Singapore and the Future of Democracy

September 13, 2015

Singapore and the Future of Democracy

Is the landslide election victory of the long-ruling People’s Action Party’s a reverse for democracy?

The voters have spoken. In Singapore’s GE2015, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) won an overall vote share of 69.86 per cent of the votes, up almost 10 percentage points from their overall vote share in 2011.

In addition, the PAP also wrestled back the Punggol East Single-Member Constituency (SMC) from the main opposition Worker’s Party (WP). There will be only six elected opposition members of parliament, down from seven, out of a total of 89 MPs.

By all accounts, this was a totally unexpected landslide victory for the PAP.[1] Many close observers of Singapore politics had expected the PAP’s vote share to increase marginally by at most 5 percentage points, on account of the new and weak opposition political parties, and the “feel-good” feelings from the nation’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

The passing of Lee Kuan Yew earlier in the year may also have brought the ruling party some votes from voters who were sympathetic to the argument for the need of a strong mandate for the PAP. But certainly no one expected a bumper increase of nearly 10 percentage points, much less contemplated the loss of one seat for the WP.[2]

The WP was actually expected to make further seat gains through Fengshan SMC and East Coast Group Representative Constituency (GRC). In the end, the PAP won both constituencies comfortably, with its vote share at 57.52 per cent and 60.73 per cent in those constituencies respectively.

These results came against the odds of anecdotal readings of online media, as well as popular imaginations on the ground. The WP’s rallies were very well attended, with the final rally filling the entire Bedok Stadium.

Much was also made of the surprising rehabilitation of Dr Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). His rally speeches posted online drew positive remarks, and there were long queues for his signature in his books after SDP’s rallies.

A four-part series of blog posts by writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh calling for greater opposition representation in parliament went viral on cooling off day.[3] Even an unofficial list of “bookies’ odds” that circulated widely on the popular messaging app Whatsapp predicted large WP gains.

So how did these surprising results came about? That is the key puzzle that will capture the attention of analysts over the next few days, weeks and months.

There is already speculation that the voters’ “flight to safety” herd behaviour was observed because of the broader context of regional and global economic uncertainties, among other reasons.[4] As always, in the absence of critical polling data, there will be plenty of theories but little evidence to adjudicate them.

In any case, these results call into question some of the claims that commentators and scholars have made recently about trends in Singapore politics. At the moment, there is no systematic evidence that the youth vote significantly affects political change in the country in any way.[5]

There is also scant evidence that Singaporeans support a gradual movement towards a more democratic society.[6] Moreover, Michael Barr’s recent claim[7] that the PAP’s elitist narrative of Singapore’s exceptionalism has “collapsed” or has been “mortally wounded” appears overwhelmingly premature. If anything, the results from GE2015 have demonstrated that Singaporeans are entirely comfortable with an elite group of “natural aristocrats” governing them for the next 50 years.[8]

The implications of these results are clear for the PAP.Singaporeans have fully bought into the trustee-ship model of political governance.[9] The party are legitimate stewards of the country.

Esteemed journalism Professor Cherian George suggests that the results should be interpreted as a “massive triumph” for the PAP, that it should stay its course in its economic policies, and that the results justify and legitimize its arbitrary powers in suppressing its liberal critics.[10]

More liberal commentators like Sudhir argue that PAP’s stronger mandate means “the continued dominance of the rich and the elites,” although it is also likely to be “the surest road to social instability in the country.”[11]

There are also major implications for the numerous opposition political parties in Singapore.The smaller opposition parties, like the National Solidarity Party, the SingFirst party, the People’s Power Party, the Singapore People’s Party, the Reform Party, the Singapore Democratic Alliance, and the Democratic Progressive Party, should openly recognise and admit their own flaws – unrecognisable party brands, niche policy platforms, an inability to attract credible candidates, and ill-disciplined internal organisation. They were simply no match for the PAP machine.

The respective party leaders will have to decide whether to coalesce to present a united front, or close shop altogether. Either way, it will be a difficult choice to make.

