Singapore: People’s Action Party consolidates power but dissatisfaction grows

The recently concluded general election on 6 May in Singapore was considered an exciting election, at least by Singaporean standards.

For the first time since 1988, opposition parties succeeded in filing candidates. They stood in over half the 84 constituency seats. Therefore, in theory, Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which has never before been challenged, ran the risk of losing power, especially if its fears of a rebellion among young voters came to pass. In fact, there was never any real doubt that the PAP would win, considering that 37 seats were not actually contested by the opposition.

With voting compulsory and the failure to cast a ballot punishable by a fine, there was a 94 percent turnout and the PAP has conserved its almost total domination of the Singaporean Parliament. Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong – oldest son of Singapore’s ‘founding father’, Lee Kwan Yew – led the party for the first time in an election and gained 82 seats against two for the opposition, and he managed to uphold the status-quo, even though the share of the popular vote for the PAP fell eight percent from the previous election.

Meanwhile, the two opposition members not only kept their seats but also won by much larger margins than in 2001, despite a PAP offer of more than $100 million in public housing improvements and other benefits to their districts if they switched sides. The PAP, which has never lost any election since 1959, employed a combination of hard-line campaign tactics and financial incentives to retain control. Before the election, the government – which denied buying votes – announced cash handouts ranging from $127 to $1,650 to adult citizens as their share of the national surpluses resulting from economic growth under the PAP.

Responding to the outcome of the election, the Economist commented that, “The PAP shows that it remains one of the world’s most successful political machines”. Undoubtedly, this ‘political machine’ has tremendously assisted the development of a special form of state capitalism in Singapore as well as benefiting the multinationals since the time of Singapore’s independence from Britain in the 1960s (via a brief association with Malaysia which ended in 1965).

However, in its early development, the PAP and Lee Kuan Yew used socialist rhetoric and welfare state propaganda especially, to gain the support of the working class and trade unions. (See separate historical background)

Singapore is regarded as one of the countries with the highest per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in the world, and indeed this is achieved by nothing less than the super-exploitation of local and foreign workers. In Singapore, working hours are long, overtime usually cannot be refused, pay is low, injury compensation inadequate. Hospitalisation and health care costs usually have to be borne by the workers themselves rather than by their employers. There is no provision for gratuity payments or pensions on retiring and redundancy payments are minimal. In short, other than the job itself, employers provide little else. Under the PAP, the “Nothing Is For Free” policy means that the rich enjoy the fat of the land while workers are put at a tremendous disadvantage.

Opposition and Democratic Rights

Since the PAP came into power, it has toughened its state machinery to subjugate the population and prevent the emergence of any radical opposition, progressive groups or labour movement in Singapore society.

In 1987, when a Catholic social workers’ organisation lobbied for better wages and more humane employment conditions for migrant workers, 22 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act and accused of being communists threatening state and national interests.

The government strictly controls the media and the internet and severely restricts freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. It uses tight restrictions on political protest and repeatedly takes out defamation suits against the opposition and against journalists. In the run-up to the recent election, the PAP sued one of the opposition parties, arguing that one of its campaign leaflets had impugned the ruling party’s honesty. Several opposition parties’ leaders have already been bankrupted by PAP lawsuits.

The opposition parties are almost all right wing. While they demand human and democratic rights, in reality they accommodate themselves to the needs of the system. According to a recent statement by opposition veteran, J B Jeyaretnam, the Workers’ Party, the main opposition party, is not willing or ready to take on the PAP over the most crucial issue – that of the system of government in this country.

However, workers and young people in Singapore are increasingly frustrated with the PAP regime. Despite the PAP’s diverse election strategies to attract voters, 44 percent in one working-class district supported opposition parties. This demonstrates the growing discontent on many issues ranging from the widening wage gap, unemployment, workers’ rights, healthcare, education and the cost of living. As far back as 1999 during economic turmoil, there were more than 19,000 labour disputes involving non-unionised workers demanding unpaid salaries. Migrant workers have begun to organise themselves after the infamous case of the Philippine maid who was brutally killed by her employer.

The increase in young Singaporeans joining the opposition illustrates the growing frustration of a new generation with the constrained freedoms under the PAP’s autocratic regime. The number of political blogs on the internet has been increasing. Considering the strict control of the media and severe restrictions on political comments being made, political blogs act as an opportunity for many to express their dissatisfaction with the PAP administration.

James Gomez, one of the Workers’ Party leaders from Singapore, speaking in Bangkok recently, urged the NGOs and human rights groups in the region to help with the development of human rights and democracy in Singapore. However, fighting merely for democratic rights without linking it to the need to change this brutal system will not make any real change for workers and young people in Singapore. Singapore under capitalism cannot solve the problems such as lack of space, migrant workers and other issues because it based on a profit-making system rather than catering for the needs of ordinary workers and young people.

Singapore needs a truly democratic government of workers’ and poor people’s representatives to benefit the majority instead of inflating the profits of several billionaires and business magnates under state capitalism. A genuine workers’ government would take over all the assets of corporations, multinationals, banks and others that control the economy and bring them under the democratic control and management of elected workers’ representatives, running them for the general benefit of society. It would nationalise all printing and broadcasting facilities and democratically decide access for all political groupings.

It would allow the right for all to form political parties and contest elections and the right of all workers, regardless of whether they are local or migrant, to organise, to be in a trade union and to strike, as well as ensuring the democratic right to meet, assemble and demonstrate with no fear of harassment by the forces of the state.

The right to organise should be established for rank and file members of the army and police, who should be encouraged to elect committees to investigate the record of their officers and to remove them from their posts where necessary. They must have the right to elect officers and to refuse to be used against workers’ leaders and opposition movements.

Local workers, migrant workers and young people’s issues must be linked and support campaigned for from workers regionally and internationally as well as working closely with genuine labour movements or socialists in the region in order to establish a federation of socialist states in Southeast Asia.

There is a need to link the day to day issues of workers and young people in workplaces and society to the need to end capitalist rule. Therefore workers’ leaders and young people who are concerned for genuine change have to take on the task of establishing a genuine workers’ party to unite all layers of the working class, young people and the oppressed behind a programme of struggle for a socialist society.

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June 2006