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Singapore - Parliamentary Election 2006

In the 06 May 2006 general election for parliament, the ruling People's Action Party won another landslide victory with 82 out of 84 seats. This gave the PAP the same 82-2 majority it had in the last parliament. The election is another mandate for the PAP to continue its successful economic and security policies. It is not a mandate for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who frequently failed to take center stage in the campaign and did relatively poorly in his own district. The PAP continued to rely on old style tactics, from threats of defamation suits to ad hominem attacks, to defeat opposition politicians. Despite winning only two seats, the opposition parties performed credibly, improved their tattered reputations, and laid the groundwork for the future. PM Lee lost a golden opportunity to put his own mark on the PAP and change its style -- and get out from the shadow of his father, Lee Kuan Yew.

The Workers' Party won one seat and 16.3 percent of the vote. The Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) also won one seat and 13 percent of the vote. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) failed to win any seats and received 4.1 percent of the vote.

The PAP won roughly as many seats and votes as it usually has over the last two decades. With its strong team of technocratic ministers, the PAP has continued to deliver robust economic growth and job creation and to steer the economy through external shocks such as SARS. The PAP also showed its pragmatic side in ending its ban on casinos in 2005 in order to stimulate growth in the tourism sector. While the bottom 20 percent of wage earners have seen their incomes stagnate over the last five years, the government targeted many of the handouts in its pre-election "Progress Package" budget this year to low-income households. In addition, SingTel (which has more than a million Singaporean stockholders according to press reports) announced a special USD 2.4 billion dividend just two days before polling day. The CEO of SingTel is Lee Hsien Yang, brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Since he became Prime Minister in August 2004, PM Lee and the local media have characterized this election as his opportunity to secure a personal mandate from the people. Did he get it? In a word, no. One would have expected PM Lee to be the focal point of the PAP campaign to show that he was his own man and to highlight a softer, more "modern" political style. But, in the run up to the campaign and during it, however, PM Lee frequently ceded center stage to his father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. MM Lee and SM Goh made the strong statements and dominated the attacks on the opposition. The PM did not project a strong leadership image when he did talk tough. It made even PAP supporters uncomfortable when, in one rally, he claimed that he wouldn't be able to run the government effectively if there were ten opposition MPs -- he would have to "fix" the opposition. PM Lee did relatively poorly in his own electoral district. Facing his first opponents in 18 years -- a group of twenty- and thirty-something nobodies in the WP's weakest slate -- PM Lee failed to win as high a percentage of the vote (66.1 percent) as his party did overall (66.6 percent.)

SM Goh also emerges from the election diminished. PM Lee gave him the high-profile task of helping the PAP win back the two opposition-controlled districts. The evening news dutifully showed SM Goh working the two wards with the PAP candidates in tow. He warned residents in one neighborhood that it might turn into a "slum" if it stayed with the opposition and offered USD 100 million (over USD 2500 per eligible voter) in public works projects to both districts if they would vote for the PAP. Despite SM Goh's threats and blandishments, the opposition won both seats with significantly higher margins of victory than in past races.

In previous elections, the PAP has singled out one opposition politician and attacked his integrity relentlessly, commented Institute of Policy Studies Researcher Gillian Koh. In 2001, for example, the PAP targeted Dr. Chee Soon Juan of the SDP and hit him with a defamation suit during the election campaign. This year, as soon as the campaign started, the PAP threatened defamation suits to demolish the SDP (Ref B). All of the SDP's Central Executive Committee members except Dr. Chee and his sister Chee Siok Chin publicly apologized to PM Lee and MM Lee. Himself already bankrupted from an earlier defamation suit, Dr. Chee told us that he completely understood why his fellow party members apologized, since they had to protect their livelihoods in the face of a potential financially-ruinous defamation suit.

Turning to a new target, the PAP spent the first week of the nine-day campaign launching vitriolic attacks against WP MP candidate James Gomez over, bizarrely, an election form he didn't submit and didn't need to submit. Gomez claimed to have submitted a registration form to be a minority candidate, but security tapes showed he failed to do so. MM Lee called Gomez a "liar" over the non-submission of the form; Deputy Prime Minister Wang Kan Seng said Gomez had shown "blatant dishonesty"; and PM Lee accused Gomez of perpetrating a "dastardly trick." The local media also played up the "story" -- on one day, the Straits Times newspaper ran more than a dozen stories that discussed Gomez.

Eventually, some PAP officials realized that the personal attacks on Gomez were creating a backlash, as PAP Headquarters Executive Director Lau Ping Sum told us on May 2. It took several more days, however, for it to stop. After the election, the GOS continued to harass Gomez. On May 7, immigration authorities seized his passport when he tried to return to his job in Sweden and police questioned him for eight hours, according to press reports.

By performing credibly in this election and avoiding the buffoonery that damaged its chances in the past, the opposition laid the groundwork for future electoral gains. In particular, the WP fielded a better qualified slate than it has in the past and ran a capable issues-based campaign. It refused to rise to the bait of the PAP's ad hominem attacks on James Gomez. The task for the opposition now is to sustain its energy and commitment over the years until the next election.

For PM Lee, the election was an opportunity missed. The PAP could have run on its superior policies, experience, and candidates and avoided the old-school hit-them-when-they-are-down tactics. Its candidates could have asked voters if they wanted to be governed by someone (James Gomez) who didn't even live in Singapore instead of launching a phony attack that extended to opening a "criminal" investigation as the defeated candidate was trying to return home to Sweden. Instead, the PAP's hardball tactics -- vintage Lee Kuan Yew -- cost them some votes and contradicted the PM's stated interest in a more open society.

While the MM's abrasive style may appeal to older "heartland" Singaporeans, it does not work well with younger, better-educated voters. He appeared a cranky and sour old man and was only a liability to the PAP's campaign. The extensive reporting in the government-controlled press may have backfired for the PAP as voters found the vindictiveness against Chee and his party distasteful and tired of the overwrought Gomez affaire. The MM's role in the 2006 election may have accelerated Singaporeans' reaching an emotional turning point. Many of the younger voters do not recall Singapore's early, precarious days. They are less willing to accept the PAP's fundamental premise that opposition and choice lead inexorably to disunity and chaos.




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