Can the Left Win Over Singapore? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Supporters of the Workers' Party take to the streets in northeastern Singapore
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A left-leaning party is rising in a capitalist paradise, offering the island state a shot at a real democracy.

By Pallabi Munsi

  • The center-right People’s Action Party has ruled Singapore since it gained independence in 1965.
  • Now the left-leaning Workers’ Party is rising rapidly, drawing support from youth and an ethnically diverse demographic and emerging as the strongest challenger the PAP has seen yet.

Wearing a crisp blue blazer, Pritam Singh stood up in Singapore’s parliament to insist that the city-state’s government needed to be more transparent with citizens and the opposition, and ought to listen more.

“The road ahead will not be easy,” said Singh, secretary-general of the center-left Workers’ Party in his 33-minute speech on Aug. 31 as the country’s first leader of opposition. “But anything worthwhile never is.”

That tag — leader of opposition — is one no Singapore politician has formally held previously. Since gaining independence in 1965, a single party — the center-right People’s Action Party (PAP) — has ruled with such a dominating majority that the opposition in Parliament has largely been meaningless. That’s now changing in ways that could fundamentally alter Singapore’s future.

A tax haven that frowns on red tape and is routinely near the top of the global ease of doing business rankings, Singapore is every capitalist’s dream state. Now it’s beginning to turn pink, as a young generation questions the social contract that has bound the nation: economic prosperity in exchange for limited freedom of expression under the PAP.

[The 2020 election] may well be the breakthrough election for Singapore’s opposition parties.

Eugene Tan, Singapore Management University

The Workers’ Party registered its best-ever performance in July’s national elections, winning 10 seats in the legislature of 93, and securing more than 50 percent of the votes in the seats it contested. While victory went to the PAP, its popular vote fell by nearly 9 percent to 61 percent. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong formally appointed Singh as leader of opposition.

The 2020 election “may well be the breakthrough election for Singapore’s opposition parties,” says Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University who served as a nominated member of Parliament between 2012 and 2014.

Since then, Singh and his fellow Workers’ Party legislators have engaged in heated debates with Lee and the PAP in Parliament. It wants Parliament to consider criminal justice reforms to make the law enforcement machinery more responsive to economically vulnerable citizens and is demanding that the government look at subtle racial biases in its policies.

To be sure, the Workers’ Party as an organization has existed for decades. Ying-Kit Chan, a research fellow at the International Institute of East Asian Studies in the Netherlands, says former party chief Low Thia Khiang — a longtime member of Parliament — helped build the organization’s brand. The Workers’ Party, says Tan, has had smaller gains in the past. “Each breakthrough, arguably, sowed the seeds for subsequent ones,” he says.

But the latest elections and the subsequent confidence with which the Workers’ Party has challenged the PAP points to “the tentative makings of a two-party system in Singapore,” Tan says.

Singapore General Election 2020

Workers’ Party Secretary-General Pritam Singh

Source Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty

Driving the Workers’ Party’s rise is Singapore’s youth. Independent pollsters found Singh’s call to deny the PAP a “blank check” drew most support from voters under the age of 30 ahead of the election. That support among young Singaporeans is also why the Workers’ Party appears poised for further gains in coming years.

So why are youth supporting the Workers’ Party? “They appear willing to experiment with a politically pluralistic system and taste a higher degree of freedom, which includes internet or online speech and expression of views that are critical of the government,” says Chan. There’s an economic reason too. Unlike their parents and grandparents who grew up in a country that moved from poverty at independence to significant wealth, Singapore’s millennials and Gen Zers have inherited a nation where a sky-high cost of living — among the highest in the world — has made upward mobility harder. “Many of them do not see how they can eke out a living in the country,” says Chan. The economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic has only amplified those concerns.

Loke Hoe Yeong, political analyst and author of The First Wave, a book on the history of the opposition in Singapore, says there’s another reason for the Workers’ Party growing base. The PAP and Singapore have always been led by ethnic Chinese politicians. Yet while the community constitutes 74 percent of the population, that figure is dipping as ethnic diversity — driven by Indians and Malays — is growing. And the Workers’ Party, with a young Indian-origin Sikh leader in Singh, is addressing that demographic shift.

“The ruling PAP has long claimed that majority-Chinese Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister,” says Yeong. “This general election has shown that Singaporeans are ‘ready’ for a non-Chinese leader of the opposition, who is technically a prime minister-in-waiting under the Westminster system.”

The PAP appears to have read the tea leaves. A day after the election, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam — the senior-most Indian-origin leader in the party — acknowledged that “the government has to reconsider its approach in addressing issues of race and religion with the younger generation.”

Questions remain both about the Workers’ Party’s ability to actually move from a strong opposition to a serious challenger to the PAP, and whether it’s truly a progressive alternative to the party in power.

“The history of the PAP is one that is difficult to disentangle from the history of Singapore itself,” political scientist Bilveer Singh wrote for the Singapore-based digital publication Kopi in June.

Chan points out that parties that are more socially progressive than the Workers’ Party, such as the Singapore Democratic Party — which champions liberal values and engages with sexual minorities, transient workers and the poor — haven’t done as well in elections. That suggests that the Workers’ Party’s electoral success is in part a factor of its positioning as a moderate left force — pro-business but also pro-immigrant. Chan suggests that the Workers’ Party will need to cultivate the image of a credible and responsible party even more than the PAP has built if it wants greater electoral success.

Still, it’s clear that if any party can turn Singapore into a truly competitive democracy, it’s the Workers’ Party. The PAP needs to watch its back.

“There is no love, only transaction, between the PAP government and the Singaporean electorate now,” Singh wrote before the election. “Lightning cannot strike three times at the same place.”

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