Performance legitimacy When it comes to elections, the PAP leaves as little as possible to chance

DISCONTENT ABOUT IMMIGRATION contributed to an election result in May 2011 that was seen as a watershed, even though the PAP as usual romped home, securing 60% of the popular vote and 93% of elected seats in parliament (see chart). After more than half a century in continuous office, an incumbent government could have figuratively shrugged and asked where else in the world a ruling party could secure such a ringing endorsement in an unrigged vote. Instead it acknowledged the result—its worst since 1965—as a serious rebuke.

Lee Hsien Loong promised some “soul-searching”, and indeed the government seems to have listened to Singaporeans’ biggest concerns, introducing some curbs on foreign labour and improved benefits for the less well-off and the elderly. It hopes this will help it at the next election, due by early 2017 but expected earlier, perhaps in September or October this year. The PAP may hope that the lavish celebrations to mark its birthday, dubbed “SG50”, will remind everyone what a good job it has done; and the patriotic glow that followed Lee Kuan Yew’s death in March will not have faded yet.

Voting is compulsory and secret, elections are held regularly and there is no ballot-box stuffing, blatant vote-buying or intimidation, so it is remarkable that the PAP always wins by a huge margin. Lee Kuan Yew once said he was not intellectually convinced that a one-man, one-vote system was the best (“results can be erratic,” he explained). Yet that was what Singapore inherited from the British and it has been faithfully followed, with subtle modifications, despite the fear of what is spoken of as a “freak” result: an opposition win.

Voters are well aware of the phenomenal economic advances PAP rule has brought. In a country where most of the population lives in homes bought from the government on long leases, the incumbent government also benefits from the power of its agencies to invest in improving housing estates. Moreover, the PAP has taken full advantage of the rule allowing the government of the day to choose the date of an election within the five-year term of a parliament. Incumbency helps in other ways too. The electoral-boundaries review committee, for example, is suspected of tinkering with constituencies to favour the PAP. It does not convene until just before an election, so the fragmented opposition parties are often not able to divide up constituencies among themselves until just before the campaign period, which is usually very short; in 2011 it was just nine days.

A decision in 1988 to move from a system of single-seat constituencies to one where most seats are filled by Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) was justified by the need to ensure that ethnic minorities would be represented, which was done through a rule that slates of candidates must include at least one member of a minority. But it also made it harder for small opposition parties to come up with credible slates, and it enabled the PAP to have its own callow recruits swept into parliament on the coat-tails of cabinet ministers. In 2011, all but 12 seats were subsumed into four- to six-member GRCs. One reason that election was seen as transformational was that for the first time an opposition party, the Workers’ Party, won a GRC, in the district of Aljunied, defeating a slate led by the foreign minister, George Yeo.

The winners then found themselves up against another hurdle. Also in 1988, the government had taken away some of the functions of running its housing estates, such as basic maintenance, from the Housing Development Board (HDB) and handed them to new town councils, led by local MPs. In Aljunied, the Workers’ Party has found itself accused of financial irregularities, and it admits to making mistakes. Its supporters feel it has fallen into a trap.

The government also benefits from a tame mainstream press that is largely hostile to the opposition and rarely covers it between elections. During the campaign itself it tends to favour the government in the crudest way. “Is S’pore ready for a gay MP?” asked a headline in 2011 in the New Paper, a tabloid, about an opposition candidate.

The tenor of political debate, however, has been transformed by online and social media. The country boasts high rates of internet and, especially, smartphone penetration (with more than one phone per head of population). Facebook, too, is ubiquitous, with nearly 4m registered users. Most younger people follow the news (if at all) through social media. Where the official press is stuffy, tame and sanctimonious, cyberspace seethes with sarcasm and irreverent diatribes against the “gahmen” (government). This in turn has influenced the mainstream media.

Singapore’s government was swift in the 1990s to spot both the importance of the internet and the dangers it posed to its control over information. Early efforts to block pornography showed how hard it would be to limit access to the internet. But that has not stopped the government from trying to keep control, and cyberspace is no free-for-all. Amos Yee, a schoolboy with a loud mouth and a YouTube account, who this year combined the two in an expletive-laden rant celebrating Lee Kuan Yew’s death, has ended up facing a custodial sentence. Roy Ngerng, a mild-mannered former health worker and activist, risks bankruptcy for defamatory blogs posted last year. A popular tabloidish news portal, “The Real Singapore”, was shut down in May for sins such as whipping up “anti-foreigner sentiment”. Defamation and contempt-of-court laws apply online as well as off. Bloggers are deemed responsible even for comments by readers on their posts. Sites that regularly cover news about Singapore have to apply for a licence and post a S$50,000 ($37,000) bond.

