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Singapore 2011 Elections: Is Change Gonna Come?

By: Cher Tan

Is change gonna come after the 2011 Singapore elections? Cher Tan reviews the foreseeable changes in Singapore as a society, political or otherwise. Will Singapore see real progress just like how it has seen unprecedented economic progress in the last few decades? Or is this “change” merely superficial? As Singapore enters a new era, and as it sheds off its old baggage, the world looks on to see if it will evolve to become the true cosmopolitan 1st-world society it preaches to be.

Never had Singapore seen such an upheaval since independence in 1965. In what was billed as a watershed election, the General Elections of 2011 sprung a great number of surprises – the emergence of a bright, fearless young electorate, the star performance of the opposition Workers’ Party, the exit of Singapore’s most durable opposition member, Chiam See Tong, as well as of one of the People’s Action Party’s most highly regarded ministers, George Yeo – that one would be hard put to single out any one of them as the most attention-grabbing.

Although the PAP has still remained in power, its share of the vote at 60.1% was the lowest it has ever received – 6.5% less than the past elections in 2006, and 15.2% less than a decade before. Singapore belongs to a small category of places where a parliamentary election resulting in a victory of 81-seats-to-six, in favour of the ruling party, can be taken as a breakthrough for the opposition.

Singaporeans: the biggest winners in the polls

Whether it heralds the beginning of what Singaporeans call a “First World Democracy,” in a country often criticized by outsiders for its lack of that, remains to be seen. But many, especially the younger voters who became engaged through Internet campaigning (another first in a country with tight limits on mainstream media), were encouraged and engaged as never before. There were also many first-time voters.

The image of the politically-apathetic Singaporean turned out to be a construct. Instead, the campaign period witnessed debate over policies, particularly immigration and the high cost of living. Voters made their views and feelings known in both the traditional and the new social media with an intensity that could not have existed in a climate of fear that was said to pervade Singapore before.

The myth of elite governance shattered?

GE2011 proved the potential for changing the Singapore political landscape, something which could not be imagined before, given the vice-like grip of the People’s Action Party. In just one week (and a latent 5 years), Singaporeans saw the crumbling of the PAP model of governance that had, for nearly half a century, been unabashedly held up by the leaders as the best model for Singapore.

The cabinet has also seen a reshuffle. For the first time in Singapore’s history as an independent city-state, founding father Lee Kwan Yew is not in the cabinet. The 87-year-old stepped down to make way for change as did another senior political figure, former premier Goh Chok Tong (although they have both retained seats in parliament).

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong now leads a cabinet of mainly new ministerial faces. He has said he will address voters’ concerns, and has launched a review of policies – one of which includes a look into ministerial pay in Singapore, one of the highest in the world.

There is still a lot of work to do. Singapore may have had an “Orchid Revolution” of sorts – albeit a peaceful one, as to be expected in the Garden City – but this is only the beginning.

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