The Election: Political Succession and Electoral Reform

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Election: Political Succession and Electoral Reform


In holding the election, foremost in the minds of the PAP leaders must have been how the party would renew its ranks and plan for leadership succession. The party proclaimed that it wanted to present a slate of candidates that could represent a range of interests in Singapore which reminded one of a statement made by Lee Kuan Yew on the matter two years earlier. Lee had said then that the Opposition could pose a serious challenge to the PAP only if the latter were to become

soft and flabby ... ceases to respond creatively to changing circumstances and ... does not self-renew by attracting some of the brightest and best of each year's cohort to become MPs ... Even more important, the PAP would be foolish if it refuses or fails to include on its side able and dedicated men of strong political convictions, ... and drives them to the opposition benches.28

This was a signal that the PAP was willing to accommodate a broader range of political ideology within its ranks than lose people of calibre to the Opposition. It was revealed, for instance, that the party was even prepared to accept single or divorced (though pro-family) candidates. While most of the new candidates in the past with good prospects for promotion in the party and government line-up were government scholars, or had been co-opted from within the Establishment, it was interesting to see if other types of people characterized as having "unconventional careers, so that you can have new ways of looking at things",29 could be attracted to join the party. By March 2001, it was announced that the PAP had already found close to twenty-five candidates and was ready for the polls.

Prime Minister Goh also revealed that the core leadership team that would carry on after his deadline for stepping down --- 2007 --- was already in place. It included Deputy Prime Minister Lee, Education Minister Teo Chee Hean, Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo, Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang, and National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan. While he had identified his preference for his successor as being Deputy Prime Minister Lee, he recognized that the final choice would be left to this third-generation team of PAP leaders.30

Meanwhile, developments were taking place in the area of electoral reform. In an address at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in January 2001, Deputy Prime Minister Lee had introduced the exciting prospect of the government allowing overseas voting. The main objection the PAP government had with the idea in the past was that it doubted that people based overseas would "really vote as a Singaporean, whose future is tied to Singapore's future".31 The subsequent debate was around the mechanism for voting, and the eligibility criteria for the vote. The government proposed that the overseas vote would be available to citizens based in Australia, China, Europe, and the United States, at the Singapore missions in Canberra, Beijing, Hong Kong, London, and Washington, respectively. The voter must have lived in Singapore for an aggregate of two years in the five-year period before registering to vote, with an exemption for Singaporeans who had been sent to work or study overseas by the government as well as those working in approved international agencies overseas. At the time, it was estimated that about 100,000 Singaporeans were based overseas and the government was urging more to venture abroad to develop business opportunities.

The bill for overseas voting was passed in April, but not without controversy. While it was acknowledged as an important gesture for rooting Singaporeans to home, it treated Singaporeans abroad differentially; first, on the basis of practical concerns in that locations for voting were picked where the missions were deemed large enough to handle the voting exercise; second, the public sector seemed to have been privileged over the private, and the government had discretionary power to decide who else would qualify. …

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