January 27, 2013 10:45 am

Singapore ruling party suffers poll defeat

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Singapore’s ruling party was reeling from a shock by-election defeat this weekend, as voter frustration over immigration, income inequality and insufficient affordable housing propelled the opposition party to its best performance since 1984.

The result underscored how discontent with the governing People’s Action party is translating into pressure for more political pluralism in a system that has been dominated by the party founded by Lee Kuan Yew since independence from Britain.

In 2011, the PAP suffered its worst general election result amid voter concern over an influx of foreign workers, transport congestion and rising property prices that put home ownership out of the reach of many. The party had not expected to face the electorate again until the next general election set for 2016.

But the by-election, in the tiny constituency of Punggol East, was triggered last month when the speaker of parliament resigned over an extramarital affair.

The Workers’ party, which had polled 40 per cent at the general election, gained over 13 percentage points to capture the seat from the PAP with 54.5 per cent of the vote – its best swing for 29 years. The PAP garnered 43.7 per cent of the vote, down from 54.5 per cent last time.

The margin of victory took political analysts by surprise, since the PAP had been engaged in a four-way fight with the Workers’ party and two smaller opposition parties which had been expected to split the opposition vote. They said the result showed that voters wanting a counterweight to the PAP in parliament and were coalescing around the Workers’ party.

“The result is a rude wake-up call for the PAP and underlines the shifting political landscape in Singapore,” said Eugene Tan, assistant professor of law at Singapore Management University. “While we should not extrapolate the results to the national level, the outcome indicates that the government has to look deep within itself and rebuild confidence and trust if the next general election is not to be a political earthquake.”

The PAP still has 80 of the 87 seats in parliament, with the Workers’ party adding one seat to seven.

Since the last general election, the government has been engaged in a top-to-bottom review of its policies, which last week saw the unveiling of a S$2bn package of cash and other incentives in a bid to reverse a declining population by persuading Singaporeans to marry and have babies. It has also announced plans for a significant expansion of the city’s rail network, and restricted the flow of immigrant labour.

However, Punggol East voters appear to have been unmoved. Low Thia Khiang, the Workers’ party chief, said that while many government policies had been reviewed, the by-election result showed that the effects “had not really trickled down to the ground and people still feel the pressure of the high cost of living and many other things as well”.

The PAP leadership sought to play down the defeat, blaming it in part on a “by-election effect”.

“In a by-election, the governing party candidate always has a tougher fight,” said Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister. “Voters see it as choosing an MP, not choosing a government, and opposition parties encourage them to do so.”

Mr Lee added that his government’s programmes were “geared towards the longer term” and would take time to generate results.

“The PAP will continue to work to improve the lives of Singaporeans, and present our report card for voters to judge in the next general elections,” Mr Lee said.

Mr Lee is expected to soon unveil a white paper on population policy, which is another result of the government’s policy review. The paper is expected to lay out PAP thinking on how Singapore can manage growth in its population while maintaining economic growth, which Mr Lee has said is expected to moderate to 2-3 per cent in the medium-term from levels of about 5 per cent in recent years.

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