After years of winnowing through candidates, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has anointed Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as his successor. Back in 2016 there were six candidates for the role but one by one they were removed from contention, mostly by mechanisms in the form of gifts from the Prime Minister. One of the stronger candidates, for instance, was unexpectedly made Speaker of the House, which put him out of contention.
There is no formal process of selection and the decisions are made behind closed doors, with narratives about the selection process generated retrospectively. The trigger for the final declaration of Heng Swee Keat as the designated successor was his election to the rather obscure position of First Assistant Secretary-General of the ruling People’s Action Party. This election was initially greeted as an indicator that Heng Swee Keat was merely the front runner to be next Prime Minister but in the space of a day it morphed into a declaration of succession.
Heng Swee Keat was already known to be Lee Hsien Loong’s favourite even before 2016. When Heng Swee Keat suffered a stroke during a Cabinet meeting in May 2016 and spent six days in a coma, it was universally accepted as being a blow to Lee Hsien Loong’s succession plans. Only extreme medical intervention saved Heng Swee Keat’s career and brought him back into contention. Since then, the process of selecting the next prime minister has suffered unexplained delays. Now we know why the delay was necessary: to give Heng Swee Keat a chance to settle doubts about his health, while the other candidates were dropped.
Heng Swee Keat was never an obvious candidate. He has a relatively narrow range of Cabinet and professional experience and is a rather awkward public speaker. No one doubts his technocratic competence, nor that he will be ‘a safe pair of hands’ but few, if any, suggest that he has strong political skills. So why did Lee Hsien Loong endorse Heng Swee Keat ahead of younger, stronger and healthier candidates with better political instincts?
The question is easier to answer if we begin by asking who will be the next prime minister after Heng Swee Keat. Lee Hsien Loong’s son, Li Hongyi, is currently a senior civil servant working in one of the divisions of the Prime Ministers’ Office and has been identified by his close relatives as harbouring political ambitions. Li Hongyi denies that he wants to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps but he and his mother have been carefully cultivating his media and social media profiles as one would for an aspiring politician. Rumours are now circulating that he will enter parliament at the next General Election in 2020.
Lee Hsien Loong is 66 and indicated he would like to step down by age 70, which would make Heng Swee Keat about 61 when he becomes prime minister. If his health holds up, Heng Swee Keat can expect to enjoy a decade or perhaps longer as Prime Minister, by which time Li Hongyi would be 45 to 50 — an acceptable age for a prime ministerial aspirant.
Granted that any of the six original candidates would have met the basic threshold of political and administrative competence, the attraction of Heng Swee Keat is his age, health record and ordinary communication skills. In short, he is not likely to disturb a succession plan by overstaying his welcome — as did former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who was supposed to be a stop gap between Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong but persisted in the job for 14 years.
The main risk of the Heng Swee Keat succession is that it leaves the government with a Prime Minister who has no record of being an effective politician (as opposed to an effective administrator) at a time when a number of political red flags have surfaced.
The most serious institutional issue is the government’s recent declaration that Housing and Development Board flats will have nil value at the end of their 99 year leases and at that point will revert to the government without compensation. This is a particularly uncomfortable issue because about 80 per cent of Singaporeans ‘own’ their flats and regard them as their main financial asset. The government has also spent decades talking up their values. Now it turns out that devaluing flats is part of its plan.
The government is not going to lose the next election but it does not like to leave anything to chance. In the absence of good political instincts and a mediocre record of administrative achievements, the Cabinet has upscaled the intensity of its repressive actions throughout 2018, continuing a trajectory that has been developing for several years.
This may be satisfactory as a short-term measure to retain control but it is not a great way to launch a new round of change in government, nor to lay the groundwork for the following generation.
Michael D. Barr is Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
As year as the ASEAN chair was marked by several milestones in the deepening of regional peace and security. Ahead of the 33rd ASEAN summit from 11–15 November 2018 that finished with Singapore’s official handing over of the chairmanship to Thailand, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan stated that ASEAN ‘actually achieved far more than I dared to anticipate’.
As a small nation, Singapore cannot impose its own ideas in regional or global settings. Instead it has the much trickier challenge of convincing other players, each with their own contexts and agendas, that strengthening the multilateral framework is in their best interests.
