SINGAPORE – Singapore’s ruling party was returned to power Sunday with a huge majority but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted that opposition gains had marked a “distinct shift” in the country’s politics.
The People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled since the former British colony became self-governing in 1959 but despite the poll victory, it sank to its lowest ever approval rating and lost a key district to resurgent opponents.
The PAP won 81 of the 87 parliament seats in Saturday’s election, down slightly from its 82 out of 84 seats when Singapore last voted in 2006.
Its share of all votes cast — the equivalent of an approval rating in a country that does not publish surveys about government performance — fell to an all-time low of 60 percent from 67 percent in 2006 and 75 percent in 2001.
The win by the opposition Workers’ Party in six seats may appear modest but it was the opposition’s best performance since Singapore became independent from the Malaysian federation in 1965.
It upstages a previous best of four seats in 1991.
The number of seats did not reflect the opposition’s 40 per cent share of the total votes cast because most constituencies elect teams of four to six candidates, a system critics see as stacked in favour of the PAP.
“This is a watershed general election,” Premier Lee said in a televised post-election address.
“This is a very different world in 2011 as compared to 2006, and a very different Singapore.”
He said the PAP would undergo some soul-searching and expressed willingness to work with lawmakers from the opposition.
Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang said the results showed Singaporeans wanted “a more responsive, inclusive, transparent, accountable government” and “a more caring political leadership”.
Four days before the election, Lee apologised in public for the government’s shortcomings after opponents and voters berated the PAP over the rising cost of living, competition from immigrants and foreign workers, high salaries of cabinet ministers and other grievances.
The opposition relied heavily on the Internet, particularly social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, because the mainstream local media are widely regarded as PAP mouthpieces.
In the most intensely fought contest, Foreign Minister George Yeo and four other PAP candidates lost to the Workers’ Party in a group contest, forcing him out of the cabinet.
Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at the Singapore Management University, stressed the significance of the opposition’s first ever win in a group representation constituency (GRC).
“The GRCs have been a cornerstone of one-party dominance in the Singapore state, and the breaking of its GRCs is really allowing a diversity of political views in the country,” Welsh said.
Six opposition parties took part in the election with the modest goal of winning more seats from the PAP, dividing electoral districts among themselves to force the ruling party to fight on several fronts.
Despite growing optimism in opposition ranks after the election, Cherian George, one of Singapore’s leading social commentators, warned against expecting a radical transformation after the vote.
“The problem is that Singapore society has been systematically depoliticised over the decades and is mired in apathy,” he wrote in an essay.
He said the PAP could seize the opportunity to overhaul itself and address Singaporeans’ grievances in time for the next election five years from now.
“The sobering truth for the opposition is that the vast majority (of its supporters) will return to their private lives tomorrow, and continue to outsource public affairs to politicians.”
The PAP was co-founded by the prime minister’s father Lee Kuan Yew, who governed Singapore for 31 years and was re-elected to parliament unopposed on Saturday at the age of 87.
The PAP has long relied on its economic record to convince Singaporeans to return it to power and kept the opposition in check by imposing curbs on political activity — except during elections.
Tens of thousands of supporters attended opposition rallies during the campaign, far greater than the crowds drawn by the PAP.