Social Discomfort in the City of Growth

Singapore's recent election once again consolidated the rule of the People's Action Party (PAP). For the first time, the PAP had to win an election without their influential leader, Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away in March. Considering the increasing political disenchantment amongst Singapore's youth, the loss of Lee Kuan Yew— already a divisive figure for Singaporean youth— put the party in a potentially precarious position. As young voters in Singapore bring new opinions to the table, the PAP must undergo a thorough evaluation of its social policies in order to fully adapt to changing social values and the increasing political power of Singaporean youth.

While in the last election the PAP’s share of the popular vote dropped to a shaky and comparatively very low 60%, the party managed to rebound and win nearly 70% of votes in 2015. Allegations of gerrymandering and other crooked political play intimated that the 70% win was not so much an indication of popular support, rather, an indication of governmental control. While Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew's eldest son, has been in power since 2004, the elder Lee’s ideology and charisma have remained central to Singaporean politics and have helped smooth out political instability and manipulation. That stabilizing power has also, to some extent, allowed the PAP to ignore the increasing discontent emanating from Singaporean youth.

Lee Kuan Yew is given credit for Singapore's development from a post-colonial outpost to the world's busiest trading port with a bustling economy; what the ostensibly democratic PM accomplished during his back-to-back terms in office is undeniably impressive. While the deluge of adoration and lamentations from Singaporeans at home and abroad may have been unsurprising, they signalled Lee's charismatic power and political sway. Without Lee Kuan Yew’s public sway, the PAP has had to define its legitimacy s in new terms, and will need to do so in order to consistently win future elections.

So far, at least, it hasn’t done a good job at adjusting.

This past election was the first in Singapore’s history where all seats were contested, spurred by significant social and demographic changes. Previous generations’ ardent support for the PAP and its traditional values is not fully reflected by young Singaporeans’ new perspective. Now that their basic needs are met, as a result of the rapid development overseen by the PAP and the previous generation, they have begun to focus on issues such as free speech and LGBTQ+ rights. Many Singaporeans feel no sense of belonging in the country and emigrate. One quarter of top A-level students leave and do not return: the lack of strong ties to their home country is clear. As much as 26.5% of the population reports weak national and family ties, and feels pessimistic about Singapore’s economic future. The PAP may have made use of Lee Kuan Yew's legacy in this election, but this will not be as effective in future elections as today’s youth age. As Singapore has reached a strong stage in its economic development, social issues must also come onto the table as an important part of its future.

The lack of governmental transparency is one of many social issues, and is among the primary causes of the schism between Singaporean youth and the political establishment. Importantly, the alienation of political opponents has meant that Singaporeans born into PAP-dominated democracy feel as if they were never afforded political voice or agency. Singaporeans young and old are becoming increasingly concerned about wealth inequality in a financial system that does not tax wealth. As times change, the old attitude of hard work and eventual success is being replaced by a more realistic analysis of economic inefficiencies and inequalities. Moving from an old system in which more money meant more wealth for everybody to a reality where new money is being spent on supercars and luxury real estate, the fact that some Singaporeans have been left out of the new growth is becoming a source of greater friction as time goes on.

While support for the PAP is firmly lodged in an older demographic that supports traditional pillars of growth, like manufacturing, younger Singaporeans are more willing to consider other political options. This is shown, for example, by the documented brain drain occurring in Singapore. Because the population is ageing rapidly, the separation between young Singaporeans and their political system is extremely important. As the older population starts to pass and the younger population inherits the political landscape, the PAP must address its young voters if it is to maintain control.

In addition, the alienation of overseas Singaporeans from the political process is a source of instability in an ever-globalizing world, especially for such an internationally-dependent country like Singapore. Overseas Singaporeans number about 212,000 at last count, and yet many are unable to vote. Globally, only ten polling stations exist outside the country. This means that many Singaporeans whose views, adapted by living in other societies and perhaps more left-leaning, are unable to vote. Despite the fact that the Overseas Singaporeans Unit and Contact Singapore have upped their engagement efforts, the lack of accessibility to voting and Singapore’s democratic system, as well as the disconnect from their home country, both continue to be problematic factors in Singapore’s social development. Young Singaporeans being alienated from their political system both at home and abroad could cause problems for the PAP in the future.

Moving beyond nostalgia for Lee's policies and the economic development of the past, the PAP will have to face a more thoughtful examination of its policies, a process from which it has historically been exempt. With an increasingly politically active and alienated young demographic and an ageing conservative population, it remains to be seen whether the PAP will be able to adapt to new social and political changes, or whether it will lose its historic dominance as a result of an inflexible and outdated governmental style.

Tiago de Souza Jensen

Tiago is a Brazilian and Danish-Canadian studying International Relations and Urban Studies at UBC. His studies and writing focus on East Asian IR and sustainable urban development.

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