21 Jan 2013

The party that has governed Singapore since 1959, the People’s Action Party (PAP), has had to face bruising political contests in the General Election of May 2011, where it suffered a 6.5 percent decline in its vote share vis-à-vis its political opposition.

There is a heightened sense that Singapore is in political flux. Gillian Koh reports on the current climate.

The party that has governed Singapore since 1959, the People’s Action Party (PAP), has had to face bruising political contests in the General Election of May 2011, where it suffered a 6.5 percent decline in its vote share vis-à-vis its political opposition. In two subsequent by-elections in May 2012 and January 2013, it lost to the candidates of the main opposition party, the Workers’ Party.

These developments reflect a mood on the ground that people want change – change in the way the government relates to them and by which it designs its public policies; change in the way that citizens want life and society ordered. Also, what emerged are the diverse views about what those changes should be.


Fireworks from the Singapore Flyer during festivities for the Singapore’s national day celebrations. The IPS Prism 2012 survey found most wanted the city state to be governed by ‘moral values’ rather than ‘economic goals’ and ‘common sense’. The performance legitimacy that used to be based primarily on economic achievement seems to have run its course with respondents. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

There is a ‘secular trend’ towards a greater level of political pluralism among Singaporeans, who are now more educated and affluent. It is also reinforced by the transition of the younger generations of Singaporeans into the voting public, those who did not participate or witness the early battles of statehood. Products of a more secure society, they also appear to expect political parties to establish a connection with them, directly, and in a way that respects their freedom of choice. They do not want their support to be taken for granted. With Singapore being an open, highly globalised city-state, the benefits of development have had a different impact on different people. While the state has made on-going efforts to redistribute the benefits of economic growth with more subsidies and social support especially to the needy and low-income, these have been deemed inadequate, raising a sense of social injustice even as the differences in incomes and lifestyles between those at the working class and the professional and entrepreneurial classes have widened. These are the social bases for the diversity in political interests and attitudes that have arisen.


Two surveys of attitudes about the general elections conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies provide some support for this analysis. The Post-Election Surveys of 2006 and 2011 indicated that the desire for political pluralism rises among the higher occupational classes, the more affluent and those who are better educated. The desire for political pluralism is also higher among the younger voters and possibly more so with each set of younger voters. The conclusions will be more robust with more surveys on this matter over time but for now, the electoral results, the political discourse and these sets of data tell us about the changing relationship between citizens and the PAP, and their role in the governance system. A poll conducted by Blackbox Research on Punggol East swing voters, and reported by Yahoo News on 8 February 2013, was conducted right after the election and suggested that while the pocketbook cost of living issues were important to 39 percent of them, 17 percent said the government was not listening to them, of which one-fifth were below 40 years of age. Another 7 percent said they were guided by the need for stronger opposition to the PAP in Parliament in their voting preference, and emphasised the role of a political opposition as integral to governance.

In 2011 and 2012, the Institute mounted a year-long project called IPS Prism to better understand the trends in political attitudes among Singaporeans. It was designed as a scenario planning process centred on the question: How will Singapore govern itself in 2022, which, assuming two regular five-year parliamentary terms, represents two election cycles out from the present. In the first of two distinct stages of the study, 140 representatives of seven key sectors of society were asked to develop scenarios showing the possible trajectories that governance in Singapore might take from now till 2022. In the second stage, one set of scenarios from the previous stage was shared with members of the public who were then invited to share their own thoughts about how Singapore would be or should be governed. In this way, we were able to get a further sense from the ground of what meanings people give to governance; what concerns them and what are their hopes for it. This was collected in the IPS Prism Survey and constituted the third phase of the project. Its findings are discussed later in this article.

In the first stage, participants identified several trends with the potential to shape governance significantly over the next decade. I will list three that had the most mentions here. One was the sense of national identity and its impact on improving or deteriorating social cohesion. A second trend concerns income distribution, determining if people will have a greater sense of social inclusion or exclusion in Singapore. The third is whether society will focus on material well-being or social objectives and community service.

