Politics in Singapore: A Dummy’s Guide


In my last article, I briefly mentioned the state of Singapore affairs with regards to its governance and politics. Barely 3 months later and the country’s heading to the polls, amidst the backdrop of a nation which is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, and was among the hardest hit in the region.

Now, I respect that politics in any country is going to be different, but Singapore’s ruling party has been in power since 1957, even before independence. Sounds like a good old authoritarian rule in some crackpot dictatorship state, except that we have fair and open elections. This year also marks the first time I am eligible to vote, however admittedly I was a lot more excited when I first voted in the UK. You see, my vote really won’t make too much of a difference. Here’s why.

My issue with the other opposition parties is not only that they lack credibility, but also that they don’t seem to have any sort of quality control whatsoever as to whom they allow into their ranks.

First, I need to explain how constituencies work in Singapore. Unlike in the UK where MPs run in single wards, Singapore has GRCs(Group Representative Constituencies) and SMCs (Single Member Constituencies). This has been criticised for allowing a single incumbent minister to strongarm their entire team into Parliament, but I will not dive too much into this today.  

Second, I need to explain the absolute state of opposition politics in Singapore. I say this with a tinge of jest, though the rest with complete seriousness. The only opposition party sitting in Parliament is the Workers Party. I consider them the only credible opposition party that exists in Singapore and recently a minister on a live debate described them as PAP-lite (PAP is the ruling People’s Action Party) as they have similar policies and generally are on the same part of the political spectrum. My issue with the other opposition parties is not only that they lack credibility, but also that they sometimes propose bizarre policies, have absolutely insane members who go on to say or do brazen things, and most importantly, don’t seem to have any sort of quality control whatsoever as to whom they allow into their ranks. This can be seen in the clear contrast of quality of candidates fielded by the different parties. While a PAP minister can speak fluently in 3 different languages during their nomination speech, the typical opposition minister fails to even impress in English. This is hardly across the case throughout the opposition – as seen with new challenger Jamus Lim who is undeniably the same calibre as that which the PAP looks out for in their own candidates. Until the other opposition parties are able to field teams that comprise of such star-studded power, they will not only lack the credibility they need but also the flair that they require to successfully challenge the ruling government.

With these couple of points in mind, why did I state earlier that my vote won’t really make a difference? Let me clarify. Every vote counts. Absolutely. I think my point here is the impact that you want to make. In the UK, when you vote in a general election, you’re not just voting for a voice in Parliament, you’re also voting for the person who helps you with local issues, who is a representative of your area. This is less so in Singapore. This, in my opinion, is due to the fact that Singapore is so small that changes will be virtually enacted on an island-wide scale and local issues are seldom confined to a specific small area that your MP will magically solve. I am not trying to diminish the role of a MP in their town council nor the work they do for the local community, but I am of the opinion that I would vote with national issues in mind rather than local ones. For example, if I had issues with the gym in my local town council, it is common to take a train or a bus into another part of Singapore to use their gym facilities, or to study in a library in town or at another location with your buddies. I also think that we have limited cases to study town councils aside from the Aljunied saga, and it wouldn’t be unfair to say most MPs do a decent job with theirs.

So on to national issues and policy making, I would say your vote matters most for sending the right candidates into Parliament. But how much can this exactly change? There are 93 seats up for grabs this year, with 12 NCMP seats. NCMP seats are given to the candidates who lost with the most votes; they can have full voting rights but don’t need to get their hands dirty with town council work. It sounds like the dream political role on paper. The opposition has fielded 36 candidates in total, meaning in the most absurd scenario (this is NEVER going to happen, I mean NEVER) we will have 36 opposition members in Parliament and the PAP will only have a majority of 57. Do note that 57 is still a significant majority, and it is much more likely the PAP will maintain their supermajority status anyway, with Workers Party snapping up only 6 seats at the last election.

So what does this mean? Ultimately, when it comes to understanding Singaporean politics, I’ll like readers to take this point away with them. The PAP isn’t going home without a supermajority: it never has. Perhaps in the distant future, that might happen. But this year, it’s going to take something way more unprecedented than COVID-19 to shake things up in any significant way.  

Image: Steel Wool via Flickr

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