Will elections come early in Singapore? Singaporeans have wondered ever since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hinted last year that the wealthy city-state might go to the polls earlier than they must be held by April 2021.
The opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), for one, isn’t wasting any time waiting for an official announcement. At a campaign launch event on February 23, party leader Chee Soon Juan made his case for political change in the form of a “freer and more democratic” Singapore.
He said his party aims to deny the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) a two-thirds majority of seats in Parliament at the next election.
If they succeed, the PAP – the longest-governing incumbent party in Southeast Asia – would lose its ability to make constitutional amendments and be put in check by a parliamentary opposition in a way that’s never before been seen in the island-nation’s history.
Realizing this electoral goal will be a herculean task, Chee openly admits. The PAP has maintained overwhelming parliamentary supermajorities since achieving independence in 1965, making Singapore one of Asia’s most asymmetrical democracies.
Critics point to various institutional hurdles that opposition politicians have in the past faced in their attempts to win elected office, as well as legal proceedings brought against them by PAP leaders.
Chee, a former lecturer at the National University of Singapore with a doctorate in neuropsychology, was bankrupted after being sued for defamation in 2001 by former prime ministers Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew for remarks he made on the hustings. He was barred from standing at two general elections as a result.
“There’s losing in an open democratic fair fight and then there’s losing in a system that you know has been stacked against you,” Chee told Asia Times in an exclusive interview.
“The whole state machinery is working against you, and when you are able to see it and discern it, then that really galvanizes me and makes me even more resolute.”
The SDP has contested every parliamentary general election since its founding in 1980 but has not had any of its members elected to Parliament since 1997. Despite not winning seats, the party has sustained momentum over the last two elections, while Chee achieved his best electoral showing in a 2016 by-election contest, clinching 38.8% of the vote.
As the PAP moves to secure its 15th consecutive term in office, some believe Singapore is headed toward a more competitive election cycle as opposition parties eye closer cooperation. The ruling party, meanwhile, spent much of the last year on the defensive following a series of political and administrative lapses.
“I think Lee Hsien Loong is feeling very insecure,” Chee said, when asked about the tightening civic space in Singapore and the uptick in charges brought against those voicing political opinions on social media.
“He really doesn’t know how to handle the situation except to revert to what’s been tried, in the sense of clamping down on dissent. I won’t even say this is dissent, this is a diversity in views. I think that backfires.”
The next general election is likely to be 66-year-old Lee’s last as prime minister, who has said he plans to retire before turning 70. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was named as Lee’s successor last November, which helped to calm nerves and reduce previously rife speculation about the hierarchy of the party’s fourth generation (4G) leaders.
Trouble has been brewing on another front: the reemergence of a family feud pitting the prime minister against his siblings. That dispute took on deeper political significance recently when the premier’s brother, Lee Hsien Yang, endorsed Tan Cheng Bock, a charismatic former PAP parliamentarian who has joined opposition ranks under the banner of the soon-to-be-registered Progress Singapore Party (PSP).
The SDP initiated a meeting between several opposition parties last year to discuss the formation of an opposition coalition headed by Tan. Chee has long called for greater cooperation among Singapore’s fragmented field of opposition parties, saying last year that such a move would signify a “historic advancement” for the city-state’s politics.
“It is drummed into us that without the PAP, Singapore will go to the dogs,” said Chee. “It’s been shown time and time again in surveys that [Singaporeans] want to see more opposition representation in parliament. If we don’t ever come together and remain disparate parties, there’s very little that we can achieve,” he told Asia Times.
At the launch event, Chee reiterated his call for opposition parties to put differences aside and join forces, saying the SDP would facilitate any initiative to do so. He added that his party will be contesting the same 11 seats that it did during the last election in 2015, where a total of 89 seats were contested, 82 of which were won by the PAP in an electoral landslide.
“Without a united front, it’s hard to see how the parties can make electoral gains mathematically and deny the PAP two-thirds majority,” said Haseenah Koyakutty, a Singaporean media entrepreneur and political commentator. “To win, the SDP has to first address the blocks in people’s minds [and] better tackle the fear factor,” she believes.
“The SDP faces a trust and authenticity deficit as well as an experience deficit. This is generally true of our opposition parties where many of our opposition politicians are seen to be rookies or unknowns,” she said, adding that some voters harbor doubts about Chee owing to years of negative media coverage and having been “demonized” by PAP leaders.
Koyakutty says the SDP is, however, in a stronger position to win seats compared to other opposition parties due to its “clear ideology and brand recognition” which distinguishes it from both the PAP and the Workers’ Party (WP), the only opposition party with a presence in Parliament with six seats.
During its campaign kick-off, which was attended by national media and some 250 members of the public, speakers from the party raised a variety of issues ranging from the failings of trickle-down economics, inflation and income inequality, as well as varied mortality and health between Singapore’s ethnic communities.
“Singaporeans will have a real choice when they go to the polls either this year or next year,” SDP chairman Paul Tambyah said in his speech. “Singapore will thrive even better with proper accountability and transparency that comes from an empowered electorate with a sizable opposition cohort to act as a check on the excesses of the ruling party.”
Chee pointed to last year’s political transition in neighboring Malaysia as a catalyst for thinking about political change in Singapore.
“Whether we agree with what Mahathir is doing in terms of policies vis-à-vis Singapore, that is another matter. But it has made Singaporeans sit up and pay a little more attention,” Chee told Asia Times. “If that can happen there, why not over here?
“As we grow, the perception of the opposition will change, in terms of our competence and in terms of being constructive. This is where I think the whole grassroots build-up needs to happen,” he said. “Singapore will not disintegrate. We’ve got people who can come to the fore. I think the first step of responsibility is to convince people of our credibility.”