Singapore election could return the city-state to total one-party rule

Lawyer Joshua Benjamin Jeyaratnam is not just the leader of the parliamentary opposition in Singapore - he is the opposition. Three years ago, in a by-election in the working-class dockside district of Anson, he broke a 15-year opposition drought in Parliament by narrowly defeating a candidate of the dominant People's Action Party (PAP).

Now he is entering the fray again, hoping to widen the wedge a little more in an election Saturday that everyone agrees marks a turning point in the island city-state's political development.

Ever since Singapore established self-rule 25 years ago, the country's politics has been dominated by one party and even more by one man, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. But Mr. Lee is talking of standing down in four years and a number of old party stalwarts are retiring this election. The PAP is going into the election with almost one-third of its candidates being first-timers in their 30s and 40s. They are being groomed to maintain the party's dominance for another quarter of a century.

After sweeping the board in the previous four general elections, the PAP got a nasty shock in the Anson defeat. The party relies heavily on the Chinese majority in the population and has become accustomed to being a permanent government rather than just a political party.

It has not been used to critical voices in Parliament, leading to some pretty heavy-handed treatment of Mr. Jeyaratnam that has sometimes seemed out of all proportion to the single dissenting vote he represents in the 79-seat chamber.

But the leader of the left-of-center Workers' Party is an old hand at locking horns with the PAP.

In the past 11 years the courts have provided a regular battleground for suits and countersuits, mostly alleging libel, involving leading PAP figures. In Parliament, Jeyaratnam has maintained a high profile with long speeches, interjections, and pestering questions that have variously enraged, exasperated, and amused government MPs.

Of his battles with the PAP, the Workers' Party leader says: ''They pay lip service to opposition, but in their heart of hearts they really don't want it and they have put every obstacle in our way.''

Given that the PAP will win again, the main interest in the forthcoming election will inevitably be in Anson, the one thorn in its side.

Some observers feel Jeyaratnam's win three years ago was an aberration and he will have a hard time repeating it.

Apart from the Workers' Party, which is putting up about 20 candidates, there are at least five other opposition groups in whom hope of election springs eternal, despite a long history of failure.

If there is an upset it is likely to be provided by the Singapore Democratic Party, whose chairman Chiam See Tong is competing in the same district that gave him a credible 40 percent of the vote last time.

With over 200,000 young people being added to the rolls this time (out of a total electorate of 1.7 million), both Jeyaratnam and Chiam say there is a strong mood for change and for creation of a significant opposition force.

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