21 September 2019
Senior members of the People’s Action Party attend a campaign rally before the general elections last week. Photo:
Senior members of the People’s Action Party attend a campaign rally before the general elections last week. Photo:

PAP’s success formula won’t work for Hong Kong

The victory of the People’s Action Party in Singapore’s general elections last Friday didn’t come as a surprise at all, but its share of the vote turned out to be nine percentage points higher than in the last election four years ago.

The PAP’s clean sweep silenced all of the opposition parties in the city state. No one can argue with success.

In the 2011 election, the ruling party garnered its lowest number of votes since Singapore’s independence, a mere 60 percent of the total. In fact, its popularity had long been on the slide as could be seen from the results of the previous elections.

But now, led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the PAP has put to rest fears about its lingering decline.

Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy is more enduring than many thought, and it’s likely that a change of the ruling party won’t take place until after most of the voters who saw their country’s independence pass away.

Long-term factors that come into play this time include Singapore’s commendable economic and social achievements over the years. The PAP’s strategy for an earlier-than-scheduled election to exploit the patriotic fervor whipped up by jubilee celebrations also worked well.

The general election looks like an exercise of genuine universal suffrage as there is no election committee that screens out unfavored candidates before a popular vote is allowed.

The injustice in its electoral system is largely veiled and well-coordinated with the judiciary and media, ensuring an invincible position for the PAP.

Besides the essence of the Anglo-Saxon legal philosophy and practice, the elder Lee also injected the Britons’ political scheming in his design of Singapore’s political framework, which is way above Beijing’s blatant, sometimes wanton handling of Hong Kong affairs.

The timing of the election was a typical example of the stratagems employed.

Singapore’s political system is of the Westminster type, in which the prime minister is given the power to request the president to dissolve the parliament and call a snap election while the latter can reject the request, albeit on paper only.

The Lion City’s president has no real power, whose selection, although via universal suffrage, has a high threshold to weed out those from outside the ruling party.

Among other things, a candidate must have held office as a minister or other senior government position or as a chief or CEO of a firm with a paid-up capital of at least S$100 million (US$71.11 million). Non-party affiliation is but a nominal prerequisite, as long as the candidate leaves his party on the date of nomination.

Before he took office, the incumbent Tony Tan Keng-yam served as the deputy prime minister from 1995-2005 and before that he was chairman and CEO of Oversea-Chinese Bank, Singapore’s second largest bank. Tan quit his PAP membership right before his presidential campaign.

The general election was held eight months ahead of schedule to harness voters’ patriotism and the parliament was dissolved on Sept. 25, just 16 days earlier.

Opposition parties, struggling with insufficient manpower and resources, were caught off guard. They barely had time to announce candidates and formulate platforms.

The ruling party’s right to call an election to its full advantage remained a conspicuous defect of the Westminster system for over three centuries until Britain, the system’s originator, introduced fixed-term elections four years ago.

Obviously, Singapore, which used to model itself on Britain, has no intention to follow suit.

Historical records reveal a periodical cycle of reversion in PAP’s share of votes: the number of votes it garners may be on a steady fall throughout two to three elections in a row (roughly 10 years) and then bounce back sharply and sustain the rise for another decade.

The PAP’s share of votes may bottom out at the level of 60 percent, which indicates the share of voters who are hardcore advocates of the political status quo, while opposition supporters take up roughly 30 percent of the total.

The remaining 10 percent won’t hesitate to pressure the PAP with their votes, but whenever there is a potential crisis, they will cease pressuring the party and instead vote for it.

It’s a universal truth that whenever faced with huge uncertainties, voter sentiment tilts toward the ruling party to maintain the status quo.

Should China’s economic slowdown spread across the border, more Hongkongers may also vote for pro-establishment candidates.

The PAP and Singapore’s success formula is something that Hong Kong can hardly replicate.

Hong Kong’s economy used to lean on both Western economies and the mainland. But now, as the territory becomes increasingly reliant on China as the sole growth engine, it is prone to a much bigger setback if something goes wrong with the mainland economy.

Hong Kong’s own manufacturing sector has long been extinct as production lines moved north of the border. On the other hand, 30 percent of Singapore’s gross domestic product still comes from its high-tech factories and plants, an underlying reason why it was able to outpace Hong Kong in GDP growth.

Small economies usually face greater uncertainties and thus diversity is key to minimizing risks. Yet it seems that the local business community has forgotten all about this. They put more premium to docility to Beijing than to anything else.

Another example is trade. China accounts for more than 50 percent of Hong Kong’s imports and exports while Singapore is far more diversified. China, although its largest trading partner, only takes up 12 percent and 14 percent of its imports and exports respectively.

This is why Hong Kong’s economy faces greater risks and grows at a slower pace. Weaker economic performance contributes to the people’s loss of trust and confidence in the government.

Government authority and recognition as well as national pride are other factors absent in Hong Kong. Nativism means patriotism in Singapore yet in Hong Kong it means the opposite, given the territory’s political reality and Beijing’s suzerainty.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 14.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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An opposition campaign poster accusing the PAP of "colonizing" Singapore. Photo:

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal