Divining sentiments 
    one year on

The margin of vote in a by-election called for Hougang on May 26 will give an indication of how Singaporeans are responding to the government’s policy changes.
  Star, Malaysia
May 12, 2012

HAS Singapore’s ruling party succeeded in winning back discontented Singaporeans over the past year? In other words, how much has politics really changed?

Some grassroots leaders believe it has succeeded in convincing some fence-sitters who had gone over to the opposition in last May’s election now that it is a reformed

“Things are not as bad as they were last May,” said a People’s Action Party (PAP)
community representative. “I believe our corrective measures may have avoided
potential trouble in the next election.”

He gave no details but this seems to be the message a besieged PAP, one of the world’s
longest surviving parties, is emphasising.

Marking the first anniversary of the election, state-owned Channel News Asia (CNA)
said the several policy changes had “eased” the concerns raised by Singaporeans. The
PAP had polled one of the worse votes in contemporary history because of voter
frustrations over unpopular policies.

What does the Prime Minister himself think?

Lee Hsien Loong said a “certain stability” in the mood and expectations of Singaporeans had been restored after the government had changed its approach in many areas.

Singapore, he added, was in “a new phase”. However, he said, it would take more time
for a balance between speaking out and working together to be worked out.

(Although Lee became Prime Minister in 2004, political observers believe that it was
only last year when influential Lee Kuan Yew resigned his Cabinet role that he was really in charge).

Lee promised to continue to rethink policies and promised to work harder at engaging a
new generation of more vocal Singa­poreans.

Recently, he launched personal Facebook and Twitter accounts to get in touch with
citizens, particularly the younger set.

A clearer indication could come on May 26 when a by-election takes place in Hougang, a
long-time Workers Party (WP) stronghold.

WP has controlled it for two decades and is expected to retain the seat, vacated when
its MP, Yaw Shin Leong, was expelled by the party after an alleged adultery scandal.

The margin of vote could give an indication of how Singaporeans are responding to the
policy changes.

A bigger PAP vote – let alone victory – would be a surprise and indicate its measures
have improved people’s sentiments.

But if the opposition victory is larger, it could augur ill for the PAP’s prospects in the next election.

Formed in 1954, the PAP has won 13 consecutive election victories. Only Malaysia’s ruling coalition has a longer unbroken record of government.

Since the election setback a year ago, Lee had moved quickly to placate disenchanted
citizens, including:

> Cutting Cabinet ministers’ wages by one-third;

> Reducing the influx of foreigners, including approvals for permanent residents;

> Taking measures to cool property prices with disincentives for foreign buying; and,

> Releasing more public flats without really curbing rising prices.

However, several major problems largely remain unresolved – a widening rich-poor gap, the highest inflation in four years, continuing MRT breakdowns, and rising friction between foreigners and locals.

Lee has repeatedly promised to give priority to Singaporeans over foreigners in
employment and “all other policies”.

Public reaction to all these has been mixed. Lee is given good marks for a more open
engagement with critics. There has been a greater degree of reaching out to them.

None, however, believes that the PAP has transformed itself into a new party or has
abandoned its fundamental principles.

The deputy director of the Institute of Policy Studies, Arun Mahizhnan, told CNA that
he did not see the new approach as a paradigm shift, while prominent blogger Alex Au  called it “skin deep.”

Au said the government had not budged on its “fundamental, ideological positions”.

The past 12 months have not been entirely trouble-free for the opposition, an
indication that politics, while favourable, may not be easy going.

In last year’s election, all the opposition parties – with better quality candidates –
cooperated well to avoid too many damaging three-cornered fights against the PAP.

Now without a common objective, there has been an increase in squabbling, a traditional weakness that partly allowed the PAP to stay in power.

There are already signs that with election four years away, some opposition leaders who see better opportunities ahead are already preparing to fight over choice constituencies.

The opposition remains a fractious lot. The weaker they perceive the ruling PAP to be,
the harder they will fight for the best election prospects.

The new political normal is that Lee, unlike his father, is leading a nation that is badly divided, and this is aggravated by the continuing arrival of foreigners.

And some of the newcomers are not averse to joining in the fray.

Has the year changed much?

“With the fast responses, politics is back to square one,” said one pro-PAP surfer. In
the last election, some fence-sitters had voted opposition out of frustration with some policies.

“Nothing has really been fixed,” a critic countered. “Come election in 2016, there
will be more disgruntled voters.”

Foreigners are still flocking in and taking away jobs, he added.

Some young Singaporeans are giving credit where it’s due. Ghui blogged: “Despite the
miscalculations, there has been some progress on the PAP’s part to be more transparent and engaging.”

o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com