A Missed Chance? Singapore’s Election Results
It never promised to be a revolution. But Saturday’s election did wobble the 50-year-stronghold of Singapore’s People’s Action Party and acted as a watershed in this normally staid city-state.
Singaporeans have been ruled by the one-party PAP — or People’s Action Party — since independence in 1965. Founded by Lee Kwan Yew and now presided over by Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, the PAP is widely recognised for having turned this so-called third world colonial backwater into a first-world financial dynamo. The country is worth some $250bn in GNP alone; but that financial success hasn’t come without a cost.
Although dissent here is carefully and constructively muted, many Singaporeans used this election to speak out against supposedly high living costs and housing prices, lax immigration laws and low wages for nationals.
Such discourse is rare, however. Lee Kwan Yew — regarded as the architect of modern Singapore — fashioned a no-dissent country by bankrupting his critics through fines and defamation suits. Many of them were former colleagues working under him in the government, like the Singaporean lawyers JB Jerayetnam and Gopalan Nair. Jerayetnam was stripped of his ability to practice law after speaking out agains the PAP and went on to form the opposition Reform Party; Nair was jailed for three months for his views and later sought asylum in the US.
The over-arching result has been a populace of silent, zombie-like obeyers. Having been told first what to do by their colonial rulers, Singaporeans followed suit by obeying their new parliamentary leader. Rules were established, fines and sentences meted out. The lack of opposition, of dialogue, of energy, represented itself in its poor art and culture scene, lending the nation the (derided) moniker of ‘Singa-bore’.
That is why this year’s general election — which just came to pass on Saturday, May 7 — was such a significant one in this 5 million-strong nation. Some of the ‘zombies’ (as they are known to the expats who work here) had woken up and started to ask questions. They were speaking their minds — both anonymously, on the web, and outwardly, and called for lower house prices, higher wages and greater restrictions on immigration.
People in the West drew easy parallels with the Arab Spring, during which citizens afraid to speak out also turned to the anonymous internet to relay their qualms. As for Singapore actually engaging in the violence or revolution side of things, well, most everyone scoffed at the idea. “Revolt is very un-Singaporean,” one former government official told me. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t want more freedom.”
But when it came time to polling time, the PAP still won a landslide – by Western terms – of 60% of the popular vote. Here, however, the fact that the opposition garnered the other 40% made this election a veritable landmark. Even PM Lee called it a “watershed” and promised that his party would engage in some serious soul-searching.
But does that mean that the average Singaporean’s struggle to have his voice heard is done and dusted? One (student) journalist, writing a response to my comparison with the Arab Spring in the Guardian (http://tinyurl.com/5wx7374), asked a very valid question: “Can any Singaporean honestly say the she/he can conceive of a fellow Singaporean setting himself or herself on fire along Orchard Road or Shenton Way, as a result of desperate economic pressures or financial constraints?”
The answer, the author insinuates, is No.
The truth is that Singapore does not feel the same “desperate economic pressures or financial constraints” that many of those revolting in the Arab world have done. But does that mean that Singaporeans are not oppressed? Not in the least, one local told me. “When your basic needs are met, as ours here in Singapore are, what do you fight for next?” the 42-year-old office worker, wishing to remain anonymous, asked me.
“You don’t fight for bread. You don’t fight for a roof over your head. You fight to be able to afford a flat. To be able to eat out once in a while. Under the government’s current economic policies, such niceties are not available to the majority of the population.”
This asks a more far-reaching question, namely: how does one measure oppression, anyway — by how little food or money is available to a person? By how little freedom is available to a nation?
Whether they are Tunisian, Libyan, Bahraini or Singaporean, those revolting have shared one thing: rules that limit their dissent. As the Greek philosopher Euripides put it so many years ago, “This is slavery: not to speak one’s thought.” Should this still be the case, nearly 2,500 years on?