Tensions in the South China Sea, North Korea’s long-range missile tests and threats of a US–China trade war clouded the end of 2017 and presented a considerable challenge to ASEAN’s ongoing efforts to enhance regional cooperation. Despite the uphill battle, ASEAN and Singapore have played an integral part in ameliorating tensions on all three fronts.
Most recently, the 33rd ASEAN summit made an important contribution to the easing of regional tensions, with China agreeing to participate in talks on the long-proposed South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC). China offered a timeframe of three years for COC negotiations to be completed, which Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared as good progress.
The COC is perhaps the most important document related to the South China Sea disputes. With competing states attempting to apply different rules to claim legitimate sovereignty over the waters, fears have arisen that conflict could break out over misunderstandings or maritime encounters going wrong. The COC has been in gestation since the 2002 Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea, but has barely progressed in the intervening years.
Claimants agreed upon a draft negotiating text for the COC earlier this year, ahead of the ASEAN–China Post Ministerial Meeting in August 2018, and now China has committed to signing the COC within three years. While this may sound like piecemeal progress, it is important to remember the headwinds facing the discussion: as a much larger power, there is little incentive for China to sign anything at all.
Keeping all parties on board while pushing consensus and norms forward — at a pace that divergent parties can accept — is something ASEAN does well. With Singapore at the helm, ASEAN has helped to keep the COC moving forward without alienating any of the negotiating parties. The significant difference in 2018 has been China’s explicit commitment to a rules-based order, a position it believes distinguishes itself from the United States.
Perhaps the most surprising event of 2018 was the US–North Korea peace talks in Singapore. As recently as 2017, both sides had issued threats against the other. North Korea continued to conduct missile tests, and the murder of Kim Jong-nam had soured its previously cordial relations with Malaysia. Singapore was one of the only plausible choices as a venue because of its high security, positive relations with both sides and an avowed impartiality.
While talks were initially cancelled just weeks before they were to be held, Singapore remained alert and ready for their resumption. The country’s experience in hosting summits put it in good stead for facilitating the dialogue, regardless of uncertainties on either side. The eventually successful engagement demonstrated the importance of Singapore as an open, inclusive and highly efficient state ready to contribute to international security.
ASEAN has paddled against global currents in 2018 to offer hope that multilateral initiatives will continue to bring states closer together on common objectives. But trade tensions between ASEAN’s two largest partners — the United States and China — continue to concern the region. Progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) remains a priority for ASEAN to offset this concern, though negotiations will continue into 2019 after RCEP partners failed to meet the November 2018 deadline.
The initial impetus for Southeast Asia to unite as a region was to buffer individual countries against the pull of larger powers, whose efforts to draw smaller states exclusively towards them are often driven by whimsical domestic agendas. As Prime Minister Lee noted during the opening ceremony of November’s ASEAN summit, ASEAN has raised its standing in the world and made itself greater than the sum of its parts by maintaining a collective voice on global issues.
Singapore’s chairmanship offered a strong restatement of ASEAN’s aims and bolstered the frameworks that were devised to address the myriad concerns of its members. Maintaining unity in the face of these external pressures is probably the best way for ASEAN states to maintain a strong position and secure the best outcomes for their continued growth.
Joel Ng is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article originally appeared here on RSIS.
Tropical rain is bucketing down when P. J. Thum arrives for our meeting at a semi-outdoor Starbucks amid high-rise public housing flats on Singapore’s unfashionable north side. Seeking quietness, we move inside a nearby shopping mall to a cafe offering beverages of a local flavour: black tea with the option of evaporated or condensed milk – the tannin-laden, chalky legacy of long-gone British military men.
Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, a fellow Singaporean and Research Associate at the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford.
Thum – full name Thum Ping Tjin – is 38 years old, athletic and preppy in tortoiseshell spectacles and a pink shirt. From Singapore’s ethnic Chinese majority, he has an Oxford doctorate in history, is a former Olympic swimmer and has an unblemished military service record. All of which makes him the ideal candidate to go far in Singapore’s kind of meritocracy − perhaps joining the “men in white” of the People’s Action Party, in power since 1959.
