Political Leadership in Singapore: Transitional Reflections Amidst the Politics of Bifurcation

By Chong, Alan | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, February 2015 | Go to article overview

Political Leadership in Singapore: Transitional Reflections Amidst the Politics of Bifurcation


Chong, Alan, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Singapore's politics post-2011 is increasingly exhibiting symptoms of a bifurcation into two broad 'paradigms'. Assuming that the result of the 2011 General Elections, when the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) garnered only 60.1 per cent of the vote--its lowest since fully competitive elections began in 1959--represented a turnaround in the majority of Singaporeans' willing embrace of the PAP's policies and leaders, the political landscape appears headed towards a scenario of democratic pluralism. This is a landscape where a still inchoate 'alternative ruling party' might yet arise to challenge the PAP in a possible two-party system. The Workers' Party emerged as the biggest winner amongst the opposition parties by picking up a four-member Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in Aljunied, while retaining its stronghold of a single member constituency in Hougang, earning a sum total of 12.8 per cent of the popular vote. The remaining 27.1 per cent of the vote was distributed amongst several other opposition parties who had won no formal seats under the first past the post electoral system. The three 'non-constituency' members of parliament allocated through the highest personal vote totals of the losing candidates amongst the opposition could hardly be considered as solid electoral gains since they appear more as constitutional gestures of political compensation. Hence, it is possible to posit that a bifurcation of political leadership pits two paradigms against one another. The first suggests that the prevailing pattern of the PAP's parliamentary and electoral dominance, while under threat from a mostly disenchanted populace, is potentially resilient, as it had been after the party's second worst showing in 1991, when the then-untried prime minister Goh Chok Tong attempted to secure a sizable mandate to demonstrate that he could command a level of support comparable to Lee Kuan Yew's.

The second paradigm points to the uncharted waters of a Singaporean populace democratising from the ground up, or outside the PAP's institutionalised channels of recruitment and control. Certainly, there is evidence from the biographical sketches of the winning opposition candidates and anecdotal reports of the popular mood on key issues of housing, transport, employment and nationalism, that change is being demanded of the PAP from the ground. The opposition candidates were able to match the PAP's newest recruits' much touted professional and popular credentials. It was also quite significant that the PAP's loss of Aljunied GRC cost the Minister for Foreign Affairs, George Yeo, his seat and status as a party 'heavyweight', prompting him to publicly warn his party that they were dealing with a mostly disaffected electorate that required internal PAP soul-searching. Moreover, the results of the presidential election of 2011, as well as the two incidental by-elections in 2012 and 2013, revealed that many Singaporeans were voting for either opposition or anti-establishment candidates out of frustration with the ruling party. The unprecedented range and visibility of self-merchandising and youthful volunteers deployed by many opposition parties during the 2011 General Elections also amplified the idea that the wellspring of an alternative political leadership may potentially be found within the non-PAP, non-institutionalised, and non-elite grassroots.

This extensive context is intended to situate the four books under review within a transitional period in the politics of Singapore. Indeed, political leadership whether in terms of personalities, organisations, variants of idealism, or the manufacture of ideology, cannot be adequately reviewed without reference to existing trends. All four books imply, through both commission and omission, that they are sensitively reading a potential turning point in the island state's political evolution. The first three books clearly hail from the first paradigm by attempting to incisively plumb the resilient nature of the PAP's leadership. …

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