Singapore’s ruling party misses comeback chance


A solid by-election win for Singapore’s opposition shows the ruling party has a long way to go before winning back voter support after its worst-ever showing in polls last year, analysts say.

The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has run Singapore since 1959, was delivered a shock when the opposition made unprecedented gains last May, and has since announced a series of reforms.

It had a chance to redeem itself at Saturday’s by-election in the opposition fiefdom of Hougang after the incumbent MP was fired over alleged extra-marital affairs, giving the PAP its best hope of taking the seat for 21 years.

The party pulled out all the stops in its campaign effort, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong personally going on the stump and his deputy Teo Chee Hean also weighing in.

But despite their efforts the PAP’s vote share went up by just three percentage points and Workers’ Party candidate Png Eng Huat comfortably held the seat with a 62 percent share.

With the by-election seen by some as a referendum on the PAP’s recent initiatives, analysts said it must step efforts to woo the city-state’s increasingly disgruntled citizens.

Issues that dominated last year’s election like immigration, the cost of living, a growing income gap, high salaries of cabinet ministers and overcrowding on public transport have not gone away.

Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at the Singapore Management University (SMU), said the result “sends a clear message to the PAP of the need to do much more to reform as a party and reform its policies”.

“The PAP needs to outgrow the politics of the past... and move toward inclusive policies and genuine engagement of voters in Singapore across the spectrum,” she told AFP.

“The days of relying on economic growth for political support are gone. It is now a matter of better responsiveness and fairness.”

The PAP has been credited with engineering Singapore’s rise to become one of Asia’s most advanced economies.

But it maintains a tight grip on power -- an unusual electoral system gave it 81 out of 87 seats in parliament last year, on a 60 percent vote share -- and has been criticized for denying civil and political rights.

Many Singaporeans are fed up with high living costs and criticize the government for its dogged focus on economic growth and for neglecting a widening gap between rich and poor.

After the 2011 elections the government stepped up the construction of public housing flats, which are home to more than 80 percent of Singaporeans.

It also budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade public transport, and reduced the intake of foreign workers amid complaints of increasingly fierce competition for jobs and housing.

Cabinet ministers also took a pay cut -- although they remain the highest-paid politicians in the world, with the prime minister on a basic salary of Sg$2.2 million (US$1.73 million).

But discontent continues to rumble, and breakdowns on the metro train system have further dented the PAP’s reputation for efficiency.

SMU law professor Eugene Tan said the Hougang outcome “does raise questions on the policy changes in the past year and whether they actually amounted to putting things on the right track”.

And National University of Singapore political science professor Reuben Wong said the poll showed “there is a momentum for a continued liberalization and continuing demand for more opposition in Singapore”.

Social networking sites are playing a bigger role in shaping public debate in the city-state, where the mainstream media is perceived to be pro-government.

Many Singaporeans now vent their feelings on the Internet and accuse PAP leaders of being out of touch with ordinary citizens.

Prime Minister Lee, who recently set up a Facebook page in an effort to engage with the people, said Saturday he was encouraged by the improvement in the PAP’s vote share in Hougang.

But he conceded the government has its work cut out ahead of the next general election, due in four years’ time.

“We have made progress, but there is much more to be done,” he said.