Except Thum made the wrong career choice for that. As his history specialisation developed, he’d been thinking of a biography of Vespasian, the Roman legionnaire who, after invading Britain and quelling the Jewish revolt, was installed as emperor by acclamation of his troops and ended a period of instability.
“Then I thought, ‘There are other people who can do that, many people doing way better work on Roman history than I could,’ ” he tells me. “ ‘But who’s going to do Singapore history?’ ”
Soon after his return to a postdoctoral fellowship at the National University of Singapore (NUS), a historic windfall came his way: the British government declassified its archive for the tumultuous year of 1963 in Singapore and Malaya when the two self-governing former colonies were moving to join up in the new, pro-Western nation of Malaysia, standing against the communist tide sweeping South-East Asia.
It contained documents about Operation Coldstore, the sweep by Singapore’s Special Branch in February 1963 to detain more than 100 politicians, trade unionists and activists without trial, ostensibly to prevent the underground Malayan Communist Party instigating unrest to hinder the formation of Malaysia.
From these documents, Thum found the proof of what many had long suspected: that then Chief Minister Lee Kuan Yew mounted Coldstore chiefly to nobble the leftist opposition party, Barisan Sosialis, looming as a serious challenge to his People’s Action Party (PAP) in forthcoming elections. The archive shows Lee virtually admitting as much to British officials. It set a pattern of ruthless use of communist scares and preventive detention powers that Lee employed for decades.
As he wrote and talked about these findings, Thum soon got the answer to his question about who would write Singaporean history.
“Only someone brave or stupid enough,” he says. “Here it is almost career suicide to do Singapore history, because eventually you run into the problem of either you have to censor yourself in Singapore or you leave Singapore and you enter an industry which is not interested nowadays in this sort of niche history.”
Within a year, a senior NUS administrator pulled him aside. “I am not supposed to tell you this, but a directive has come down from the top,” the official said. “You’re blacklisted: no renewal, no extension, no new contract. You’d better make plans.”
Thum went back to Oxford, then returned to Singapore with funding from the Open Society Foundations of George Soros and other donations big and small to start New Naratif, a web platform for research, journalism and art in South-East Asia.
In Singapore he is not alone in myth-busting. In 2014, he contributed to the book Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, which queried many PAP narratives. It regarded meritocracy as a cover for elitism and groupthink; low taxes and migrant labour benefiting the wealthy and punishing ordinary locals; the purchase of government flats a trap rather than economic security.
The writers saw themselves as helping point Singapore to a more sustainable prosperity, explains co-author Donald Low, an economist and former finance ministry official, in what seemed at the time a new era of flexibility and contested policy on the part of the PAP.
In 2011, in the economic doldrums after the global financial crisis, voters gave the party and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew – a severe shock. The PAP vote dropped by 6.5 points to 60 per cent, the lowest since 1963. The Workers Party gained six of the 87 seats, the best opposition result since Singapore broke from Malaysia in 1965. In a separate presidential election, a widely liked maverick came close to beating the PAP’s preferred candidate.
Lee responded with social policy reforms, hints of openness and some humble gestures, notably cutting his own salary by 36 per cent to $S2.2 million and that of his ministers to $S1.1 million. The PAP has long argued that these salaries, still the highest in the world for elected officials, are necessary to attract top talent and lessen corrupt temptations.
However, in 2015, Lee Kuan Yew died, aged 91. After an effusion of national mourning his son called a snap election, in which the PAP vote rebounded to nearly 70 per cent. “The result of 2015 removed whatever impetus or pressure there was, both within and without,” Low tells me, over beers and another local adaptation of British cuisine, crispy-toasted Spam. “The reform appetite has completely gone out the window in Singapore in the last three years.”
Dig deeper, he says, and Singaporeans are far from the “crazy rich Asians” of this year’s hit film set in the glittering south side of the island, with its heritage hotels, fusion cuisine and rooftop infinity pools.
For a few, the island is like this. A bungalow sold last month for $S95 million, reflecting the top-end wealth created by income tax rates that plateau at 22 per cent at $S320,000 a year and the absence of capital gains or inheritance taxes. IT start-ups are thriving. British inventor James Dyson has just chosen Singapore to manufacture his new electric car.
