24 October 2016
Singapore's national flag is displayed outside the flats in a public housing block. Photo: Bloomberg
Singapore's national flag is displayed outside the flats in a public housing block. Photo: Bloomberg

Why Singaporeans may not give the ruling party a clean sweep

Singapore marks this month the 50th anniversary of its reluctant independence in 1965, when the island was abruptly expelled from Malaysia.

Professor Wang Gungwu — a famed historian who was formerly vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong and now heads the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore — said in an interview with the Hong Kong Economic Journal that the secret to the Lion City’s rising from its dire straits in the initial days of independence — when it relied on Malaysia for water and trade while Indonesia, led by procommunist leftists, was casting a covetous eye on the newborn city state — is a unique political vibe that it managed to forge at the very beginning.

What Professor Wang didn’t point out is that the vital bedrock of Singapore’s politics is its unrelenting purge of local communist groups: not a single commie was allowed to stay in the country.

Lee Kuan Yew’s resolve to quash the red movement was instrumental to Singapore’s success, which is why I have to splash cold water on the call for Hong Kong to model itself on the city state, as we could never do anything like this here.

What Singapore has achieved over the past 50 years is laudable beyond any doubt.

Its accomplishments in numerous aspects — food supply, housing, healthcare, education, job creation — truly deserve recognition.

Singapore’s story is that of a remarkable economic success in modern human history.

The Singaporean way was simple. After getting political and ideological rifts out of the way, Lee and his cohorts’ philosophy of governance can be reduced to a three-pronged approach: meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty.

The government is pragmatic and learns from proven precedents elsewhere rather than inventing new approaches itself.

As regards honesty, the reason why Singapore’s officials are mostly efficient, clean and upright may be that they are bound by a common, noble sense of duty, since the big remuneration packages they enjoy are not necessarily a guarantee of personal integrity.

That sense of duty is like the traditional ethic of British gentlemen and statesmen: noblesse oblige (privilege entails responsibility).

Once their personal interests and benefits are ensured, they put their heart and soul into serving the country.

Yet noblesse oblige may unavoidably lead to “enlightened dictatorship”, which we have seen in all Singapore’s prime ministers, from Lee himself to Goh Chok Tong to Lee’s son Lee Hsien Loong.

This fact cannot be glossed over by the nominally “one person, one vote” elections, which have been in place since the republic’s earliest days.

Also, autocratic regulation and political prosecution in the name of ensuring efficient governance are still stifling press freedom in Singapore.

But one truth we must not overlook is that rarely has Singapore been faced with a wave of exits by its nationals, although many are unhappy with their authoritarian government.

Thus we know that, after weighing the pros and cons, the majority believe that despite inadequate freedom, Singapore still offers a good quality of life.

And, we have to admit that the island nation is now among the hottest destinations for Hong Kong emigrants.

While not so many Singaporeans seek a way out, there has been a huge inflow of foreign workers and other new arrivals.

These people have cast their vote of confidence in the Lion City, as they can choose from many places to settle in.

This offers some food for thought.

The ruling People’s Action Party wants the 17th general election to be held next month, instead of next year as expected, to take full advantage of the people’s patriotic fervor, whipped up by the grand national celebrations of the jubilee.

When people feel proud and grateful, surely they will want the party to continue in its rule.

The odds are still in favor of the PAP to claim the absolute majority of parliamentary seats.

But compared with the last election in 2011, when the party garnered its lowest share of the votes since independence, it may receive even fewer votes this time.

Some major issues may hold the party back.

The inflows of foreign funds and immigrants have been impressive over recent years, yet many locals have failed to benefit from the trend.

Rather, the standard of living of most citizens is dropping.

New immigrants are overwhelming the tiny city state, causing a surge in home prices and congestion on public transport.

Locals are crying foul at the inconvenience and pressure brought about by these newcomers.

Young people, many of whom cannot afford to move away from their family, may be particularly resentful of the government’s immigration policy when they find that anywhere they go is congested.

Also, Singapore’s aggregate household debt now equals 75 percent of its gross domestic product, something that may surprise many observers.

Surely consumer sentiment is dampened even if interest rates are kept at low levels.

Moreover, when virtually a third of their income is diverted into their Central Provident Fund accounts, there is reason to be pessimistic about how much Singaporeans are willing to spend.

Another concern is that the future profitability of Temasek, one of Singapore’s much-vaunted sovereign funds, may not be taken for granted despite its track record of an average annual return of 16 percent since 1974.

Now that Singapore’s economy is cooling down and the global picture doesn’t look rosy (especially in China), it is feared that Temasek’s Midas touch may no longer work.

The Singapore government may have fewer financial resources to fund free lunches for its people, and grievances against labor imports and immigrants could mean fewer votes for the ruling party.

Singapore can still take pride in its solid foundations.

After all, Temasek still booked a 19 percent surge in its one-year return in its latest report.

However a striking contrast is visible between an affluent government and citizens who are burdened by financial constraints.

French economist Thomas Piketty says in his book Capital in the 21st Century that when revenue from capital and funds (in the form of share dividends, interest, rent and investment returns) constantly dwarfs that from economic development, the government can get richer but not its people, and the widening disparity may ignite social conflicts and disharmony.

This could be the reason the PAP may be unable to make a clean sweep in the coming election.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on August 11.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A large SG50 banner is hung outside the SingTel Tower in the city state’s financial district. Photo: Bloomberg

A bird’s eye view of Singapore’s Marina Bay area. Photo: Bloomberg

Pedestrians walk past Singapore flags fluttering in the breeze. Photo: Bloomberg

A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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