In 2011 Singapore's ruling party, the People's Action Party (PAP), saw its popularity slip to a near all-time low. While the party still gained some 60.1 percent of the vote, this represents the second lowest total since the PAP gained power in 1965. Further, most observers agree that the opposition managed to muster its strongest show yet, nabbing 6 of the 87 seats in parliament. Could the drop in approval ratings mean that Singapore's ruling party is losing touch with the wants and needs of its people?
The PAP has ruled Singapore with an absolute majority since independence from the United Kingdom in 1963, and later, Malaysia in 1965. The city-state is perhaps the only country in history to be expelled from its motherland (Malaysia) and at the time of independence many observers thought the country was a “basket case” and stood little chance of developing a modern and successful economy.
In this context, the PAP has done an astonishing job of taking an impoverished island port and turning it into one of the most vibrant economies in the world. The Singaporean economy has grown 189 fold since independence from Malaysia and the city-state is now one of Asia's leading financial and R&D hubs. It's combined foreign exchange reserves and investment portfolios are believed to be worth almost 1 trillion dollars USD and numerous government linked companies, such as Singapore Airlines, are now successful on the global stage. The unemployment rate has hovered around 2.5 percent for the last two decades, and the country also enjoys high Human Development Index scores.
Yet in spite of these successes the People's Action Party appears to be slowly losing support among the people. In the 2011 elections the PAP's support slipped to 60.1 percent and the party was challenged in nearly every district. This marks a loss of six percentage points from 2006, when the People's Action Party garnered nearly 67 percent of the vote. The question is why?
Singapore's elections are notoriously opaque and demographic information on voting patterns is not publicly available, however it would appear that the PAP is losing touch with certain segments of society. The income gap is widening, and middle and working class people are having increasing trouble keeping up with rising expenses, particularly living costs. Further, single young professionals are feeling left out by Singapore's “family first” social policies.
The government has admitted to these short-comings and Prime Minister Lee, son of Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, has admitted to these failures and has apologized to the citizenry. Prime Minister Lee has promised reform, but the Singaporean government is often criticized of having “closed ears” and trying to dictate what the people “want”, instead of letting them express their own desires. Whether deservingly or not, the Singaporean government has a reputation as being a nanny-state.
Singapore has tried to foster a family oriented society. Due to high land prices, most Singaporeans live in public housing. Yet to qualify for most public housing units a citizen must be married. Most public housing is reserved for married couples and many other Singaporean social benefits are targeted for married couples. Singapore's younger generations, however, are now getting married later in life, if at all. This means that many Singaporeans cannot access public housing and other social benefits, leaving them to either live with their parents, or to try to contend with sky-high private rent prices in the city-state.
This short-coming points to a lack of understanding of the shifting needs in society. If the PAP hopes to maintain support among younger generations, it will also need to cater to their needs. Many young working professionals will not earn enough money to rent a private apartment and yet will want to live on their own. Providing public housing for young working professionals would go against society held traditions, but if the PAP is to maintain support among young working professionals it will need to cater to changing tastes and social norms.
As mentioned, PAP controlled Singapore is often viewed as a “nanny-state”, with the government restricting many rights, including the freedom speech and freedom of media. While these policies may have been necessary and effective in the face of a strong internal communist movement at the time of independence, they are now viewed by many as repressive. Further, with the advent of social media, the effectiveness of restricting speech and expression can be seriously questioned.
The PAP will also have to work to balance immigration policies. There is a growing dissatisfaction among Singaporean citizens with the number of immigrants living and working in Singapore. Singaporean citizens make up only 3.1 million of the 5.2 million people living in the city-state. Many Singaporeans feel that these immigrants are stealing jobs and driving up property costs. The government will have to balance labor needs while also reassuring citizens that the city-state does indeed belong to them.
In order to retain absolute power and build upon Singapore's forward momentum, the PAP will have to adapt its policies to fit the changing needs and preferences of the people. The People's Action Party will now have to focus on fostering a more inclusive society with better support for working and middle class families, or else risk losing these segments to an increasingly powerful opposition. The PAP will also have to work to create a more open and free society, and should start now, instead of waiting for the people to demand it through elections or protests. The People's Action Party has done a tremendous job of turning Singapore into a resounding success story, however without reform, the party may one day find itself on the outside looking in.