GDP growth not enough

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The outcome of the Singapore General Election suggests that many Singaporeans want a more inclusive set of indices to monitor distribution of wealth, observes K Kesavapany.

An opposition rally during the Singapore general election campaign

The General Election was a victory for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which was returned to power with a credible 60.1 per cent of the vote in a promise of economic growth and political stability in the next five years. With 81 out of the 87 seats in Parliament, the Government will enjoy a strong electoral mandate on which to plan and pursue policies decisively for the long term. This has been the hallmark of Singapore’s style of governance and performance since the city-state’s independence in 1965.

Opposition inroads

However, three ministers, including the very talented Foreign Minister George Yeo, were defeated, and support for the PAP fell by six percentage points from the last general election in 2006. This alerted the PAP to be more attentive to sentiments on the ground. In the words of Mr Yeo, “from time to time, it’s important to shake the box. Because whatever system you set up, after a while, it becomes so predictable that it doesn’t capture all the feedback that it needs to have. So a certain shaking of the box is required from time to time, and this is such a time”.

The opposition, too, did well. The Workers’ Party (WP) emerged as the strongest opposition party by displacing the PAP in a five-member Group Representation Constitutency, which was helmed by Mr Yeo, and retaining a Single Member Constituency. Combined with three Non-Constituency Members of Parliament – the opposition’s three “best losers” – and another nine Nominated MPs, the opposition and other non-PAP voices will feature prominently in the legislature. The WP can be expected to convey voters’ dissatisfaction over policies and engage the Government in robust debate.

Informed debate

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Finally, the election showed that Singaporeans, if necessary, could make their views known in a clear and cogent manner. The campaign period witnessed genuine, informed debate over policies, particularly immigration and the high cost of living, including health care costs and the access of first-time buyers to public housing.

This election was important also because of the expectations of the electorate for more informed debate on Government policies and actions. Hitherto, the Government was left largely on its own to craft and execute policies. The social media, in all their manifestations, empowered the citizenry to project their views beyond the mainstream media.

New social contract

The aftermath of the election was almost as dramatic as the results themselves. In a shock announcement, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said that they were leaving the Cabinet. Soon after, the resignations of Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan and Transport Minister Raymond Lim from the Cabinet were announced. Taken together, this was a further indication that the ruling PAP had taken to heart what the electorate had said about the need for change – both in terms of policies and the execution thereof. It also represented a resounding clearing of places at the Cabinet table so that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has a free hand to take Singapore forward.

Before, during and, now, after the elections, the debate focused on a core issue that will shape Singapore’s governance and its society well into the future. This issue is the nature of success. Instead of the traditional reliance on GDP growth rates as a fundamental and largely conclusive index of Singapore’s success, this general election suggested that many Singaporeans prefer a more inclusive set of indices that reflect the redistribution of wealth in society.

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The results of the General Election were in effect a call for a new social contract.

The above were ‘talking points’ by former Singapore High Commissioner to Malaysia K Kesavapany, the director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, for an address at the Sime Darby Convention Centre in Bukit Kiara on 20 May 2011.

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