Why it's so hard for the opposition to challenge PAP's dominance in S'pore

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | September 07, 2019, 04:10 PM

Is The People Action's Party Here to Stay? Analysing the Resilience of the One-Party Dominant State in Singapore examines the PAP's continued political dominance and strength.

Written by Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore, he explores the factors underlying the PAP's performance, and the socio-political implications of being in power since June 1959.

Is The People Action's Party Here to Stay? is published by World Scientific and can be purchased here.

Here, we reproduce an excerpt from the book on how the PAP has continued to win support from the public and why it is difficult for the opposition to challenge their position.


By Bilveer Singh

The PAP has been entrenched in power since 1959

In the end, the imbalance between the PAP, the opposition and the voters’ decision to support the PAP has accounted for the state of political affairs in Singapore and this will go a long way to answer the question, “is the PAP here to stay?”

The continuous rule of the PAP has allowed it to implement policies with long-term consequences, one of which is to marginalise the opposition and establish a compact with the voters.

With the ability to both punish and co-opt dissenters, the PAP has remained at the apex of political power since 1959.

With its excellent all-round performance, there is much to nag but still, there is overall, little to criticise.

By being the incumbent since 1959, the PAP has engaged in rule-making that has established the rules of engagement and forced both the citizens and opposition to operate within the PAP-created system that advantages the ruling party.

The opposition is disadvantaged

This has not made it easy for the opposition to operate and at times, even for the voters to support the opposition.

In fact, the opposition has not totally rejected the political order established by the PAP except challenging marginally some of the policies. Most importantly, the PAP understands that the voters are primarily concerned with material benefits, something the ruling party is highly adept in.

At the same time, despite criticising the PAP, most voters are not yet interested in more political goods — this has given the PAP a longer lead time compared to other similar systems and partly explains its longevity.

While issues of redistributive justice are rising, as Singapore is dependent upon imported capital and investments, there is a limit to which this can be achieved, partly explaining the continued tolerance of the PAP despite rising inequalities in Singapore.

Voters have demands, but replacing the government doesn't seem to be one of them

This in turn has created a strange political situation of wanting and living with the status quo.

There is an allergy to undertake political change for a whole host of reasons, and this also explains the PAP’s hegemony.

Since 1965, there has been no major demand to replace the PAP as the ruling party and even key opposition parties such as the WP have articulated the view that they are not interested in replacing the PAP, yet.

While the voters may have specific demands, such as lower cost of living and fewer foreigners in the country, it is never to replace the PAP as the government of Singapore.

PAP delivers goods & shapes society to focus less on politics

This is primarily because the PAP has been a successful government to the satisfaction of the majority of Singaporeans — the key impediment that stands in the way of the opposition to displace the PAP in the short- to medium-term.

The PAP has also created a system where the highly competitive Singaporean is more focused on creating a good life for himself and his family rather than partaking in the national politics of replacing the government.

What is even more intriguing is the perception that one’s well-being is directly linked to the continued rule of the PAP and hence, the compact between the PAP and the voters, with the opposition on the receiving end of the triangle.

As long the PAP continues to deliver the goods for the populace, the Singapore voter will adopt the attitude and posture of "leave politics to the PAP", and this advantages the PAP and its political dominance.

Hence, from the perspective of rational voter behaviour, the PAP has been successful in providing the "goods" that the voters want and where the PAP is in a position to deliver, thereby entrenching even more deeply the PAP in the public’s psyche as the ruling party.

The material well-being of Singaporeans, the PAP’s ability to maintain domestic and external peace as well as Singapore’s positive image internationally — best evidenced by being the host for the 2018 Trump-Kim Summit — signposted the strong standing and credibility the PAP has among Singaporeans.

While there may be fear of the ruling party’s repressive measures, there is also a fear of losing the PAP that many Singaporeans believe would lead to the loss of a good, safe, secure and successful life.

The continued existence of Singapore as an independent state has also been credited to the PAP. Hence, the PAP is seen as a successful guardian of Singapore and its interests, which no other political party can lay claim to.

The voters’ sense of disempowerment as far as political issues are concerned, and the unwillingness of major public interest groups to support an alternative political party to challenge the PAP, have also created a situation of almost no real challenge to the PAP from the present set of opposition parties in Singapore.

After nearly six decades, for all the faults of the PAP, the voters have also got used to the beast called the PAP and their love-hate relationship in a situation of a lack of alternative, which has allowed the PAP to continue to rule Singapore with no sight of this being overturned in the short term.

All of these have created an in-built, default position of bias towards the incumbent and status quo, immensely benefiting the PAP and disadvantaging any alternative discourse or political party that would endanger the PAP.

Political dominance in many different aspects

The attainment of the PAP’s effective political dominance in Singapore is evident on a number of fronts. First is the parliamentary dominance of the PAP since 1959.

