| Bloomberg News
January 27, 2013
By Shamim Adam
SINGAPORE’S opposition extended its record presence in Parliament after winning a by-election, as support for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s ruling party falters even as his government boosts efforts to help citizens.
The Workers’ Party’s Lee Li Lian won 54.5 percent of 29,415 valid votes in a four-way race yesterday, Jan 26, defeating the ruling People’s Action Party’s Koh Poh Koon, who came second with 43.7 percent, the televised results showed. A by-election was called after the PAP’s representative, who previously held the seat, resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair.
Prime Minister Lee is struggling to win back support lost in the 2011 general elections as record-high housing and transport costs, public discontent over an influx of foreigners and infrastructure strains weakens approval for his party. Last year, Lee’s administration cut ministerial pay, speeded up construction of homes and made permanent a program to provide cash, utility rebates and medical funds for elderly and low- income households.
“It’s a devastating loss for the PAP and it comes as a huge shock,” said Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at the Singapore Management University. “They aren’t going far enough to address the fundamental disconnect with society and the people’s grievances.”
A total of 29,832 voted in Punggol East, a suburb in northeastern Singapore, of which 417 were disqualified ballots, the results showed. The seat fell vacant after Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer stepped down in December. He won 54.5 percent of the vote in 2011.
“In a by-election, the governing party candidate always has a tougher fight,” the premier said in a statement. “Our plans and programs are already in progress, but they are geared towards the longer term and will take time to show results.”
Lee, who has led the country since 2004, has raised foreign-worker levies and salary thresholds to cool the inflow of non-Singaporeans. The clampdown on an island smaller than New York City has driven the jobless rate to an 18-month low of 1.9 percent, pushing up manpower costs and constraining the central bank’s scope to combat an economic slowdown with monetary easing.
“The results show that the effect has not been trickled down to the ground,” Low Thia Khiang, secretary-general of the Workers’ Party, said in a televised press conference yesterday. “People still feel the pressure of the high cost of living and many other things as well, so I expect the government will work harder on that.”
This is the PAP’s second by-election loss in less than a year. The Workers’ Party, the only elected opposition in Parliament, retained its seat in a May poll after it expelled its representative for the Hougang district for “indiscretions in his private life.”
Voters in Punggol East account for about 1 percent of the Singapore electorate. The by-election won’t change the balance of power in government; the PAP has 80 of 87 seats in Parliament.
“Despite this victory, the Workers’ Party is still a small party with much to do and improve upon,” Sylvia Lim, chairman of the Workers’ Party, said in the televised press conference. “If you think it’s a step toward a two-party system, I think we’ve still got quite some way to go.”
The island’s population has jumped by more than 1.1 million to 5.3 million since mid-2004, driving up property prices and stoking social tension as the government used immigration to make up for the low birth rate.
Singapore’s growth eased to a three-year low of 1.2 percent in 2012 and gross domestic product is forecast to increase 1 percent to 3 percent this year. The island is in a “new phase” where it must adjust to a slower expansion than it has become accustomed to, the prime minister said in a New Year’s speech. GDP
climbed an average of 6 percent in the decade through 2012.
Ranked by the World Bank as the easiest place to do business, Singapore had cut taxes in past years to spur investment. Located at the southern end of the 600-mile (965- kilometer) Malacca Strait and home to one of the world’s busiest container ports, the country has remained vulnerable to fluctuations in overseas demand for manufactured goods even as the government boosts the financial services and tourism industries to become less reliant on exports.
Lee from the Workers’ Party, a 34-year-old sales trainer, will be the second elected woman opposition member of Parliament after Lim. The other candidates were surgeon Koh Poh Koon from the PAP, Desmond Lim from the Singapore Democratic Alliance and Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party.