Saturday, May 7, 2011

Singapore votes as ruling party faces backlash to soaring housing costs, more foreigners

SINGAPORE — Singapore’s ruling party faced its toughest challenge since independence in 1965 as voters in the Southeast Asian city-state went to the polls Saturday for parliamentary elections.
Leaders from the ruling People’s Action Party spent the last days of the nine-day official campaign apologizing for policy mistakes and perceived arrogance amid growing voter discontent over soaring housing costs and a surge of foreign workers.

“There are immediate problems on everyone’s minds, like the cost of living and housing,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a televised speech late Friday. “The PAP is dealing with them.”
Voting was due to end at 8 p.m. (1200 GMT), and initial results were expected to be announced a few hours later.
The PAP was expected to win a dominant majority of 87 seats and around 60 percent of the overall vote — results that would be considered great for most of the world’s parties but a potential blow for Singapore’s political establishment, which has enjoyed unrivaled power for five decades.
Opposition parties, bolstered by a crop of well-educated first-time candidates, have attracted up to 40,000 people at rallies during the last week, the biggest such crowds analysts can remember.
“In any government, there should be a strong alternative voice,” said Chia Teck Shin, a 37-year-old public relations executive who volunteered during the campaign for the Singapore Democratic Party. “It can’t be that the ruling party is the only deciding factor.”
The opposition has never had more than four members of parliament and had just two in the last congress, but six parties are contesting the PAP in a record 82 seats — almost twice as many as the previous election in 2006. In some past elections, the opposition has failed to contest a majority of seats, ceding victory to the PAP even before the vote.
A survey by Australia’s UMR Research showed the PAP was likely to win 61 percent of the votes, down from 67 percent in 2006. UMR polled 522 Singaporeans from May 3 to 5, and the online survey had a margin of error of 3.6 percent. UMR did not poll individual district races or estimate how many seats each party would win.
The PAP has traditionally campaigned on its record of strong economic growth and an efficient and corruption-free bureaucracy. However, this time the PAP has appeared to have been caught off-guard by the level of resentment of middle- and working-class voters who in recent years have seen stagnant wages amid higher living costs, and feel the government has not been responsive enough.
Lee apologized earlier this week for government mistakes, such as failing to build enough public housing and not expanding the transportation network to accommodate a large increase of foreign workers. Housing prices on the island are up about 70 percent since 2006.
Singaporeans will be closely watching the results of Aljunied district, where the Workers Party fielded its strongest five-candidate team to take on the PAP, which is led there by Foreign Minister George Yeo.
“I know many of us think the government is arrogant and high-handed,” Yeo said in a video posted on his Facebook page. “I will listen to what you have to say.”
Yeo later said in a speech, “In your hearts, you know that Singapore needs the PAP. That without the PAP, there is no Singapore.”
The campaign also revealed differences between the two most important figures in Singaporean politics — Lee and his father, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
The elder Lee, 87, is a senior Cabinet minister and is running unopposed in the Tanjong Pagar district he has represented since 1955. He began the campaign threatening the voters of Aljunied that if the opposition won, government funds for public housing improvements would be withheld and residents would have “five years to live and repent.”
Prime Minister Lee and Yeo distanced themselves from the comments of Lee Kuan Yew, who didn’t speak publicly during the second half of the campaign.
“It’s a difference in generation, between MM’s team and my team,” the prime minister said in a speech earlier this week, referring to Lee Kuan Yew as minister mentor, or MM. “We don’t try to do it MM’s style. We do it our way.”