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.
Political 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.
My 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.