‘Next five years is crucial for Singapore politics’

Elena Torrijos

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong smiles as he speaks during a press conference early on May 8, 2011.(AFP/SIMIN WANG)

By Andrew Loh

The results of the General Election in May have set the course for Singapore for the next five years. How this will pan out depends largely on a few factors and players, chief of which is the Prime Minister himself.

Singapore's tepid political landscape did not see a tectonic shift or a revolutionary one, but the election results were enough to give the Prime Minister and his ruling People's Action Party (PAP) cause for concern.

Following the results, PM Lee swiftly turned his guns on his own backyard and culled several high-profile ministers from his new team. The resulting aftermath saw nine ministers stepping down, including then-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, and 11 new ministers appointed to lead the 14 ministries which were slashed from an "over-sized" 21.

It was the most significant changes Singapore has seen in a long while. Indeed, the PM himself described it as "epochal", a reference perhaps to the stepping down of his father, Mr Lee, whose influence over all segments of Singapore society and government policies for the last 50 years can only be described as total.

After a bruising election campaign, in which PAP leaders were stunned at the "deep level of resentment" towards the party, PM Lee's action could be seen as an attempt to regain the national narrative from the opposition parties which had ridden on the negative sentiments towards the PAP.

Key departure

These "epochal" changes have laid the foundation for a new era of nation-building between the governed and those in government. Will this new beginning, as it were, lead to new ways of thinking and engagement? Critics, naturally, are sceptical. They point to the fact that the elder Mr Lee, while no longer in Cabinet, still wields much influence by the sheer force of his personality and his stunning achievements over the last 50 years.

Indeed, it has been said that no current minister in the Cabinet has enough international standing as Mr Lee to stand shoulder to shoulder with the leaders of global economic and political powerhouses. This is especially more pronounced now with the departure of the very experienced and well-liked Mr George Yeo, the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, after his defeat at the polls.

Mr Yeo, who entered politics in 1988 and served in several heavyweight portfolios, is seen as one of the more progressive and best brains in government. He was the first minister to recognise the importance of new media and was the first minister to start blogging back in 2006. His online presence was further enhanced by his Facebook account which now has almost 87,000 "likes", not far behind those of National Solidarity Party's (NSP) Ms Nicole Seah (105,000) and Mr Lee Kuan Yew (90,500).

Engaging with the youth

Mr Yeo is probably the PAP's most ardent advocate of youth engagement, as can be seen by the support from younger Singaporeans during the elections and later in his tentative and now-aborted bid for the Elected Presidency. The saving grace, if you will, for the PAP is that Mr Yeo has been retained in the reshuffled Cabinet following the elections and will, among other things, continue to do his part in engaging the youths, which is an important voter bloc in future elections.

Among the younger politicians, it was Ms Seah's emergence into the public sphere that captured Singaporeans' imagination. At a mere 24-years old, her eloquence and her sense of compassion — evident in her election speeches — touched many. Her confident entrance on the scene, together with that of the Singapore Democratic Party's Dr Vincent Wijeysingha, signalled a new phase in Singapore's political progression, even as old war horses like the indomitable Mr Chiam See Tong, the longest-serving opposition MP in Singapore, made his exit from Parliament after 27 years.

Some had predicted a political tsunami at the May polls. This did not happen. But in tiny Singapore, it does not take a tsunami to effect changes. The PM Lee-led PAP has lost almost 15 percent of the vote since PM Lee took office in 2004. Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's last election as PM — in 2001 — saw his PAP outfit gain 75.3 percent of the vote share. The May 2011 polls, under PM Lee, saw this slashed to 60.1 percent.

This led PM Lee to make the aforementioned "epochal" changes. This bodes well for Singapore, if PM Lee sticks to his commitment and promises. But, as some have said, political changes in Singapore is a game of balancing vested interest from all sectors, as indeed it is everywhere in the world. Changes, therefore, will crawl along at snail's pace. The danger for the PAP government, being the behemoth of bureaucracy that it is, is that it will be left behind by an ascendant opposition movement, now endowed with increased legitimacy and credibility, if it does not move fast enough.

Watching the parties closely

The next five years is crucial for Singapore politics. How this will play out remains to be seen. The opposition may have gained grounds on the incumbent ruling party but Singaporeans will also be watching how the opposition perform the next half decade. If it fumbles, or is seen as being disadvantageous for Singapore, opposition voters may just return their votes to the PAP at the next polls in 2016.

Clearly, Singapore is at a crossroads. The first substantive indication of where it is headed politically perhaps will depend on how the nine opposition MPs (six elected and three NCMPs) perform in Parliament, and what further changes PM Lee embarks on.

In the meantime, a new generation of young voters and young politicians are knocking on the door, demanding new ways of engagement, and wanting to be more involved in policy decisions, along with expectations of more transparency and accountability in government dealings.

PM Lee and the PAP, it seem, are on the back foot, having to deal with a more confident opposition and a more vocal and younger electorate.

PM Lee, who is a retired Brigadier General, will have to survey the new landscape closely and devise a new strategy before he leads his troops into battle again in five years. As a former general in the armed forces, he should know that a battle, at least this political one, will be won not on the day itself but in how he manages to win hearts and minds during the course of the next five years.

And that is no easy task, given the many serious challenges Singapore faces. The good news, at least where the PM is concerned, is that he now has a clean slate to paint a new landscape for the little red dot and leave a lasting legacy.

PM Lee, George Yeo, Nicole Seah, as well as leading opposition figures Chiam See Tong and Vincent Wijeysingha, are the nominees in the politics category in the Singapore 9, a Yahoo! project to recognise nine Singaporeans who really made a difference in the past year. Make your vote count here.