For the rest, things are pretty stagnant. Citizens are now only about 60 per cent of the 5.6 million population, their wages and job openings depressed by workers imported from the wider region. The 85 per cent living in Housing and Development Board flats that they have been persuaded to buy have seen values flatten. They are likely to decline steadily once their “ownership” gets to the halfway point of what are actually 99-year leases.
Low and Thum see few responses coming out of the PAP now.
The fall of the similar-vintage United Malays National Organisation in Malaysia’s election this year has been a new shock. Under the returned Mahathir Mohamad, Kuala Lumpur is breaking its mould, ending capital punishment while Singapore steps up its hanging, winding back ethnic Malay privilege, and exposing how Goldman Sachs bankers, some based in Singapore, helped loot the 1MDB fund of billions.
It’s attracting some envy. “Because really we are the same country,” Thum said. “We just got split up by politicians who couldn’t get along. There are so many similarities that Singaporeans look north and see a society that looks so similar to ours but is heading in a different direction, with hope and vision, things that we lack.”
Singapore’s problem is ennui, not massive scandal. PAP leaders look back, arguing about who best embodies Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. In the 2015 election one even boasted about the lack of promises, since promises can be broken.
Lee Hsien Loong is only 66 and highly competent, but looks older than his years, after overcoming two types of cancer, then fainting while speaking at a national day rally two years ago. He has said he will retire at 70, so the next election, widely expected to be next year, will be his last before handing over.
But to whom? The consensus is that a third-generation Lee family member, such as the Prime Minister’s pushy second son Li Hongyi, an IT specialist, could be a risk, especially after a public family squabble about the disposal of Lee Kuan Yew’s old house that diminished the dynastic aura.
The alternative comes down to three candidates among younger ministers, with senior military rank and closeness to Lee Hsien Loong their main selling points inside the party. “They’re all bland, interchangeable, boring, uninspiring male Chinese,” Thum says. “The problem is compounded by the fact there is a clear, popular leader that Singaporeans want.”
This is current Deputy Prime Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 61. A former head of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and later Finance Minister, he is credited with the post-2011 reforms that helped the PAP rebound in 2015. But he was then shifted into a vague coordinating role in cabinet.
There is more history here. In 1987, Lee Kuan Yew used internal security powers again, in Operation Spectrum, to detain 22 young Catholic social activists, some of whom, after soft torture, confessed on TV to having been unwitting tools of the communists. Studying at the London School of Economics, Shanmugaratnam had mixed with one of the detainees, and an exiled Singaporean leftist lawyer, Tan Wah Piow. “I can only speculate that the PAP feels that Tharman is a useful tool but he can’t be trusted to lead because he will take Singapore in a very different direction, especially one away from the Lee family,” Thum said.
And of course, he is of Tamil descent. As Flinders University political scientist Michael Barr wrote in his recent book The Ruling Elite of Singapore: “Today the ideal Singaporean is no longer an English-educated Singaporean, but an English- and Mandarin-speaking Chinese.” Lee Kuan Yew got the PAP hooked on the notion that only strong individuals, like the ideal Confucian junzi (righteous gentleman), could preserve the nation, not strong and independent institutions.
Meanwhile, the PAP leadership plays it by its time-tested book of legal action against opposition figures: for defamation, contempt and sometimes minute financial irregularities, such as using office stationery for private purposes.
Three MPs of the Workers Party are in court facing charges of financial laxity in the local council they also run, with the government-owned media breaking away from what Low calls its usual “Panglossian cheerleading” to give the trial reams of coverage.
Even a stalwart of Lee Kuan Yew’s era, diplomat and “Asian values” proponent Kishore Mahbubani, fell foul of the system. His offence was an op-ed, after Chinese officials blocked the Hong Kong transit of Singapore armoured vehicles being shipped back from exercises in Taiwan, saying that small countries had to put up with such things. He was removed as dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS.
In March, Thum himself appeared before the Singapore parliament’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, to argue among other things that a government defending Operation Coldstore had its own problems with truth. He found his academic credentials questioned for six hours in what was clearly a prepared ambush by the law and home affairs minister, K. Shanmugam, the government’s main political attack dog.
