or the entire UK for that matter.

    Scotland has a few similar geographic advantages to other global transport hubs, being close to the Great Circle route and to Trans-Atlantic sea lanes (including shipping via Panama to Asia) and air routes. However our attempts at creating ‘global’ hubs at the likes of Prestwick and Scapa Flow (useful also for soon to start Trans-Arctic shipping) have been thwarted by successive UK government policy which prioritise major transport infrastructure investments in the south of England.

    Hence, really what the likes of Singapore and Dubai demonstrate is the great possibilities from independence, whereas in Scotland our people and economy are severely constrained by our inability to make decisions in the interest of our own nation.

    1. Richard says:

      Took the words out of my mouth [or at least off my keyboard] there Alf. Having lived and worked in Singapore and studied its history, it was in a very bad way when the British pulled out. The progress that has been made is entirely down to Singaporeans; both those whose families have been there for generations and new arrivals. It is a poster-child for what can be accomplished when a country is run for the benefit of all those who live there. It’s not all roses, certainly, but it could have been a heck of a lot worse. Just look over the border to Malaysia to see the alternative.

  4. Mike Fenwick says:

    Coincidence that this article should appear as I visit family in Singapore.

    I have also just finished reading One Man’s View of the World by Lee Kuan Yew.

    It is worth reading, not least if one aspires to seeing an independent Scotland, and the lessons, both positive and negative, that can be learned from how Singapore came to be what it is today, and he is very clear that the institutions established under colonial rule were important, and his own fight to have English established as the primary language.

    He is very uncertain about the future of Singapore, however, and again the reasons for those doubts may harbour lessons for an independent Scotland.

    But for me it is his insights into China, Europe, America, Japan etc etc, and the global economy that proved most interesting. He knows his stuff, agree with him or not.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      Mike, not sure that English is the “primary language”, more what they call the “administrative” language, with pupils also learning one of the three indigenous languages – Tamil, Malay or Mandarin. English seems an “administrative language” for many ex colonies, as it is for us Scots too.

      Ports and shipping is Singapore’s main competitive edge and that is what makes the state a global player. Maybe in Scotland we will one day rediscover the significance of international trade!

      1. Mike Fenwick says:

        Hi Alf … I made that comment based on reading Lee Kuan Yew’s book, and the struggles he had over language, maybe I worded it wrongly, but here is an excerpt:

        … Eventually, it was the market value of an education in English that settled the problem. Hence, we have today’s Singapore, with English connecting us to the world and attracting the multinational corporations, and the mother tongues as second language keeping us linked to China, India and Indonesia. This was a critical turning point. Had the people chosen the other path, Singapore would be a backwater … We need Chinese as a second language. But we certainly do not need the dialects…

        Comments such as that, how to connect with the the world is very much something we in Scotland have to consider, and devise strategies for, but perhaps this next excerpt is straight to the point, it is for me.

        … Singapore has to take the world as it is; it is too small to change it. But we can try to maximise the space we have to manoeuvre among the big trees … That has been our approach and we will have to be nimble and resourceful to be able to continue to do so…

        Simply swap Scotland for Singapore as the first word, and decide whether it rings true.

        One last excerpt:

        … The biggest problem with the two party system is that once it is in place, the best people will choose not to be in politics …

        Now that is the result suggested for only a two party result, and we have a multi party system for Holyrood.

        Extrapolation would suggest we will always have a fair share of numpties – or am I being overly pessimistic?

        1. Alf Baird says:

          Mike, Thanks for that, very interesting messages there for Scotland. I think our dilemma may be more acute in the sense that, ignoring the talking heads in Holyrood, most decisions in Scotland are actually made by a unionist-elite running the 200+ public and semi-public institutions, including the civil service, many of whom are not Scots.

          A current example of this unionist bias is the ‘Scottish Parliament’ management seeking to evict the independence campaigners who set up camp outside the parliament in the nearby park, much like the camp set up at Calton Hill years back which campaigned for the parliament:

          Parliament’s ‘chief executive’ Paul Grice is evidently not that keen on anyone advocating Scottish independence on ‘his’ parliament doorstep:

          I wonder how he voted in the referendum?

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