Why Singapore's Election Didn't Live Up to the Hype

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Roslan Rahman / AFP / Getty Images

Supporters of the opposition Workers' Party celebrate on May 8, 2011, after their party won six parliamentary seats during the Singaporean general election

The campaign leading to Singapore's May 7 general election had the trappings of a larger political drama. Before the thronged gates of a suburban sports stadium, where a rally for the opposition Workers' Party (WP) was under way one hot night, vendors hurriedly pressed ice cream sandwiches into the hands of the thousands pouring inside. Encircling the lighted stadium were high-rise public-housing blocks, from whose open windows and crowded outdoor passageways hundreds more were listening to the boisterous speeches. Across Singapore, the pages of Facebook crackled with jubilation about the prospect of more political opposition. The mood was one of incipient and sweeping change.

A few days later, on election day, the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) share of the popular vote did in fact drop to a historic low of 60.1% It was a disquieting number for the PAP, which has swept every general election in Singapore since 1959, winning the past five with an average 66.1% share of the popular vote. Yet this election appeared to have caught the PAP off guard. Frustrated by Singapore's rising cost of living, many lower-income voters criticized the ruling party for pushing economic growth at all costs, claiming this had led to higher prices of basic necessities like food and housing. Voters were unhappy too with the island's increasingly congested roads, buses and subway carriages, clogged at least partly, they felt, by a rapid influx of immigrants into Singapore, in particular between 2004 and '08. Add to this a recent loosening of electioneering laws in Singapore, allowing political messages and videos to circulate on the Internet, and conditions appeared ripe for the opposition. Indeed, one of the PAP's main rivals, the WP, won an unprecedented six parliamentary seats.

In doing so, the WP rose to the PAP's long-standing challenge to the opposition to field high-caliber candidates capable of governing Singapore. One of the WP's winning candidates, Chen Show Mao, is a Stanford-educated lawyer who works for white-shoe New York City legal firm Davis Polk & Wardwell in Beijing, where he has advised on some of China's largest share offerings. Chen was part of a slate of WP candidates who unseated Singapore's Foreign Minister. "This is a watershed general election," declared Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a predawn press conference after the ballots were counted. WP chief Low Thia Khiang similarly called the election "a political landmark in modern Singapore." His party's wins, Low said, were a sign that voters wanted "a more responsive, inclusive, transparent and accountable government."

Even so, by the time all the votes were counted, the drama promised by the campaign's enthusiastic crowds had fizzled. Despite the dip in their share of the popular vote, the PAP retained 81 out of 87 parliamentary seats. And though Singaporeans had elected six opposition members to Parliament to check the power of the ruling party, and the opposition's modest inroads on May 7 may one day pave the way to bigger wins, anyone outside Singapore would regard the election result as a handsome victory for the government.

In the end, therefore, the status quo was quietly affirmed. Economists, political scientists and no doubt Singapore's political parties themselves will offer their own varied theories as to why. To me, though, part of the explanation lies in the Canadian new-wave group Men Without Hats' 1982 hit single "Safety Dance," a slightly melancholy pop song that enjoys a ghostly afterlife on Singapore's radio airwaves and in its riverside pubs. Like the brave new world the song beckons at ("We can go where we want to/ A place where they will never find") but finally hesitates to enter, "Safety Dance" seems to capture Singapore's tentative attitude toward political change.

The caution may stem from the power of government in Singapore, a power that dives deeply into the lives of ordinary citizens. The government, for instance, usually both builds and helps maintain the single most valuable asset of Singaporeans: their home. Some 85% of Singaporeans live in sprawling ocher-colored apartment blocks that have been built by the state's Housing Development Board, or HDB, which a PAP government created in 1960. Surrounded by food stalls, clinics, community clubs, and tied to public transport systems like the island's subway or bus grid, public housing in Singapore has risen so much in value that their lofty prices now worry first-time buyers. The question that must haunt every HDB homeowner is, Will another party protect the value of my home as well as the PAP has done?

Education is another area in which government influence is pervasive. With a few notable exceptions, all Singaporean children residing in the country must attend local public schools, and the government often has its eye on students from elite high schools like Raffles Institution or Anglo-Chinese Junior College (whose students are screened for admission by exam results). At graduation, many star students are awarded state scholarships to study at top universities overseas. If they return home, a sizable number of these are lured into the civil service, and some civil servants, in turn, are eventually nudged into politics, usually under the PAP banner. It is a process that creams off the top academic achievers for the state, often leaving Singapore's private sector starved of leadership and innovation. Yet it is also one of the reasons the country's bureaucracy works so well, and why the country's best and brightest may feel tethered to the status quo.

To be sure, these various arms of government, as well as Singapore's state-run health care system, public transport and state-linked multinational companies, will continue to operate even if the PAP is one day defeated at the polls. Indeed, the extent to which these institutions thrive regardless of who runs the government will determine Singapore's future greatness. Yet in a country where one political party has left so wide and deep a mark on the lives of its citizens, is it any surprise that those citizens should be careful about jettisoning it? Over time, no doubt this caution will erode, as Singapore's institutions mature and assert their own unique identities. Until then, however, Singapore may dance with other political parties but may remain reluctant to take the relationship much further than that. "We can dance, we can dance," as the song says. "Everything's under control."