Still, history does have its rewards. After one talk, a man in the audience approached Thum. He had been a Coldstore detainee: the stigma of being a communist dupe had remained after his release. Now Thum had shown there was no such evidence. “The man said that because of my work, he can look his wife and children in the eye,” Thum said. “He said: ‘P.J., you’ve given me my pride and my dignity back.’ I will never forget the privilege to be able to make someone’s life better like that.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 10, 2018 as “Singapore sting”.
Hamish McDonald is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.
Tan Sri Ab. Kadir Mohamad joined the Malaysian Foreign Service in 1968. He served in various capacities on diplomatic missions overseas for close to three decades before reaching the pinnacle of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1996, becoming its 10th Secretary General (1996-2001). Tan Sri Kadir was also the foreign affairs advisor to Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (2003-2009), and advised current prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s National Security Council Secretariat (2010-2013), before finally retiring in December 2013. He recently released a book titled “Malaysia-Singapore: Fifty Years of Contentions, 1965-2015,” which is his take on major events of these two countries’ bilateral relations since the island republic and our nation parted ways.
The shocking fall of the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional government in the recent general election was not only historic but also game-changing. As Malaysians usher in a new era, three evolving scenarios are worth watching, writes Yang Razali Kassim.
The ruling juggernaut, the UMNO-led coalition, had never been defeated since independence in 1957. The coalition finally lost power at the hands of the country’s most potent political duo: Mahathir-Anwar. In the aftermath, at least three evolving scenarios are worth watching:
Scenario 1: A New Order?
If the newly-elected Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance of Hope) coalition government can last at least two terms, we will see a different political order take hold. The people’s rejection of the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and UMNO is a new phenomenon in Malaysian politics. Increasingly, the emerging narrative is that of a “New Malaysia”.
What this New Malaysia is, however, has yet to be clearly defined, as it seems to mean different things to different people. The popular view is that it is simply the antithesis of the old era; anything that was bad about the old must not be part of New Malaysia. Even Mr. Mahathir himself has called for a break from the past:
“The New Malaysia should even be an improvement on the period during which I was prime minister for 22 years.” The government should “have to go back to democracy and the rule of law and respect the wishes of the people.”–Mahathir Mohamad
Two wishes in particular: First is cleaning up the mess of corruption left behind by the Najib administration. Reformism will be the order of the day, possibly leading eventually to some form of systemic change. Ironically, Mr Mahathir, who was known as an autocrat, has become the “New Reformer,” embracing Anwar Ibrahim’s battle-cry of ‘Reformasi’.
Second, Mr Mahathir and his team will be under pressure to prove that the new government can fulfill the people’s expectations. The previously disparate alliance will have to demonstrate that it will not be a photocopy of the old regime.
Scenario 2: Existential Crisis
All that said, the power vehicle the PH alliance overthrew is not to be trifled with. At the core of the dethroned BN coalition is UMNO, the linchpin party that won independence from the British. Once thought to be invincible, BN disintegrated as soon as it lost power. Several partners deserted it, leaving only three original component parties, the pillar of which is UMNO.
UMNO itself is facing an existential crisis. It is under threat of being deregistered for failing to hold internal party elections, in breach of political regulations. Should it be struck off, this will not be the first time after surviving one in 1987, ironically when Mr. Mahathir was its president; but the political impact of a replay will be far-reaching, as the party, though out of power, still symbolises the aspirations of the majority ethnic group.
In this battle for survival, UMNO is going through an internal debate over direction and its own identity. The future of UMNO now depends very much on how far the younger generation will succeed in taking over the leadership and charting a new course. Nevertheless, the introspective search for a new identity for UMNO is unprecedented, reflecting the country’s new terrain.
The course taken by UMNO will partly be influenced, if not defined, by the broader political landscape now dominated by the Mahathir-Anwar leadership 2.0. Collectively, the deadly duo has come to symbolise a political ethos around “post-identity”. If PH succeeds, Malaysian politics may increasingly move away from primordial attachments towards a common centre, where greater acceptance and tolerance of each other will be the new norm. How far this will go will also depend on how effective the pushback is from a tentative UMNO alliance with the Islamist opposition PAS.
Scenario 3: Beyond the Border
The political shifts do not stop at Malaysia’s border. As one of the most developed economies in Southeast Asia, the country’s political dynamics – especially those that affect its stability and security – will be of importance to its neighbours in the region and beyond.
