Accept more robust political challenges, says Singapore PM

Hsien Loong (centre) arrives at a nomination centre in Singapore on June 30. (AP pic)

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s ruling party must open up to much greater debate of its policies and future plans, its prime minister said on Monday, after an election in which the opposition made historic inroads into its unbroken grip on power.

Lee Hsien Loong, whose People’s Action Party (PAP) has governed the city-state since independence in 1965, won all but 10 of 93 seats in parliament in the July 10 ballot but its share of the vote dropped nine points from the last election in 2015.

At the swearing-in of his new cabinet, Hsien Loong stressed the need to adapt to long-term changes in voter habits.

“The election has shown a strong desire among Singaporeans for a greater diversity of views in politics. Voters want the PAP to form the government but they also want a more robust debate of policies and plans. And this trend is here to stay,” he said.

“We have to give expression to it and evolve our political system to accommodate it while maintaining our cohesion and sense of national purpose.”

Singapore maintains tight controls on free speech and public assembly and the mainstream local media scene has close ties to the government.

The PAP’s election win was tainted by concerns about a generational voter shift after a youth backlash was reinforced by disaffection from middle-aged voters, who had not been expected to rock the boat given the dire economic outlook due to Covid-19.

Some voters criticised the government’s decision to hold the vote during the pandemic as opportunistic and unsafe, while others took issue with the targeting of opposition figures seen as high-handed.

Calls by opposition parties to vote for them as a check on PAP power also swung some voters.

After the vote, Hsien Loong for the first time named the head of the main opposition Workers’ Party, Pritam Singh, as the official Leader of the Opposition, which analysts said signalled the city-state’s gradual move towards a multi-party democracy.