For the more ideologically coherent Singapore Democratic Party, its priorities lie in attracting more credible members and candidates like the well-respected Dr Paul Tambyah, Professor of Medicine at the National University of Singapore. If and when it is able to assemble a credible ‘A’ team, then it may snag a chance of winning its own GRC, just like the WP did in Aljunied.

The results have been most disappointing for the WP. It hung on to its prized Aljunied GRC only by a thread, garnering only 50.95 per cent of the votes in the constituency.

It is now back to the drawing board for them for the next five years.

Elvin Ong is a PhD graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Emory University. He can be reached at


End notes

[1]  and








[9] Kausikan, Bilahari. 1997. “Governance that Works.” Journal of Democracy. 8(2): 24-34




11 thoughts on “Singapore and the Future of Democracy

  1. I think democracy was not the issue at Singapore GE2015. Singaporeans were asked to vote in the party which has the best ideas and strategies to lead them through challenging times over the next 5 years. They overwhelmingly chose Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the PAP. The issue was settled in no uncertain terms. QED. –Din Merican

  2. A decision made by the rational thinking Singaporeans. What do they want….a very decisive question, probably asked by them before the poll. The answer, clearly given in the results of the GE 2015. Why risk with their children, children children’s future….

  3. Singaporeans voted based on quality of leadership that practices Transparency, Accountability, Ethics, Merit and zero tolerance for corruption/fraud with swift punishments. PAP did not have to give goodies to those who attended their rallies as the people came to listen what the candidates had to say for common future and for certain groups.
    People made their choice on what they liked in the past and welcomed the same politicians to lead the country for the next five years.

  4. PAP did not have to give goodies to those who attended their rallies as the people came to listen what the candidates had to say for common future and NOT for GOOD FOR certain groups.

    Error rectified. Apologies.

  5. “Is the landslide election victory of the long-ruling People’s Action Party’s a reverse for democracy?”

    As usual the punditry is abysmal.

    There’s a difference between the democratic process – voting and its related issues – and democratic ideals.

    The former is the benchmark and Singaporeans made their voice clear and the PAP benefitted from it. It would seem that the latter holds very little value to Singaporeans but this is really nothing new only that the perception (of democratic awakening ) has been amplified by social media and less than informed political pundits.

  6. Multi racial countries have to think again the first past post system of democratic elections. Yes, one party may win the required seats to form the government. But then there is that 30to40% of the voters who did not vote for the winners will feel that their representation in parliament does not reflect their voting strength. In elections of this kind you get the votes from the left or the right depending on which side of the divide your party stands. But once the winner forms the government that government must govern from the center and ensure that those who did not vote for you are not punished. Getting 90% of the seats with 70% of the votes means that 30% of the citizens will be underrepresented in parliament.

    This is indeed a dilemma. As the middle class grows because of your good governance everyone becomes a political expert with the help of the internet. In the interest of long-term stability it may be prudent for countries in this situation to give serious thought to migrating to the Proportional Representation System of democratic elections. While it may not be perfect it would at least ensure that the representation in the Supreme Legislative Body there is fair representation of the wishes of the people.

  7. Interesting takes during the rallies……Sorry, those clips are from 2011GE

    Low Thia Khiang, WP (Oppo) Supremo —— Slap the driver

    Raymond Lim, then the transport Minister responded brilliantly

    That explains also why voetrs decided to……hahahahaha

  8. 1. The Singaporeans are right to chose the PAP. It is the best governed country in the world, as well-known New York journalist and writer Fareed Zakaria says.
    2. It has the highest paid ministers in the world and zero corruption.
    3. The value of its currency is high.
    4. Many of us are under the spell of Western system of democracy of so-called check balance that we cannot envisage another better system.
    5. Did Prophet Muhammad the leader and politician (our role model) practice a multiparty system? We must get out of the box!
    — Kassim Ahmad

  9. The people of Singapore are right in choosing the PAP at the recent General Elections. Except for some minor hiccups, it is one of the best government countries in the world. IIs civil servvice was built up amd nurtured through the past 60 years, Initially, staffed by most University of Malaya graduates in Singapore -now NUS. Chung Tat Lim

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