Singapore's ruling party puts final touches on sewn-up vote

Facing a general election this Saturday, Singapore's long dominant People's Action Party has a ready-made campaign strategy - selling success. Under Lee Kuan Yew, the only prime minister Singaporeans have known in 25 years of self-rule, the city-state has developed into a major trade and financial center. And given the local penchant for assessing everything in cash terms, the People's Action Party (PAP) has been laying heavy stress on the island's prosperity.

The election culminates months of retrospection through press and television in which Mr. Lee and other leading party figures have been assessing the past 25 years of national (read: government) achievements.

Just in case the electorate had forgotten, there have been constant reminders of the ''bad old days'' of poverty, political turmoil, and communist-inspired riots. Such dilemmas had helped encourage international predictions that a tiny island with no natural resources could never survive alone and would quickly be swallowed up by a predatory neighbor.

That, of course, was before Lee stamped his image of discipline and hard work on the multi-ethnic society - the results of which have been paraded before the populace in a $4.5 million national exhibition that will coincidentally end around the time the votes are being counted.

The PAP has won all four previous post-independence elections, the last three without the loss of a single seat. But there is no sense of complacency in this campaign.

The party's candidates have been out campaigning as if the final result were in grave doubt - hardly possible, considering the PAP has already won 30 uncontested seats and needs only a handful more this Saturday for a majority in the 79-seat Parliament.

But this is a watershed election. The emphasis is on national renewal in every sphere. In the political arena that means 24 sitting members, many of them from the PAP ''old guard,'' stepping down to be replaced by first-time candidates largely in their 30s and 40s.

This reflects the changing face of the electorate, which is a source of considerable concern to the politicians.

Some 40 percent of the voters this time are younger than 35, and at least 15 percent will be voting for the first time. Only about one-third of the population can now recall life before Lee Kuan Yew ordained political stability - hence the recent walks down memory lane.

The young are an unknown quantity. Theories about how they will vote fall into two camps: They aren't easily swayed by government propaganda; or they are easily impressed by the PAP image of success and efficiency.

The opposition has a hard time disputing the economic successes, but the various parties continue to campaign in hope of a stunning upset (i.e., winning two or three seats). They profess to detect a changing mood among some sectors of the electorate.

Singapore's glittering image has not been achieved without cost: government control over virtually every aspect of life.

The half-dozen opposition groups hope that there are enough disgruntled people to make a dent in the PAP monolith.

It is not impossible. Three years ago, Joshua Jeyaratnam of the Workers' Party won a by-election in the dockside constituency of Anson, based largely on an antigovernment protest vote.

That defeat shook the PAP out of its complacency. If it could happen in Anson , it was argued, there were several other shaky constituencies where the same thing might conceivably happan.

Hence, all the PAP leadership has been out tirelessly stumping the streets, pounding on doors in sprawling housing estates, shaking hands, kissing babies, and keeping a very high profile.

Typical is Dr. Richard Hu, former managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. It is expected he will become finance minister.

He has been stumping the Kreta Ayer constituency, otherwise known as Chinatown. Local PAP stalwarts regard it as a ''safe'' area, but Dr. Hu has been out tirelessly tramping up darkened ancient tenement stairways to make sure everyone knows that the government cares.

Against Mr. Jeyaratnam in Anson, the PAP has chosen one of its brightest young technocrats, Ng Pock Too, a former senior official of the Economic Development Board. He is preaching a message of a caring society of true justice , peace, prosperity, and freedom, compared with the anarchy, street fighting, and vandalism under a Workers' Party regime.

Prime Minister Lee says Singapore needs to continue self-renewal and plan for a better future while maintaining economic growth and a strong defense and for a country of only 2.5 million people.

The opposition, meanwhile, has raised several issues:

* A controversial PAP proposal to raise the withdrawal age from the compulsory Central Provident Fund from 55 to 60 and eventually 65. As the CPF is the only form of savings for many people, this would create some hardship and after a public outcry earlier this year the proposal was shelved for two years. The government has denied allegations it will revive the plan after the election.

* Schemes to encourage educated mothers to have more children and less well educated or poor mothers to have fewer, based on Lee's belief that intelligence is inherited. The opposition says Lee's idea is blatant discrimination.

* The PAP policy of grouping elementary schoolchildren in classes according to intellectual capacity to develop societal efficiency. The opposition says this works against slow learners and the poor.

* The tight government control, which has prompted the workers slogan: ''It's time to wake up to your freedom.''

Still, if the opposition can garner 25 percent of the vote, it will have done well.

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