Monday, August 29, 2011

Tantamount to a humiliation: The Economist

The Economist (source)


The PAP never endorsed Tony Tan formally. But he has held a number of cabinet jobs, and the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, enthusiastically endorsed his candidacy. He also enjoyed the backing of party activists, trade unions, chambers of commerce and community groups. So, that he won not much more than a third of the vote is a remarkable slap in the face for the government. All the same, PAP diehards protested that, since two former PAP MPs had garnered 70% of the vote, this was an endorsement for the party.

This follows the general election in May when the PAP did worse than in any election since 1965. It still won 60% of the vote, which left it, in Singapore’s first-past-the-post system, with 81 out of 87 elected seats in parliament. But the party acknowledged it as a setback, and Mr Lee promised to do some “soul-searching”. Voters seem to feel, however, that the government has still not got the message. The presidential election turned into a relatively low-risk chance to teach it a lesson.


In general elections opposition parties, which are small and fragmented, are at a disadvantage. Most parliamentary seats are in big “group” constituencies, where they struggle to field slates of credible candidates, and whose boundaries, they claim, are manipulated in the PAP’s favour. The presidential poll is the only one that is island-wide and not affected by these considerations. It gave voters the opportunity to install a different sort of check into the political system. The result is sobering for the PAP. As the country's biggest newspaper, the pro-government Straits Times, put it in reporting the result: "the voting patterns show a society more politically divided than ever before.”

They reflect a widespread sense that the government, blinded by Singapore’s astonishing economic progress, has lost touch with the grievances of ordinary citizens. This sense is in part about particular issues, such as the cost of housing or immigration, which some blame for depressing local wages. But it is as much a question of style—a resentment at what is seen as the government’s paternalistic belief that it knows best.

They also reflect the breakdown, thanks to the internet, and especially social-networking sites, of the government’s virtual monopoly over the media. In both general and presidential elections, the government’s opponents were able to change the terms of the debate by taking it online. For example, when one of the newly elected opposition MPs complained on his Facebook page that he was not allowed to attend constituency functions on a public-housing estate, the issue soon became a national one about the perception of a pro-PAP bias in public bodies.

The realisation that more than 60% of Singaporeans voted against the government’s favoured candidate will presumably provoke more soul-searching within the PAP. Some will take it as proof that the party must move further and faster in opening up to adjust to the “new normal” of a political system with a sizeable opposition. Others, however, may take the opposite view: that too much liberalisation has led to a fading of the fear of the unpleasant repercussions that used to deter critical commentary and opposition activism. In short, that Singaporeans are forgetting who knows best what's good for them.

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