THE ROAR of a fighter jet cuts through the gentle hubbub of a business lunch. Intrigued diners turn to the window, trying to spot it beyond Singapore’s gleaming skyscrapers. Fly-bys are part of rigorous preparations for the 54th anniversary of Singapore’s independence on August 9th. Nothing is left to chance. The forethought reflects the Singaporean government’s broader approach.
Elections, for example, also run seamlessly. Singapore’s next one need not be held until early 2021, but it is likely to take place sooner. It is also probable that the People’s Action Party (PAP), in power since 1959 (when Singapore was still a British colony), will triumph once again. But thereafter confident predictions diminish. Knowing the true state of the government’s popularity is difficult, since the local press is largely state-owned and timid.
Recent elections offer a mixed view. In 2011 the PAP achieved its worst result since 1965, winning 60% of the popular vote but still retaining 93% of seats in parliament. Four years later it did far better, winning almost 70% of the vote. But 2015 was also the 50th anniversary of Singaporean independence and the year in which its chief architect, Lee Kuan Yew, died. The next election will show whether the surge in the PAP’s support was a patriotic anomaly.
Two sets of challenges could undermine the PAP’s careful planning for polling day. The first touches on the longevity of the party itself. Last year in neighbouring Malaysia (of which Singapore was briefly a part), the ruling United Malays National Organisation was unexpectedly defeated in an election, putting an end to its six decades of uninterrupted sway. Malaysians summoned up the courage to rock the boat—something Singaporeans are frequently advised against by their government—without causing it to capsize. That leaves the PAP vying with the Communist Party of Vietnam for the title of South-East Asia’s ruling party of longest standing. It is an awkward juxtaposition.
The prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who is the son of Lee Kuan Yew, has been in his post for almost 15 years. (That is less than half the time that his father held the job.) He is expected to lead the party through the next election and then step down before his 70th birthday in 2022. His anointed successor, Heng Swee Keat, a competent if uninspiring technocrat, was promoted to the position of deputy prime minister in May.
The succession has been less smooth than usual. The prime minister’s own brother became a loud critic of the government after a very public family spat over Lee Kuan Yew’s house two years ago. “Today’s PAP is no longer the PAP of my father,” he declared in recent days. “It has lost its way.” A new political party—the Progress Singapore Party—is led by another former insider unhappy with the way the country is being run. Tan Cheng Bock was a member of parliament for the PAP for 26 years. “I worry because I see the foundations of good governance eroding,” Dr Tan declared on July 26th.
The second potential impediment to another easy electoral triumph for the PAP is the economy. According to official estimates, Singapore managed year-on-year growth of just 0.1% in the second quarter. It is the most meagre expansion for a decade and follows a disappointing first quarter, too. (Last year the economy grew by about 3%.) The country’s electronics industry has been hit badly by the global downturn in demand for gadgets. As of June, the value of electronics exports had fallen by more than 30% compared with a year earlier.
The trade war between America and China is making matters worse. Singapore is a trading entrepot, with a big and busy port. But China, Singapore’s biggest trading partner, is also suffering from a slowdown, with growth at its lowest level in decades. No wonder Singapore’s imports and exports are contracting (see chart).
The timing of the election may turn on when (or whether) the economy picks up. The government has plenty of scope to stimulate it, by spending more on infrastructure and its ageing population. The budget is in surplus, albeit only narrowly. Moreover, the government remains a big shareholder in many of Singapore’s largest firms, which gives it a say in their investments and hiring. The PAP has a record of excellent economic management. Mr Heng, for example, burnished his reputation by running the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the central bank, during the financial crisis of 2007-08.
Singapore’s transformation from a resource-poor island into a wealthy city-state is proof of the strength of the PAP’s planning. But the wealthier countries become, the slower they tend to grow. The big question is whether Singaporeans accept that the PAP cannot preside over breakneck growth forever. Government handouts may soften the blow. If Mr Lee announces generous ones at the National Day Rally later this month, consider it the start of another meticulous election campaign. ■