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  • A Return to Normal Politics:Singapore General Elections 2011
  • Terence Chong (bio)

Introduction: Change from New to Old

Change is not always about the new. Occasionally, it is about the reappearance of the old. This is easily missed in a country that takes deep pride in perpetual self-transformation, and nowhere was this more evident than in the 7 May 2011 Singapore General Election (GE2011). In the wake of the most thoroughly contested general elections in generations, the mainstream media and pundits alike sought to capture this sense of change with a variety of phrases such as the "new normal"2 and "watershed",3 suggesting that the 61 per cent of the popular vote won by the People's Action Party (PAP) — its lowest since independence — has resulted in a different Singapore, one that has broken away from the norm. Such hyperbole is understandable and not entirely inaccurate, but greater contextualization will show that sometimes the old reappears as the new.

GE2011 was historically important for a couple of reasons. It saw the largest number of voters ever — 2.3 million, increasing from 2.1 million in 2006 and 2 million in 2001. It also gave us a quick glimpse into the future of Singapore politics because it saw the largest ever participation of first-time voters — 200,000 — as well as the largest number of younger voters with an estimated 600,000 out of 2.3 million between the ages of 21 and 35. The candidates from the various political parties reflect this youthful demographic too.4 However, the fact that the ruling PAP was not returned to government on Nomination Day is not new. While 2011 saw 82 out of 87 seats contested, it must be remembered that 2006 saw 56 per cent of the seats contested (47 out of 84). And if we cast our minds back further to 1980, we will remember that 38 out of 68 Parliamentary seats were contested; in 1976 53 out of 69 seats were contested; and in 1972 57 seats [End Page 283] out of 65 were contested. The lesson: the PAP could only take its incumbency for granted from the 1980s onwards. GE2006 and GE2011 mark a return to the old.

GE2011 was also keenly contested because of the credible slate of Opposition candidates. Running under the Opposition banner were individuals who bore the widely recognized credentials of education and academic success, from PhD holders, successful lawyers, to government scholars, as well as a former Principal Private Secretary to a Prime Minister. Nevertheless, such high credential Opposition candidates are not unprecedented either. JB Jeyaratnam, a former District Judge, broke the PAP's stranglehold over Parliament by winning over Anson constituency in the 1981 by-election. Former Solicitor-General Francis Seow contested in the Eunos Group Representative Constituency (GRC) in 1988, losing narrowly with 49.1 per cent of the vote. High profile lawyer Tang Liang Hong, who contested in Cheng San GRC with J.B. Jeyaratnam in 1997, won 45.2 per cent of the vote. The lesson: while the Opposition has attracted its fair share of unqualified candidates, it has also put up individuals with strong credentials. The performance of local Opposition parties in 2011 will only heighten its attractiveness to younger, more educated Singaporeans.

Beyond the demographics, GE2011 was, to all intents and purpose, poised between two camps — the PAP and the Workers' Party (WP). On one hand, the PAP campaigned on party leadership renewal, the induction of a fourth generation of national leaders from which the future Prime Minister would emerge, as well as a steady and trustworthy government. On the other, mounting the most coherent campaign of all the Opposition parties, the WP brought out the message for a more democratic Parliament with greater representation and accountability, greater government transparency, crystallized by its "Towards a First World Parliament" slogan. In essence, Singaporeans were asked to choose between a trusted brand and greater government accountability.

The Run-up to GE2011: A New Public Discontent

Less than a month before Polling Day, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong observed that "the ground may not be sweet" for the PAP.5 It was a strange admission given the stellar...