A career in opposition politics in Singapore has never looked attractive. The late J.B. Jeyaretnam, the first opposition member to win a seat in parliament (in 1981), faced a series of lawsuits and was disbarred from his legal practice, jailed and bankrupted. He also suffered the contempt of Lee Kuan Yew, who said he welcomed an opposition, but “we don’t want duds” such as Jeyaretnam or Chee Soon Juan, leader of another opposition group, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). Oddly enough, Mr Chee was also bankrupted after failing to pay defamation damages to PAP leaders. “If we had considered them serious political figures,” said Lee Kuan Yew in 2003, “we could have bankrupted them earlier.” The late prime minister’s ways of dealing with opposition were harsh—particularly so in the period before independence, currently much debated, when alleged communists were jailed. Political losers and victims suffered badly, but there were not that many of them. Compared with other countries, the human cost of Singaporean authoritarianism has been low.

PAP leaders have always been unapologetic. They argue that the defamation suits—for slurs that would be ignored elsewhere—were not to suppress opposition but to protect the government’s reputation. No writs flew after the 2011 election. This may be because the PAP had concluded that such suits look petty and vindictive and help the opposition. Or it may be that the history of relentless libel action has worked. Politicians know not to impugn the personal integrity of PAP leaders. Suggestions of nepotism are especially likely to result in a suit. To Lee Kuan Yew, success running in families proved not that the system is rigged but that talent is hereditary. Plausibly enough, he argued that the family connection actually delayed his son’s accession to the top job until Goh Chok Tong finished his 14-year stint in 2004.

Another deterrent to opposition is the apparent hopelessness of the cause and the petty bickering of a camp that now includes no fewer than eight parties, some little more than vehicles for their leaders. Mr Jeyaretnam’s son, Kenneth (who, endearingly, blogs as “Son of a Dud”), an economist, leads the Reform Party his father formed when he fell out with his Workers’ Party colleagues. Tan Jee Say, a former civil servant, banker and presidential candidate, left the SDP to form the Singaporeans First party. And so on. There is even a risk that in the next election the opposition may split the anti-PAP vote in three-cornered fights, hampering the Workers’ Party’s bid to emerge as a serious and credible opposition party.

Looking for a Goldilocks opposition

In keeping with its repeated statements that it would welcome an opposition (just not this opposition), the government in the 1980s also introduced non-elected seats in parliament: at present three opposition legislators sit there as “best losers”, alongside seven non-partisan MPs nominated by the president. Lee Hsien Loong has even mused aloud about creating an opposition by unorthodox means, splitting the PAP into two teams. But, he said, the PAP had concluded that Singapore did not have the depth of talent this bifurcation would require.

Correspondingly, you would expect the PAP to attract the best and brightest. It has deep roots in the housing estates, and it offers a near-certainty of winning and a chance of a ministerial job. As part of its “meritocratic” philosophy, and to render corruption redundant as well as professionally suicidal, Singapore pays its ministers handsomely, benchmarking their salaries to the senior private-sector jobs to which, it suggests, they would otherwise have risen. Many are drawn from the army or the civil service. Never having known anything else, many civil servants seem to confuse the ruling party with the government. For the party, perhaps the most worrying aspect of recent political developments is that is seems to be having trouble finding a parliament’s worth of credible representatives.

In this context, getting 60% of the vote does indeed look like a defeat. The PAP’s concern is understandable. Its success has been based on the conviction that it faces enough political competition—and internal discipline—to remain honest and committed to the national interest; but not so much that it might actually lose power. So it can resist pandering to the sort of populist demands that, in Singapore’s view, sapped the dynamism from European economies, condemning them to slow growth, social unrest and unaffordable welfare states.

The 2011 result suggests that this delicate equilibrium may be at risk—not in the next election, nor probably the one after that, but soon enough to affect government policy already. Indeed, the changes introduced since the election are radical both in substance and in the tone in which the government has promoted them. It has expressed a new concern for the “Singaporean core” and presented itself less as a strict headmaster than as a benevolent parent caring even for its wayward children.

http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21657608-when-it-comes-elections-pap-leaves-little-possible-chance-performance