In addition to the legislature domination, the imprimatur over the executive branch is also clearly seen with every prime minister and key office holder coming from the PAP, partly as a consequence of the Westminster parliamentary system.

In addition to its decimation of the opposition since 1963, the ruling party has also exercised control over the political and non-political organisations in Singapore.

This includes the PAP’s control over grassroots organisations, the mass media, civil service, trade unions, and the economy as well as being credited for our ethnic and inter-state peace and harmony.

In short, there is a sense of pervasive control over the city-state despite exuding a political system of openness in various sectors.

This also makes it clear that the PAP government has captured the non-government sectors of the society, thereby compelling the political, economic and socio-cultural organisations to work in tandem and not against the state that is controlled by the PAP.

If one harks to the various theories of political domination, it is clear that many of the explanations also apply to the PAP.

"Singapore has been created in PAP's image"

First, the PAP is definitely, in line with Maurice Duverger, Singapore’s "epoch political party".

The PAP is identified as the party that helped to bring about the crucial political moments of Singapore, especially decolonisation from the British, merger with Malaysia and later, independence.

The PAP also oversaw and successfully overcame key crises confronting Singapore, including the challenges posed by the communists and communalists, economic management following British withdrawal and the restructuring of the Republic’s economy through various crises such as the 1973 oil crisis, the Asian Financial Crisis and the economic crises following the 9/11 attacks and SARS.

More than that, Singapore has been created in PAP’s image, be it in national politics, economy, socio-cultural terrain, ethnic management, education policies, civil society, media, trade unions, grassroots organisations as well as the Republic’s defence and foreign policy.

Similarly, nation building and national identity have also been a function of PAP’s policies and imagination.

From this perspective, it is not surprising that the majority of Singaporeans have always supported the PAP and this is largely due to the populace’s identification of Singapore’s success as being primarily due to the PAP and its policies, from which the voters have benefited immensely.

While the PAP has successfully projected and presented itself as a "national movement" that transcends racial, religious and linguistic fault lines, the presence of charismatic leaders, especially Lee Kuan Yew, the party’s political savvy in political mobilisation, its ability to recruit the "best and brightest" and deliverance of political goods, especially economic and social stability, have also been its key source of legitimacy.

While the successful engineering of the political system and rules of engagement have benefited the PAP and disadvantaged the opposition, had there been a lack of performance legitimacy, the PAP would not have been in the dominant position it has chalked up over the years or it is today, especially following the 2015 General Election.

There is no sign of the PAP collapsing as the Barisan Nasional (BN) did in Malaysia as PAP leaders are not seen as "Najibs" and the PAP is not seen as the "BN".

Singapore’s political culture of valuing and giving meritocracy a premium has also meant that a weak or sub-standard political organisation would not have won the support, endorsement and loyalty of its populace.

Through effective policies, often a mixture of hard and soft policies, the PAP has succeeded in capturing the political centre of Singapore and the imagination of its voters.

PAP has successfully met challenges

While the PAP is well-organised and funded, and has even loaded the political dice in its favour, still, it is the voters that have decided, at least for the time being, that the PAP’s political dominance should be endorsed and maintained.

To that extent, Singapore society’s political culture, partly created by the PAP, has helped to maintain the PAP in a position of political hegemony and pre-eminence.

However, this is mainly due to the party’s ability to successfully meet challenges with regard to the Republic’s physical existence, economic growth and provision of the basic needs of its people.

In this regard, the party’s ability to socialise succeeding generations of PAP’s leaders and cadres of the party’s epochal achievements, being responsive to public needs, especially in being corruption-free, and addressing and managing rising public disillusionment (cost of living with regard to housing, medical, education, transportation; income disparities; and influx of foreigners) have also been particularly critical in entrenching the PAP in Singapore’s politics.

While the "people’s" and "action" aspects of the party have been continuously emphasised, the ability of the PAP ministers and MPs to identify with the ordinary Singaporeans and the high legitimacy and all-round skills of the party’s leaders have also won the PAP much public empathy.

It has also curbed the legitimacy of the opposition

Finally, through various measures, the PAP has also succeeded in denying legitimacy to the opposition and any alternative narrative that may surface with regard to Singapore’s past, present and even near future.

The marginalisation of the "revisionist" narrative on "Operation Coldstore" is a case in point.

Through a combination of cultural and institutional factors, the primacy of successful economic policies and being able to alter the public’s value system (such as downplaying the primacy of democracy and human rights but giving credence to political and social stability and economic growth), the opposition has been made largely impotent with little public support or empathy.

While the public may continue to demonstrate some support for the opposition, largely as a protest against the PAP, when it comes to choosing a government for Singapore, since 1959, Singaporeans have continued to support the PAP — thereby explaining and demonstrating the resilience of the one-party dominant state in Singapore.

Top photo by Pandora Wong via