Singapore's ruling party expects to make clean sweep in island elections

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who has helped mold this island nation into a model of development for much of Southeast Asia, is expected once again to gain a massive popular mandate in upcoming elections.

After a 10-day campaign, voters go to the polls Dec. 23 to decide if they will continue Mr. Lee's two decades of stern but effective rule when they choose the 75-member Parliament.

In the last three elections (one must be held at least every five years), the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has won every seat.

This time seven opposition parties have taken to the hustings.But the general expectation is that the PAP will again win all the seats. Still, in the unlikely event that even one member of the opposition is elected to Parliament, some observers expect a dramatic change in the political life of this island nation.

The reason is that even one opposition member could publicly challenge the government in Parliament to give information on controversial policies or other matters. If the government complied, Singapore's tame and officially oriented press could cover the parliamentary proceedings -- unless the government took the embarrassing step of declaring the sessions closed. Once the province of the tightly knit and closed-mouthed governments, these matters could thus become public knowledge. Even a single opposition member could become a public "ombudsman" challenging the government with complaints.

This is one reason why the PAP is not expected to take any chances in its efforts to again make a clean election sweep. Few observers expect it to falter.

For one thing, there is widespread "respect, if not love" among Singaporeans for Lee Kuan Yew. Under his rule, the island nation has put a high priority on job-producing industries, low-cost public housing, medical care, and the production of consumer goods. Sometimes Singaporeans complain about taxes, the high cost of living, control of the press, lack of strong trade unions, and a government that they see as arbitrarily and unpredictably imposing programs ranging all the way from "be courteous" to "speak mandarin." "Our government asks a great deal of us," commented one office worker with a mixture of pride and exasperation.

But beneath it all many Singaporeans realize that the country would never have achieved its many accomplishments and international recognition without what some see as the drive of its demanding "father," Lee Kuan Yew.

The PAP is also running unopposed for 37 of Parliament's 75 seats. Since the seven opposition groups are running only from two to 14 candidates apiece, no unified, Singapore-wide opposition force exists. Opponents charge that the snap announcement of elections, the limited 10 days of campaigning, and government control of press and television limit and slant the debate that could strengthen any opposition party.

Moreover, only parties fielding six or more candidates can get minimum television time.

Just as important, perhaps, is what many Singaporeans feel is the limited quality of the opposition. Since government programs are often seen as successful and since opposing the government is often seen as risky and unprofitable, talented "new blood" often goes into business or into Lee Kuan Yew's PAP apparatus itself.

In Singapore, it is widely assumed the country's future leaders will come from inside, not outside, the People's Action Party.

Even so, PAP officials frequently complain about how difficult it is to attract qualified people from business and other professions into government and politics. This is especially important as Mr. Lee, in power for about 20 years, prepares gradually for the his successors.

This is also one reason why the PAP is fielding 18 new election candidates this year, decribed as "the best combination of grass-roots leaders and professionals the party can find."

But those who see the elections as more ceremony than substance have been quoting Mr. Lee and his deputy prime minister, Dr. Goh Keng Swee.

Said the prime minister: "I have done it so many times . . . it's a job to be done.

"I hope they will give us a fight. It is getting very monotonous," added Dr. Goh, speaking of the opposition.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.