Nothing underscores this better than Mr Mahathir’s wooing of Indonesian President Jokowi for a partnership to stave off European pressures on their palm oil industry.
With neighbouring Singapore, Mr Mahathir also created some ripples when he threw a spanner in the works of a joint high-speed rail project signed by the Najib government, though this has been deferred for now. Mr Mahathir also suggested renegotiating the long-standing supply of water from Malaysia’s Johor state, a strategic resource for Singapore.
Mahathir’s biggest challenge is, however, further afield, in Beijing. China is at the heart of some financially troubling megaprojects initiated by Mr Najib. Mr Mahathir has taken issue with the Asian giant for financing these projects, which were placed under investigation in Kuala Lumpur following the defeat of the BN administration.
Mr Mahathir himself traveled to Beijing in August to re-negotiate with Chinese leaders the China-funded projects in Malaysia, part of a larger goal to cut down on the massive national debt inherited from the previous government.
At the end of his trip, Mr Mahathir announced at a press conference in Beijing that Malaysia would now cancel the frozen projects – only to tone it down later to “defer” them instead – a decision he said Chinese leaders had “agreed” on. “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism,” said Mr Mahathir after his meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang.
What is equally troubling Mr Mahathir is the Chinese model of economic collaboration. At issue is Beijing’s preference for extending loans with high interest rates rather than investing directly in the projects, and for payments to Chinese contractors based on timelines rather than project deliveries.
Another is the Chinese propensity to use their own resources, workforce and expertise for the projects, instead of relying on local firms and creating jobs domestically. This model that some call Beijing’s “debt trap diplomacy” has also been questioned in several countries in Asia and Africa for the problems and social tension they generate.
Mr Mahathir, however, is striking a careful balance in resolving the mountain of debt left behind by his predecessor. Important to him also is preserving good relations with a rising economic superpower that is a significant market for Malaysian products. “We do not blame the Chinese government because their companies signed an agreement or several agreements with Malaysian companies under the auspices of the government of the day,” Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told The Straits Times.
Unlike in the past, the political earthquake in Malaysia this time is clearly reverberating beyond Malaysia’s border. Before he finally calls it a day again expect Mr Mahathir to make more waves as he brings his assertive persona to the international stage, perhaps even to the United Nations. It’s in his DNA.
Yang Razali Kassim is senior fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. This is part of an RSIS series on Malaysia’s 14th general election and its aftermath.
Mahathir’s triumph exposes shortcomings of city-state’s one-party rule
Over two months after Mahathir Mohamad’s election in Malaysia, the political reverberations for Singapore show no signs of fading.
The new Malaysian Prime Minister’s reviews of the key water-supply deal with Singapore and of the planned costly high-speed rail link from Kuala Lumpur to the city-state are only visible signs of a different — and more charged — Singapore-Malaysia relationship.
The key problem for Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party (PAP) is that developments north of the Johor-Singapore Causeway have exposed vulnerabilities at home. The PAP has become the longest-governing incumbent party in Southeast Asia, and it no longer has undemocratic immediate neighbors. Mahathir’s Pakatan victory mirrors the PAP’s worst fear: its own possible defeat.
Worse yet, some of the factors that contributed to the loss of Barisan Nasional (National Front) are also present in Singapore. The first is the challenge of leadership renewal. Over the past three years, the PAP has been locked in a battle over who should succeed Lee, 66, as prime minister, with the fourth generation (4G) leaders on display.
Among the leading contenders are Chan Chun Sing, the Minister for Trade and Industry and former army chief, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, former Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Ong Ye Kung, the Minister of Education and Second Defense Minister.
The problem is that these leaders are 4G without the connectivity. They are in a highly elitist party, largely unable to relate to ordinary Singaporeans. 4G leaders also suffer from the same issue that haunted the National Front, namely they are embedded in the system. Emerging from within the party and government, particularly the military, they are from the system and are seen to be for the system. The intertwining of the PAP and the bureaucratic state has created singular agendas and resulted in a distancing from the electorate and its needs.
