Singapore’s ruling party, marking an unbroken half-century in power this year, faces a more uncertain future without its founder and the city’s longest-serving leader, Lee Kuan Yew.
Lee, whose son is the current premier, led a party that has held at least 90 percent of parliamentary seats since independence as the city grew into a financial center and technology manufacturing hub. The People’s Action Party is expected to retain a majority at the next ballot, which must be held by January 2017.
Still, the PAP was re-elected in 2011 with 60 percent of the popular vote, its lowest share since 1965, as rising living costs and an influx of foreign workers erode support among Singapore’s 5.5 million people. Lee loomed large over politics decades after he stepped aside, and his death this week highlights the task for the PAP to stay relevant in a society that in 2013 faced its first riot in more than 40 years.
“With his death, if anything at least immediately, the PAP would get maybe a spike in support from nostalgia, from a sense of gratitude that he steered the country to such prosperity in the early years,” said Neelam Deo, a former Indian Ambassador to Denmark and the Ivory Coast who’s a director of Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House. But the next election is likely to bring “an increase in the support for the opposition,” she said.
Political stability is key to Singapore promoting itself as a financial services hub and attracting the investment that transformed it from a trading port to Southeast Asia’s richest country over Lee’s 91-year lifespan. His ability to deliver high growth offset concerns over moves to stifle dissent in a society where protests are infrequent and the sale of chewing gum is restricted.
Lee left the cabinet after the last election, when the PAP won 81 of 87 seats up for grabs. The Workers’ Party took the rest and gained another seat in January 2013 after beating a PAP candidate in a by-election.
His son Lee Hsien Loong, 63, may not stay in power beyond a further term, raising questions about who will lead the party into a subsequent election. Lee, who underwent surgery to treat prostate cancer in February, has said he hopes not to be premier beyond the age of 70.
“We’ve certainly come to a crossroad and it does drive home the point that leadership renewal and the identification of a successor to PM Lee has taken on greater urgency,” said Eugene Tan, an associate law professor at Singapore Management University and former nominated member of parliament. “We’re just about five years from 2020 and I think at this point in time there is no clear successor.”
The PAP and government have always worked on the assumption that it must have people ready to take over, the Straits Times reported on March 1, citing Lee Kuan Yew’s successor Goh Chok Tong. Prime Minister Lee is forming a new team that will take shape by the next election or a few years afterward, according to Goh.
“As prime minister, he pushed us hard to achieve what had seemed impossible,” the younger Lee said of his father in a televised address on Monday. “After he stepped down, he guided his successors with wisdom and tact. In his old age, he continued to keep a watchful eye on Singapore.”
The elder Lee ran a tightly controlled state with an economy based on private enterprise and foreign investment that emphasized discipline, efficiency, cleanliness and interracial harmony.
“Lee Kuan Yew made Singapore to last,” Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Facebook on Monday. “He led a team, not a one-man show. He groomed new leaders.”
Still, as income inequality widens, the PAP has faced criticism for not doing enough to support poorer families and the elderly. Inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient reached 0.464 in 2014 from 0.46 in 2004, while economic growth slowed to 2.9 percent from 9.5 percent in the same period. The gauge of income inequality ranges from 0, for perfect equality, to 1, which implies one person holds all a nation’s wealth.
The government has clamped down on foreign labor, in part because of voter discontent over congestion, rising property prices and competition for jobs.
Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said in a December 2013 interview the government has not always shared “a lot of what happens behind the scenes” and can be “quite opaque” in its decision-making. Still, “the present government has to take the responsibility to decide on what’s ultimately best,” Tan said. “We’re very mindful that you end up moving to a stage where you’re becoming more populist.”
The elder Lee, who stepped aside as prime minister in 1990, became senior minister in Goh’s cabinet. When Lee’s son took over from Goh in 2004, he became minister mentor.
During his time as prime minister, Lee’s use of the Internal Security Act, defamation lawsuits, regulation of newspapers and curbs on public gatherings made it challenging for opponents to express dissent. Singapore ranked 153 out of 180 countries in a 2015 press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one spot behind Russia.
“What political party helps an opposition to come into power?” Lee said in “Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going,” published in 2011. “Why should we not demolish them before they get started?”
While premier, Lee oversaw a change in electoral rules to create multi-member constituencies. The Workers’ Party won in one such constituency for the first time in 2011, more than two decades after the rule change.
“I would expect to see the opposition make many inroads now, and in part, this is to be expected in a more mature society,” Kenneth Tan, vice dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said on Bloomberg Television on Monday. “I would hope that they do become a stronger opposition as well so that we can go back to being the kind of place that experiments with alternative ideas.”
While opposition parties may gain more seats in parliament, the Workers’ Party has said its goal is to influence the existing government rather than to win power.
Changes to electoral boundaries, along with the timing of political campaigns and curbs on political activity, have helped the PAP preserve its majority, according to Kenneth Jeyaretnam, head of the opposition Reform Party, which doesn’t have seats in parliament.
Under Lee, the PAP cultivated an image of incorruptibility exemplified by the white uniforms members wore at official events. Singapore ranked 7th out of 175 nations in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2014.
“The commitment and the sense of ownership that he fought for is his legacy to us, Singaporeans,” the PAP said Monday on its website. “Come what may, we will fight for a Singapore that is worth defending and that we live in a country that respects and treats its people as one.”
The city has found its anti-corruption credentials tarnished by scandals in recent years, and there have been small signs of discord within the PAP. In 2013, Singapore’s former civil defense chief Peter Lim was found guilty of trading contracts for sex, while former drug enforcement agency chief Ng Boon Gay was acquitted on similar charges.
In February 2013, PAP members of parliament including Inderjit Singh raised objections to a government proposal that included a projection there would be 6.9 million people on the island by 2030, a forecast that prompted thousands of Singaporeans to protest. Singh did not vote on the proposal, which was approved by lawmakers.
For Lee’s son, the task is to retain party unity in the face of social challenges, including a riot in the Little India district in December 2013 that showed the tensions over foreign workers.
“The current Cabinet is really a Team B,” said Michael Barr, an associate professor of international relations at Flinders University in Adelaide.
“There will be a lot of people who will think and associate these new problems with the fact that LKY is not at home anymore,” he said, referring to Lee. “That may have an electoral impact.”