Singapore’s May 7 Elections

President S.R. Nathan of Singapore dissolved Parliament on April 19, 2011, and Singapore’s 11th general election will be held on May 7, 2011.

The election comes amid several other important votes in Southeast Asia: Malaysia just conducted key state elections in Sarawak and will hold general elections between now and the first quarter of 2012; Prime Minister Abhisit of Thailand has indicated he will dissolve Parliament in early May, and elections are likely in late June or early July; and Vietnam is in the midst of selecting members of its legislative branch, the National Assembly, this month.

Singapore’s general elections have been dominated by the People's Action Party since independence. Will this election mark a new era of political pluralism in the city-state? What are the trends and implications of the upcoming Singapore election?

Q1: When will the elections be held? What is the timeline for the polls?

A1: The elections will be held on May 7, 2011. Candidates will officially register on April 27 by filing their papers and paying a $12,974 deposit. The campaign period will last a very efficient nine days. By law, there will be one day of no campaigns or rallies on May 6, the day before Singaporeans vote.

Q2: What are the main parties participating in the elections?

A2: The People's Action Party (PAP) has dominated Singapore’s politics since its independence in 1963 and expects to retain full control once again in this year’s elections. The opposition consists of a group of smaller parties that includes the Workers’ Party, Singapore Democratic Alliance, National Solidarity Party, Singapore Democratic Party, Singapore People’s Party, and Reform Party. While the opposition, for the first time in the country’s recent history, reached an agreement to contest all 27 constituencies in the next general election, PAP is expected to win an overwhelming majority again this year.

Q3: Can you describe Singapore’s electoral landscape?

A3: Singapore has an elected parliamentary government and operates on a first-past-the-post system, with the candidate gaining the largest number of votes winning the constituency; he or she does not need to win a majority of the votes. However, Singapore is unique in the way it designates its electoral districts. Single-member constituencies (SMCs) have one representative each, but group representation constituencies (GRCs) are represented jointly by a group of three to five individuals, all from the same party, with at least one member in a GRC required to be from a minority race: Malay, Indian, or other. The official justification for the GRC is to ensure that there will be a fair representation of people from the minority races of the Singaporean community in Parliament. However, the opposition claims that the GRC system is flawed and effectively entrenches PAP’s dominance because newer and untested candidates can enter Parliament by riding on the coattails of popular or well-established candidates in GRCs.

Q4: What are the key issues under debate during the election?

A4: The key issues the parties are expected to debate include rising property prices, inflation, and immigration. Singapore recorded an exceptional 15 percent growth in 2010, and the economy is virtually at full employment. However, property prices rose 17.6 percent in 2010. Inflation is expected to hit 4 percent this year, the highest since 2008. The Ministry of Finance insists that the country has “sort of stabilized” after four rounds of measures to cool markets.

Immigration has also emerged as an issue on this island of migrants. Foreigners comprise about a third of Singapore’s population. The Singaporean government has given permanent residence to hundreds of thousands of immigrants over the previous five years. Immigration is a key component of Singapore’s population and economic strategy as it faces declining birth rates. However, some Singaporeans believe that the immigration policy has led to increased competition for housing, jobs, and places in schools. The immigrant influx eventually created a debate over Singaporean identity pitting so-called home-grown citizens against newly naturalized citizens. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has spoken of a need to be “mindful of how our society can absorb and integrate” newcomers, but he has also stressed that admitting a controlled number of foreign workers has helped create jobs for Singaporeans and more opportunities for the Singapore economy to expand. In that sense, the prime minister argues it is a necessary tradeoff. The government of Singapore plans to increase its population from 4 to 6 million by 2030, primarily by attracting talented immigrants and expatriates.

Q5: How different are these elections from previous polls? Why are these elections significant?

A5: This year’s elections will be the first time that the opposition will contest all seats in Parliament, which means that there will not be a “walkover” scenario. In previous elections, the opposition contested only a limited number of seats, leaving PAP as the only candidate in several constituencies. As a result of the “walkovers,” PAP won a majority of the constituencies even before the polling day. For the past four elections—in 1991, 1997, 2001, and 2006—the percentages of eligible voters who live in walkover constituencies were 49.9 percent, 59.3 percent, 66.8 percent, and 43.4 percent respectively.

In the upcoming election, however, the opposition has coordinated and agreed to avoid “three-cornered fights” in GRCs, in order to take a direct challenge to PAP. This is expected to motivate PAP to raise its game and step up efforts to understand the electorate and field candidates they hope will appeal to modern Singapore voters. Notably, PAP has added younger candidates and more women to its slate for the May 7 elections. The opposition parties have also fielded candidates with credentials that allow them to compete with PAP candidates, ranging from former Singapore government scholars to reputable lawyers.

Singapore has also loosened its formerly strict regulations on the use of new media, such as Facebook and Twitter, in campaign advertising. This is particularly significant, as more than one in four voters will be between 21 and 34 years of age, and about 200,000, or nearly 8.7 percent of those eligible voters, will be voting for the first time.

Ernest Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Ai Ghee Ong is a Research Associate with the Southeast Asia Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Ai Ghee Ong

Ernest Z. Bower