For the first two decades of Singapore’s existence after independence in 1959, PAP secured all the seats in the legislative assembly. Since 1984, opposition politicians have won seats despite what the government’s critics describe as the sustained political harassment of opponents and the repression of public protests, combined with the alleged manipulation of electoral boundaries.
In the last election in 2015, PAP secured 83 out of 89 seats with 70% of the vote. Since that resounding victory, more conservative forces within the party have gained ground. Despite their popularity, reform-minded leaders such as Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Tan Chuan-Jin have been pushed aside in favor of conservative alternatives. At the same time, Singapore’s system has moved in a more authoritarian direction, with curbs on social media and attacks on civil society activists.
Prime Minister Lee, the son of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, is making the same mistake Najib did after the 2013 polls. He is depriving the system of a necessary valve for dissent, and moving the country away from needed reforms. He has failed to recognize that greater openness and policy reforms were integral parts of the PAP’s 2015 victory. The dominant mode has been to attack the Worker’s Party, its leaders and other opposition figures. These moves do not show confidence in a more open and mature political system — or even in the PAP itself.
At the same time, rather than being an asset to his party, Lee is becoming more of a liability. This is the same trajectory that occurred for Najib. Questions have been raised about Lee’s leadership from the very public “Oxleygate” row with his siblings over their father’s home to the managing of Temasek, the republic’s sovereign wealth fund, by his wife Ho Ching.
Singapore’s handling of scandal over 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), the Malaysian state-run investment fund which saw millions of dollars siphoned out on Najib’s watch, will be in the more immediate bilateral spotlight; assessments will be made as to whether Singapore responded effectively to the alleged malfeasance and whether in fact Singapore’s purchase of 1MDB bonds strengthened the fund.
Meanwhile, in Malaysia, Mahathir’s readiness to deal with 1MDB signals a willingness not only to clean up the system but to begin much-needed economic reform. Singaporeans will see obvious parallels with their own country’s economic policies.
Singapore’s gross domestic product growth is expected to reach 3% this year, which is a significant drop from a decade ago. Importantly, much of this growth is being driven by public spending (as occurred in Malaysia under Najib), notably on infrastructure. New jobs are not being created in Singapore at the same high rate as in the past. Even more constraining, PAP continues to rely on immigration as a driver of growth, failing to move on from using a combination of low-cost labor and imported foreign talent to expand the economy. Population pressures remain real for ordinary Singaporeans, who continue to feel displaced. They are disappointed with the PAP’s tenacious grasp on old and unpopular models for growth.
The pendulum of discontent has swung against the PAP. The government opted to increase water prices by 30% in 2017, and this year indicated it will raise the goods and services tax (GST) from 7% to 9%. The electricity tariff has risen by 16.8% to date this year alone. The cost of living remains high; Singapore has topped the Economist Intelligence Unit’s list of most expensive cities to live in for five years running. High costs are compounded by persistent inequalities that are increasingly entrenched. The Gini coefficient is at 0.46, but income gaps are deeply felt. Many locals feel they are being impoverished on account of foreigners. The social reform measures introduced for the “pioneer generation” (people born before 1950), and increased handouts before the 2015 polls, are being seen as inadequate to address the current social needs of disadvantaged communities.
Changes in Malaysia have reduced Singapore’s regional comparative advantage. It is not just about greater democracy and changes in governance next door but also the attention “New Malaysia” draws to how Singapore has remained locked in the past, moving away from embracing an alternative future.–Bridget Welsh
By comparison, Malaysia has removed the unpopular GST, and reform pressures for addressing contracting social mobility and inequality are substantial. Malaysia is now seen as a potential role model in areas of governance. For example, greater transparency and attention to inclusivity are evident in the multi-ethnicity of new government appointees. Singapore’s 2017 Malay-only presidency contest in contrast sent a signal of exclusion and an embrace of race-based politics. This is being compounded by the fact that Malaysia is being seen as bucking regional authoritarian trends, promising substantive political reforms and the removal of many of the draconian laws that Singapore has on its books.
Changes in Malaysia have reduced Singapore’s regional comparative advantage. It is not just about greater democracy and changes in governance next door but also the attention “New Malaysia” draws to how Singapore has remained locked in the past, moving away from embracing an alternative future.
Bridget Welsh is associate professor of political science at John Cabot University, Rome