February 2, 2013
By: Rowan Callick, Asia-pacific Editor
SINGAPORE'S People's Action Party, which has ruled since self-government in 1959, may be about to face an effective opposition for the first time in the country's history.
Workers Party candidate Lee Li Lian, a 34-year-old sales trainer, has won a by-election for Punggol East with 54.5 per cent of the vote, beating the sitting PAP MP in a high-profile contest in which 92 per cent of voters turned out. The Workers Party vote has soared by 27 per cent over its result at the 2011 general election.
At that election, there was a 6.5 per cent swing away from the PAP, which won 60 per cent of the total vote. This was enough to give it 81 of 87 elected seats in the parliament.
There are also three non-constituency members and nine nominated members in the single-chamber parliament.
But this was the PAP's lowest vote, and the Workers Party's six seats are the biggest opposition it has faced.
The Workers Party, founded in 1957, has in recent years focused its campaigning on bread and butter issues, and its supporters wear light blue shirts to indicate their blue-collar affinities.
During the campaign for Punggol East, Low Thia Khiang, a former teacher and businessman - only the third leader the party has had in its 55 years - told thousands of supporters at a rally: "We all have to deal with rising food prices, rising transport costs, rising healthcare costs."
A claimed shortage of housing, and the influx of immigrants - many from mainland China - are among other issues that have recently driven voters to back the opposition. The government forecasts the population will grow 30 per cent to 6.9 million by 2030, with almost 40 per cent of that growth coming from foreign workers.
In Singapore's more authoritarian era under Lee Kuan Yew, leading Workers Party activists were sued, bankrupted, harassed and jailed under the Internal Security Act. But under the more open prime ministership of his son Lee Hsien Loong, opposition views have become increasingly tolerated.
The results are mixed: less pervasive control by the PAP - whose rule has long been seen as a model for the potential political evolution of China by Communist Party leaders there - but greater modernity and better governance.
Comparisons have even been made between today's Prime Minister and another son of a longtime powerful ruler, Chiang Ching-kuo, who dismantled the one-party, martial-rule state established in Taiwan by his father Chiang Kai-shek and introduced today's lively democratic culture there.
But Mr Low said after the latest by-election victory that it was too early to speak of a trend towards his party.