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Celebrations in Singapore

130204 18
The Workers’ Party’s Lee Li Lian arrives at the poll counting centre during the Punggol East by-election in Singapore on January 26. Photograph: Reuters

Hats off to Singaporeans. Their little island state has taken plenty of flak recently, much of it justified, but now praise must be accorded when it is due.

In a by-election held 10 days ago, Singapore’s dogged opposition Workers’ Party defeated the long-entrenched People’s Action Party.

Do not scoff. It was an earthquake.

In the formerly safe PAP seat of Punggol East, Lee Li Lian’s triumph by more than 3,000 votes represented a swing of 13.5 per cent away from the government.

If that is replicated in the next general election, the PAP will drop to 63 seats and the opposition will end up with 24.

In other words, there will be a real two-party system in Singapore for the first time since separation from Malaysia almost half a century ago.

This is not wild conjecture. Punggol East is full of young, middle-class voters whose attitudes and voting sentiments reflect those of most other Singaporeans.

And clearly they no longer buy the nanny state philosophy of the PAP leaders as laid down by the party’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

Faced with two educated candidates, they rejected the sincere, but out of touch government man Dr Koh Poh Koon in favour of the savvy and far more politically astute oppositionist Ms Lee.

If this trend continues, and the PAP continues to under-perform as it has done for the past three years, the swing against it could soon threaten its hold on power.

Nowadays, it is now the opposition Workers’ Party that excites the electorate and attracts intelligent, sophisticated professionals like Ms Lee as new candidates.

And do not be distracted by those who say this was only a by-election when people often take a punt on the opposition and the government doesn’t really make much of an effort.

This was bedrock PAP territory and the government sent out its heavy guns to campaign – and they got sand kicked in their face by most of the massive 94 per cent voter turnout.What has gone wrong for the ruling party in Singapore? The answer is pretty well everything.

The malaise began after its bruising setback in the 2011 general election when it dropped six seats, and in the subsequent presidential vote when its candidate Tony Tan scraped home by a whisker.

In an attempt to stem the downturn, the PAP began changing long sacrosanct policies covering ministers’ multimillion dollar salaries, huge immigration intakes, gambling laws, capital punishment and gay rights.

Aside from smacking of desperation, the moves perplexed diehard party stalwarts and confused others who watched party leaders chop and change policy with no apparent motive except voter appeasement.

Certainly, the PAP now finds it harder to claim to represent the party of clean, competent government, espousing robust anti-corruption measures and hyper-efficient public services.

That has proved to be something of a sham after last year turned into an annus horribilis that would try the soul of any party leadership.

The number of senior officials discovered to be corrupt in one way or another was more reminiscent of Cambodia or Vietnam than Singapore.

And the efficiency tag has become a cruel joke for Singaporeans, who were hit last month with yet another shutdown in their metro system due to a power fault.

The system now seems to have more breakdowns than Kolkata, and an official inquiry reported that the MRT suffers from substandard maintenance and needs a major overhaul of its outdated equipment.

There have also been downtown floods, an abject failure to raise the birthrate, soaring discontent over the skyrocketing cost of living and anger at the relentless influx of cheap labour, mostly from China.

It’s no wonder that a recent survey found Singaporeans to be the world’s saddest people.

But at last they have woken up and garnered the gumption to vote against their over-rated and out of touch government.

And that is certainly cause for celebration.

Contact our regional insider Roger at roger.mitton@gmail.com

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