Singapore looks to polls to usher in a freer society

Singapore looks to polls to usher in a freer society

As the powers-that-be in Thailand and Malaysia are striving to quieten opposition voices, there are signs that the leaders of Singapore, the tiny island state at the bottom of Malayan peninsula, have embraced growing dissent ahead of this week's general election.

This Friday, some 2.46 million voters, or about half of Singapore's population, are to cast their votes in the nation's 17th general election.

This is the first election free of the influence of founding father and the country's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who died on March 23.

The prime minister is Lee Hsien Loong, the third and current prime minister of Singapore, and Lee Kuan Yew's eldest son. The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) no doubt hopes to cash in on the LKW vote, as it is known, but also faces an unprecedented challenge from the opposition and a new wave of young voters not wedded to the thinking of the past.

In this election, for the first time, a majority of the voters who will take part were born after independence on Aug 9, 1965.

Despite their respect for the late Lee, most young voters are less familiar with his motto of "clean, lean, mean" bureaucracy and politics.

Pitching for the young vote, most of the nine political parties taking part are fielding candidates in the 23-39 age range.

For the first time, the opposition is running candidates in almost every constituency, which presents a unique challenge for the PAP.

The government hopes to improve on its previous poor performance. The party won 60.1% in the 2011 election, its lowest share of the vote since independence, but still with an overwhelming majority in the House. The PAP won 81 out of 87 seats in 2011, with the opposition taking an unprecedented six seats. With another three non-voting-right non-constituency members of parliament given to the opposition, it had altogether nine members in total.

The major opposition parties have discussed how to take on the mighty PAP, reaching agreements in certain constituencies not to field candidates against each other, and showing more willingness to come together in a common cause than at previous polls.

The election is important to the region, just as it is to Singapore itself. Some observers are worried about how Singapore -- Asean's fourth-largest economy but the biggest per-capita-income nation in the region and always a staunch advocate of Asean integration -- will be positioned in the regional and global community in the next 50 years.

Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, has warned Singapore's ability to play the great game -- helping steer the global economic recovery and balance major powers' tensions over the South China Sea -- is being tested.

"The external context is considerably worse than it was five years ago and this election will be held in turbulent times. The opposition parties offer little or no experience in handling regional and global issues, and have said little on these subjects.

Even for the ruling PAP, these events test its mettle and standing in a post-Lee Kuan Yew era," said Mr Tay, once a nominated MP.

Potential social fractures are also opening in the city-state as income inequalities grow more visible. Other fault lines also include anti-foreigner sentiment and a disparity between ordinary Singaporeans and perceived economic or social elites, Mr Tay said in a recent commentary.

Some attribute the strong voices of dissent to the increasing penetration of the internet and the advent of social media.

With the help of advanced IT, more Singaporeans are expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo and yearning for change.

However, as the clock clicks down to the election, political rivals are asking voters to consider carefully and choose constructive and forward-looking campaigns.

Some worry that a serious challenge to the status quo would affect Singapore's continued prosperity and its place in the region.

Interestingly, as opposition parties grasp an increasing public desire to break away from the entrenched system of one-party dominance, Singapore looks set to change from a country with a controlled democracy to a more open system.

That's quite the opposite to the case in Thailand where the military has intervened in politics -- twice in less than a decade.

The fact the National Reform Council ditched the draft charter in Sunday's vote means a longer stay for the military regime under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. It seems Thailand could learn a lot from Singapore.

Achara Ashayagachat is Senior News Reporter, Bangkok Post.

Achara Ashayagachat

Senior reporter on socio-political issues

Bangkok Post's senior reporter on socio-political issues.

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