As the saying goes, the numbers do not lie. But if you ask Singapore’s prime minister, they may not tell you the whole story.
This refers particularly to the votes the ruling People’s Action Party, with Lee Hsien Loong at its head, received in the last election in 2011. At 60%, it was, of course, enough to lead the country. But that was not the point. It was the worst performance by the party since independence half a century ago, down from 75% in 2001 and 66% in 2006.
With that figure, Mr Lee still expresses confidence that the party will keep the country, also known in Malay as Singapura, or Lion City, roaring.
The answer could lie in the PAP’s ability to manage its popularity.
“We had 60 per cent of the votes. It’s a clear majority, but it is not 100 per cent. But I think this is so in any society,” the two-time premier said in a recent interview with a group of journalists from Southeast Asia.
He said it was not an issue of what went wrong, as 60% is a good result when compared with electoral outcomes in the United Kingdom and the United States.
“If you go to America, it is also about 60% voting and about 50% will win you the presidential election. Sometimes 50% plus one vote, sometimes even less.
“It is the way democracy works. I mean there are different views within society. We try our best to bring people together so we have a broad consensus of support for the government,” Mr Lee said.
The fall in the PAP’s popular vote was marked by the joint resignations of Lee Kuan Yew, his father, as minister mentor and Goh Chok Tong as senior minister. The men were first and second prime minister respectively.
The senior Lee, who passed away in March, was known for his wish to allow a younger team of politicians led by his son to connect to and engage with the younger generation.
The poll result of 2011 apparently had a meaningful political impact, particularly with the opposition gaining ground. The leading opposition Workers’ Party captured an unprecedented seven seats in parliament. Although it is a far cry from the 79 MP seats the PAP rounded up, it was a milestone for the Workers’ Party which managed only a single seat when it started out in opposition after the country’s independence.
In addition to the seven seats, it also has two non-constituency MPs, who are given seats in the chamber by virtue of their having been the best performing losers in the general election. However, NCMPs cannot vote on crucial legislation or in no-confidence motions.
While a rise in the ranks of opposition MPs may be interpreted as democratic progress, Mr Lee insists quantity and quality are two separate issues.
“Progress comes from quality of discussion in parliament. It is not the numbers which count; it is what contributions they make,” the premier said.
The opposition members, in his view, have to be responsible, be able to raise serious issues of national interest and offer real alternatives to the population. They must also debate the hard choices.
“It’s the duty of the opposition. If they can do that, whether they have one member or 10, they are a good opposition. If not, you might have 20, 30 members and are still not being responsible.
“So, it wouldn’t go on the numbers. I would go on the substance of the debate.”
Mr Lee said if he had learned anything from his late father on the art and science of government, it would be the need to maintain the momentum of Singapore’s development.
He recalled visiting a Latin American country and was briefed about what has transpired after 25 years of revolution.
“Not so many things had happened since the revolution. But that was the milestone and after that, well, they just carried on with not so much progress.
“And I think we’ve tried very hard not to be that bad. There are also stresses and strains moving forward. It’s not easy to keep on making progress because people have to change and if you don’t make progress, I think we would be finished,” said Mr Lee, as Singapore celebrates its 50 years of independence on Aug 6.
His key to maintaining the PAP’s political tenacity is to get its MPs out of their ivory towers.
At least once a week MPs meet residents with problems in a “Meet-the-People Session”.
“This is so they know you are with them and they know you. It is how you are able to hold the ground.”
One such session manifests itself as a political clinic on the ground floor of a tall flat in Singapore’s suburban Marine Parade. It is run by Fatimah Lateef, a medical professor at the Singapore General Hospital who belongs to the Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency (GRC).
She makes diagnosis and referrals. For more than 10 years, it has been the surgeon’s routine to attend to residents who line up to get her help every Tuesday evening.
But the help she provides cures not so much physical illnesses as grievances the middle-class residents experience.
The political clinic Dr Fatimah runs is a modest room that doubles as a day-care centre during the day. On Tuesday evening, it is packed with people with problems to share.
It is, by Mr Lee’s own definition, a way to meet and connect with people on the ground, which could also lend leverage to the government seeking to maintain and reinforce its political anchor.
While the fast-talking Dr Fatimah does not speak about heavy politics during her busy consultation schedule, she was asked why the centre was there at all when people can complain through regular channels and directly to the authorities.
Some residents choose to come to her, she said, because they do not fit certain complaint criteria, or they feel petitions filed with the authorities are not followed up promptly.
“So they come to me and I give a case-by-case consideration. They also come to me because their requests to the authorities are not successful,” said Dr Fatimah, who represents 60,000 people in her constituency.
“Of course, people want their results to be delivered expeditiously. It’s only human nature. If the agencies are slow in responding to their requests, I follow up with them and remind them as well,” the MP said.
At the clinic, she hears the constituents’ problems and makes representation on their behalf. She also sometimes raises the issues she comes across in parliament.
Some of the people’s grievances conveyed to Dr Fatimah are resolved immediately. Interacting with the communities gives MPs ideas of what should be brought up in parliament, according to Dr Fatimah, who worked as a community service volunteer before she became an MP.
She and her volunteers also do grocery distribution, organise celebrations, arrange temple visits and make house calls when residents with problems cannot come to her.
Dr Fatimah said more than 60% of petitions the residents filed with her have met with successful results. High success rates are evident in matters of housing and financial assistance, while more complicated matters related to citizenship, for example, see lower success rates because of regulatory constraints.
Dr Fatimah recalls that a man dropped in to thank her for helping him obtain Singaporean citizenship for his Vietnamese wife.
There are bigger achievements with which the political clinic is credited, including an upgrading programme for a housing area.
The MP said the success has to do with knowing where to “push the buttons”.
Apart from the people-to-MP consultation channel, the PAP-led government may also be cosying up to people through the design of the 2015 state budget. But the government also is confronted with the question: Where is the catch?
The budget of S$68.2 billion (1.7 trillion baht), announced on Feb 23, sees vast increases in spending in the areas of health services and transport, with greater funding to meet the needs of Singapore’s ageing population, according to Standard & Poor’s.
While the government argues the budget is destined for building a secure future for Singaporeans, it could be open to debate whether it signals a populist stance aimed at shoring up the government’s political fortunes. The prevailing sentiment has been that the budget and the augmented social spending of the last few years could be an indication of the government leaning toward a populist stance.
Responding to a query put forth at the Institute of Policy Studies’ “Corporate Associates Lunch: A Dialogue on 2015 Budget”, Minister of Manpower Tan Chuan-Jing explained the government always had schemes to help the vulnerable and regularly strengthened them and that the increase in social spending of late was not a move to be “soft and popular”.
Life expectancy is rising, with implications for healthcare and retirement. The rising cost of living is also affecting middle-class Singaporeans. These are the practical reasons why Singapore needs to expand social spending, Mr Tan said.