Is Singapore's democracy coming out of the shadows? Photo by on flickr

Is Singapore’s democracy coming out of the shadows? Photo by on flickr

There’s little doubt Friday’s vote will be won by the long ruling People’s Action Party, and they may make gains in the popular vote. Even so, a richer political system is on the cards.

As the nation gets set to go to the polls, this Friday marks an important date in Singapore’s history. This election is important for several reasons.

First, it is the first election since the death of the Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore. Second, this is a barometer for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government since its disastrous performance in the 2011 general elections and the subsequent two by-elections that saw PAP’s support decline further.

Third, it is also likely to be the election that would see Singapore’s fourth generation leaders firm up their place within the political system, and hence a change of guard that is likely to take place after the ballot.

A sweeter ground than 2011
At the 2011 election, the PAP suffered one of its worst electoral performances in Singapore’s history. This came in the wake of public discontent related to the government’s immigration policies, which some in Singapore believed have contributed to overcrowding, rising housing prices and increasing fears that the Singaporean identity will be diluted.

In response, the PAP introduced a slew of policies aimed at correcting some of the roots of these complaints. The government introduced universal life insurance, accelerated construction of public housing, extended subsidies to lower and middle income voters, and most importantly, slowed the rate of immigration.

While admitting that the government has taken steps to address many problems, Singapore’s main opposition party, the Worker’s Party has taken credit for these changes, arguing that it comes down to the increased presence of the opposition in Parliament. It is without doubt that many of these policies were well-received by many Singaporeans and the perception of who can legitimately claim credit to these changes will have bearing on the polls.

Some observers have argued that the PAP is riding on the euphoria of Singapore’s 50 years of independence, celebrated earlier this year, and is hoping to cash in on the feel-good factor as a result.

More importantly, Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s death in March and the massive outpour of mourning at his funeral could translate to votes for what is perceived to be a government that he built. The impending economic crisis that is likely to hit the Southeast Asian region as a result of the slowing down of the Chinese economy might further strengthen the PAP’s position as electorates tend to vote for stability during times of crisis.

Political instability in Malaysia might also influence Friday’s vote. In the 2013 Malaysian elections, the ruling National Front (BN) coalition lost the popular vote for the first time since the country’s independence. Contrary to perception that a more democratic Malaysia would herald a new era for the country, the country has become politically instable with bickering and divisions in both the ruling coalition and the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, resulting in the weakening of the Malaysian economy. This could lead to some Singaporean to err on the side of caution and vote for the incumbents rather than ‘risked’ Singapore’s political stability.

A resurgent opposition
The PAP’s declining vote has attracted a record 10 opposition parties to contest this election. Besides the more prominent parties such as the Worker’s Party, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), and Singapore People’s Party (SPP), a number of new opposition parties like the Singaporeans First (SingFirst) and People’s Power Party (PPP) have emerged.

Other more familiar parties include the Reform Party (RP), Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) and the National Solidarity Party (NSP).

Partly as a result of the proliferation of new parties, every constituency is contested in this election. More remarkably, the major parties were able to agree to a one-to-one contest in all the Group Representation Constituencies (GRC) and most of the Single Member Constituencies (SMC).

With the exception of the WP, SDP and SPP (in its previous stronghold of Potong Pasir), the other parties are not likely to gain much traction as they offer little alternative policies, are plagued by in-fighting, and have fielded poor quality candidates.

The contest is likely to come down to the PAP and the WP and perhaps the SDP.

The WP and SDP have both fielded strong candidates and have offered alternative policies to that of the PAP. The fact that the SDP and WP are considered a serious threat by the PAP is attested by the fact that PAP leaders have reserved their sharpest criticisms for these two parties .

WP’s alleged mismanagement of its town council (Singaporean MPs manages municipal matters within their constituency), and the SDP’s manifesto have taken centre stage in the election hustings.

Issues affecting the Malay community
The election hustings have been particularly interesting for the Malay community.

For the first time in the last decade, a Malay candidate, Damanhuri Abas from the SDP has openly criticised the government over issues that are deemed to be important for the Malay community, such as Malays in the Singapore Armed Forces, and the wearing of headscarfs .

For its part, the PAP has tried to prop up its support within the Malay community by fielding Malay candidates who are highly qualified and deemed to be close to the Malay ground.

At least three of the four Malay candidates have been active in Malay/Muslim organisations over the last decade. This strategy has also exposed a key weakness of the opposition parties.

With the exception of Damanhuri, most Malay candidates fielded by opposition parties are unknown to the community and have less than stellar credentials when compared to their team-mates from other communities.

While the small pool of credible Malay candidates could explain this weakness, the notion that less credible Malay candidates could be coat-tailed into parliament as a result of their team-mates’ stronger credentials could have negative consequences for the Malay community.

Opposition parties will need to rectify this weakness especially if they seek to position themselves as an alternative government to the PAP and recruit Malay candidates of ministerial calibre.

Heralding a new political landscape?
This election could prove to be an instrumental one in shaping the future of Singaporean politics and society.

There is little doubt that the PAP will form the government after the election. Even the WP has indicated that it is not yet ready to form the next government.

The final outcome for this contest however will be over the kind of Singapore that Singaporeans would like to see. The Singaporean electorates will need to choose between the PAP’s argument that the party needs solid support from voters to chart a better future for the country or the opposition’s argument that Singapore should see more opposition parliamentarians to act as a check on the PAP.

Finally, it is likely that this election will see the PAP improving its performance marginally perhaps winning 62 to 63 per cent of the overall votes.

This would be largely attributed to the likely poor performance of most of the smaller parties. The WP could capture the single seat of Fengshan and possibly win the East Coast Group Representative Constituency (GRC) -although this is still too close to call.

The SDP is likely to make a serious dent in the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC and will be in an excellent position to capture its first GRC in the next election due in 2020.

In sum, the upcoming election will see Singapore make its slow and incremental towards a more democratic society, an ideal enshrined in the nation’s constitution.

Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman is assistant professor and coordinator of the Malaysia Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).