Yeoh Lam Keong: Why the PAP landslide is NOT a clear-cut vote for authoritarianism

Our intelligent economist friend offers his reading of the election results.

By Mothership | September 19, 2015

Top photo by Christopher Wong, with photos by Edwin Koo, Lim Weixiang and illustration by Dan Wong / A Good Citizen.

By Yeoh Lam Keong

Several analyses and observers on both sides of the political spectrum have recently argued or suggested that the 70 per cent vote for the PAP is a vote for authoritarianism over democracy, at least in parliament.

(Editor’s note: for reference, Yeoh is responding to this, this and this piece, among others.)

I disagree.

First, most Singaporeans are primarily concerned with economic and political security. With the current environment so uncertain, they are largely willing to let a trusted government manage the situation. This is rational voter choice and not an endorsement of authoritarianism.

Photo by Edwin Koo for
Photo by Edwin Koo for

Second, forming a good opposition in Singapore is what economists call a positive externality and a coordination problem. Given that opposition members also have to be proven estate managers and that most of Singaporeans’ net worth lies in the value of their flats, they would always prefer their neighbours’ GRC to be the opposition stronghold, instead of their own. Net result, a smaller opposition in parliament than all would prefer.

If, in addition, all are worried too many opposition candidates may inadvertently unseat the government (as was probably the case in GE 2015), then even precious fewer will actually win. This is called a prisoner’s dilemma in game theory.

Electoral Boundaries Changes

Third, there are severe barriers to entry to effective political competition. Extensively-redrawn political constituencies, minister-fortified GRCs, a government-dominated mainstream media, ridiculously short campaigning periods, non independent civil service organisations (to name a few) mean the playing field is extremely unequal to begin with. Also, better MPs are deterred from offering their services as opposition members while less able or altruistic ones my be incentivised to join the ruling party.

Just look around. Meritocracy in politics is being eroded, which is not good for governance long term.

The Singapore electorate is highly discerning, demanding and shrewd. It has set high standards for both the ruling party and the opposition.

Given the current highly sub-optimal situation, one might argue that it has voted the best it can, putting pressure on both the PAP and the opposition to up their game.

Photo by Lim Weixiang for
Photo by Lim Weixiang for

The PAP knows that what the swing voter giveth, it can also take away. I’ve never seen or heard them so humble, even in victory. DPM Tharman, architect of the PAPs much needed leftward shift, has been resoundingly endorsed and his policy hand strengthened for even more such reform.

The middle ground swing vote pendulum has now swung maximally back for the PAP.

If the party is wise and not complacent, its future policy will be even more humble, consultative and social protection-oriented to mitigate any natural swing back.

Comic by Dan Wong, A Good Citizen
Comic by Dan Wong, A Good Citizen

The Opposition too has been served its share of humble pie.

The WP now knows it has to seriously improve both its municipal management and policy alternative game. The SDP, likewise. Other small parties and independents have been told to meet minimum standards or face irrelevance.

But let’s face it, the electorate is also badly constrained and not able to express its interests optimally either.

Rather, the citizenry too are hobbled by the uneven playing field, the high entry barriers and the coordination externalities from getting the quality or quantity of opposition our polity needs and deserves in the long run for good and secure governance.

Political opposition is not irrelevant in the Singapore democracy. Rather, a high-quality, well-resourced, and responsible opposition has a vital role to play, as DPM Tharman himself has said.

I believe he is serious and absolutely right.


Yeoh Lam Keong is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and also is the former chief economist at the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation. This commentary was initially posted as a status on his personal Facebook page, and has been republished with permission.


More of his insights:

Ex-GIC chief economist Yeoh Lam Keong issues badass reply to DPM Tharman’s now-viral speech


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