Nearly two years after the May 2011 watershed elections -- when the ruling party's popularity dipped to a historic low of 60.1 per cent and three office holders were voted out -- Singapore's leaders have yet to come to grips with the angst sweeping the nation.
Two recent events show how the government is being blindsided. First, a blemish on the country's proud 26-year record of having no strikes. Bus drivers from China refused to go to work; what made it worse was that their employer and the government never saw it coming.
The drivers had already been complaining about the living conditions in their dormitories and their lower wages when compared to those of drivers from Malaysia. Yet, nothing much was done to defuse the issue and no real efforts were made by the National Trades Union Congress to unionise these foreign workers.
The Singapore establishment, including the companies, was lulled into believing that strikes happen only in foreign countries and lost the art of reading the pulse of its workers.
Second, a seemingly innocuous statement by the Workers' Party on why it did not perform well in an audit of town councils snowballed into issues of transparency, conflict of interest and the involvement of a company owned by the ruling People's Action Party in business. With the online media keeping the contract between PAP town councils and Action Information Management on the boil, the controversy became so heated that finally the Prime Minister was forced to call for a review.
Then came the resignation of the Speaker of Parliament because of an extra-marital scandal. And the government's crown-jewel achievement, stellar economic growth, is now under strain with the economy just escaping a technical recession.
Slow growth, even volatility in GDP, is becoming a norm. The investment lifeline is taking a hit with MNCs giving Singapore only a seventh ranking in the Asia Business Outlook Survey by the Economist Corporate Network with many of the multinationals complaining loudly that the government's tightening of the screws on immigration is depriving them of the cheap labour they have been enjoying for a long time.
The government is tackling skyrocketing prices of properties, overcrowded trains and buses, stresses in the high-achieving school system. But something always crops up to curtail the momentum.
Put the screws on immigration and the small and medium enterprises and big foreign companies are shouting at the top of their voices. Cool the property market by trying to make it more affordable for younger Singaporeans and others are complaining that their investments are in danger of losing their shine.
Against this difficult backdrop, the ruling party is going into a contest with the Workers' Party and two others in a Jan 26 by-election at Punggol East, a single seat vacated by the PAP's affable Michael Palmer, who succumbed to an affair with a grassroots worker.
This is the second by-election in eight months, the earlier one being called after the Workers' Party's Yaw Shin Leong was sacked for not coming clean on his adultery. The Opposition party won that contest quite easily.
Deputy prime minister Teo Chee Hean said on Nomination Day that it will be a tough fight. And the prime minister, during a walkabout at the constituency over the weekend, said his candidate, colorectal surgeon Dr Koh Poh Koon, has the potential to become an office holder if he wins, implying that a rejection is tantamount to saying no to a heavyweight.
The government is not having an easy time finding political talent to form the backbone of the next generation of leaders. Ideally, the PAP should have picked somebody who had understudied Mr Palmer in Punggol East. But they had to go for Dr Koh, who has been doing grassroots work in a constituency called Telok Blangah since 2002 - a decision that has not gone down well with the community workers in Punggol East.
Winning elections, even in a Group Representation Constituency where a newbie used to ride on the coat-tails of a Minister, is no longer an absolute certainty for the ruling party as shown by its defeat in Aljunied in the 2011 poll.
With the hunt for political talent getting even more elusive, a cocooned establishment that has not learned to communicate effectively with a population that is tasting a new-found freedom unleashed by the internet, an economy that is moving in fits and starts and an opposition finding it easy to recruit strong candidates, Singapore is clearly in a mid-life crisis.
It has faced worse crises, like the race riots and the fight against the leftists in the 50s and 60s and economic downturns in the 80s and 90s.
They were solved by using the feared Internal Security Act and introducing bold economic reforms. Citizens went with these policies because they delivered the good life quickly. That good life is now not so visible for many.
What Singapore needs now is a system of responsible checks and balances, not from within the establishment but from without like the media, academia and think tanks.. That would have revealed the effects of a free-wheeling immigration policy on infrastructure, a more enlightened way of dealing with the internet media and long-standing policies that are still hobbled by a hard-nosed political ideology that says nothing is for free.
The 2011 elections saw the phrase "new normal" enter the pundit's vocabulary. That is passe now. The country is confronting a new abnormal.
P. N. Balji, a Singapore journalist for more than 35 years, is now a media consultant
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