After further deliberation, participants in stage one identified key trends with the most potential of influencing governance in Singapore. First is the sense of trust and credibility that the government of the day enjoys to secure room to rule effectively. Second is how society defines success – by material standards or by non-material values. Third is how the social compact between government and people is designed – would it be one tailored to provide greater support to those with the most potential and rewards for the high achievers because of the benefits they bring to the rest of society, or a system that provides a more egalitarian system of distributing support and rewards.

Therefore concerns about the value system of Singaporean society, the national identity and threats to social cohesion such as income distribution and trust in the government are key concerns in the minds of the select group in the IPS Prism workshop process.

These trends and scenarios written based on them, called the IPS Prism Scenarios , were brought to life in an immersive arts experience. Members of the public were invited to participate in creating exhibits and forum theatre designed around the trends and scenarios. Having been through the IPS stories of governance in 2022 they were then invited to share their own stories of ‘life in 2022’. Using a method called Narrative Capture, people who attended the immersive arts experience held at the National Library Building between 8 and 15 November 2012 or watched the material that was recorded and placed at an IPS Prism website were invited to volunteer their stories. Researchers collected data on the respondent’s story and their opinions on other issues related to their values and governance.

A New Electorate

Of the 600 IPS Prism participants, about 71 percent was between the ages of 21 and 39, namely the younger working ages. In all, 81 percent lived in four-room, five-room flats, executive flats, and private property so the affluent were over-represented in this sample. About four in five were Chinese. Half the respondents had no dependents. Almost 89 percent of the respondents were citizens. While the respondents were not representative of the whole population, they fit the profile of the younger, more affluent voters supportive of political pluralism that was suggested in the earlier IPS surveys.

At the risk of simplifying the findings, the results showed that in the balance of government that ‘improves the well-being of people’ or that ‘delivers economic growth’ or provides desired freedoms, “good governance” was conceived as attending to well-being rather than just achieving economic growth.

Respondents want Singapore to be governed by ‘moral values’ rather than ‘economic goals’ and ‘common sense’. The performance legitimacy that used to be based primarily on economic achievement seems to have run its course with respondents. Hence trust in government for this group would depend on its moral direction and ability to address the higher order goal of ‘well-being’.

On the matter of providing basic goods such as housing, healthcare, education and transportation, the bias was towards provision by the government with some role for the community. A quarter of the respondents however did indicate that these basic goods should be provided by the government, community and business sector together. When asked which group should be given priority in receiving help from the government, respondents tended to say that in their stories, it was the needy rather than ‘everyone equally’ and certainly not ‘the people who can contribute the most to society’. When they were asked which demographic group – the youth, the elderly and the working age adults – should receive help first by 2022, the elderly topped the list with only 32 percent saying help should go equally to all three groups.

Finally, respondents were likely to say that the government should help people in a way that encourages independence and allows them to ‘help themselves’, through part subsidies of the costs of people’s basic needs. So, for the IPS Prism participants, big government would still be in fashion in 2022 and its support would be targeted especially to the needy, the elderly and the guiding principle to that help would be to subsidise basic costs of living and to empower. It is not however an ideal-typical form of egalitarianism where support is given to all as equally as possible

While it might seem like political change is in the air, it may be that Singaporeans are resisting the current governance system that is more market-oriented than the socialist model they grew up with, and one they want to revert to. They want to hold the present-day government accountable to that sort of social compact that seems now, long gone.

The situation in Singapore is not all too different from the political developments in other East Asian countries such South Korea and Taiwan. Long after their democratic transition from authoritarian regimes and economic transformation from state-directed capitalism, the social transition to more diverse and unequal societies has led the respective publics to wish for more state-funded social support. This has been exacerbated by the uncertainty that has arisen from being tied more closely now to the vicissitudes of the global economy since the turn of the millennium. Politicians and policymakers in developed East Asia, including Singapore, now search for progressive social policies to prove that their democratic regimes are responsive and deserve the trust of their people.

Gillian Koh is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies at the LKY School. She can be reached at