International Herald Tribune
Singapore beyond Lee
THURSDAY, MAY 11, 2006
HONG KONG Every regime has its day, so the result of Saturday's election in Singapore provided a glimpse of what its politics may look like when Lee Kuan Yew, founder and mentor of the People's Action Party (PAP) and scourge of all opponents, is no longer around. At 82, he played an active role in this campaign.

For sure, his son, Lee Hsien Loong, fighting his first election as prime minister, was able to claim that winning the same number of seats as in the previous election - 82 out of 84 - was "a clear vote of confidence" in his administration.

However, the more relevant statistic was that the PAP's share of the vote fell by 8.7 percentage points to 66.6 percent compared with the 2001 election, when Goh Chok Tong was prime minister. In Lee Hsien Loong's constituency, uncontested in 2001, the PAP polled marginally less than its average.

Given a strong economy, the opposition's lack of significant media access and the huge organizational and legal obstacles placed in its way by a PAP leadership, with open disregard for the benefits of liberal democracy with a strong opposition and the possibility of a change of government, the result could be seen as the biggest setback for the PAP since 1981.

That was the year when the PAP lost a by-election to an opposition lawyer, J.B. Jeyaretnam. With it went a monopoly in Parliament the PAP had enjoyed since 1968.

Jeyaretnam later lost an action brought by the government and in 1986 was made bankrupt and disbarred from Parliament and legal practice. The judicial committee of the Privy Council, to which appeal on the issue of disbarment was then available, found that he suffered "a grievous injustice." He was ultimately reinstated as a lawyer. In 2001, Jeyaretnam was bankrupted again following his failure to pay damages in libel actions brought by ministers.

Since 1981 the electoral system has also been changed so that most members of Parliament are now elected from five- or six-member constituencies where the PAP's organizational strength and connections to the government machinery overwhelm the much- harassed opposition candidates.

Districts that have elected opposition members have previously been threatened with official neglect. The opposition won two of the nine single- member constituencies, but none of the group ones. But in one where a well-known young liberal activist, James Gomez, was a candidate up against Foreign Minister George Yeo, it got 44 percent.

The PAP leadership continues to make great play of its success in government, as though it were entirely responsible for the economic rise of Singapore over the past 40 years. It accuses those who query current policies of being ungrateful for the past achievements of the leaders.

But what an increasing number of people appear to recognize is that other economies in East Asia have done at least as well over that period - Hong Kong under an undemocratic but liberal colonial-style bureaucracy, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand under both democratic and authoritarian regimes.

Indeed, Singapore stands out in East Asia not for exceptional economic success but for the immobility of politics still dominated by the presence of Lee Kuan Yew, in power since 1959. Its system would come in for more scrutiny internationally if it were not so useful to U.S. strategic interests and foreign multinationals or so successful in subduing the foreign media with carrots and sticks.

The Singapore leadership likes to scorn the "instability" of Asian liberal democracies such as Thailand, the Philippines and Taiwan. But at some point it will likely have to address demands for greater openness and for power-sharing with middle and lower income groups, which have benefited from economic growth but feel excluded from power.

The PAP is a small, tight-knit party. The leadership controls the government bureaucracy and the state- owned enterprises, which play a large part in an economy that is dominated by multinationals and state enterprises.

The PAP has such a grip on the levers of power that it could be a long time before any opposition can pretend to be an alternative government. Opposition leaders like Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan, who threaten to gain popular momentum, have been successfully sued and financially ruined. There is also the unspoken fear of Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, and the importance of Chinese identity, to keep the majority in line.

But none of this can cover up the fact that the PAP has been losing popularity. There are those who will always follow Lee Kuan Yew but have less respect for the second generation headed by the elder son, Hsien Loong, and the daughter-in-law, Ho Ching, who runs Temasek, the giant state holding company.

Low income groups note high and rising income gaps (which would be even bigger if the army of very low paid foreign workers is included). Small businessmen resent the dominance of foreign investors and huge state enterprises. A younger generation is anxious for the greater social and political freedoms now enjoyed in much of the rest of Asia.

And an aging population that has generally been supportive of the government now finds that decades of forced savings have had such low returns that a comfortable retirement is not in sight. But it could be another decade before Singaporeans decide that enough is enough, and have their own velvet revolution.