SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore votes this weekend in its most hotly contested election ever as the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) faces challenges on the very policies that have brought spectacular growth and made the city-state a premier global financial hub.
There seems little doubt that the PAP will retain power in Saturday’s election, which has led financial markets to largely ignore the vote.
But the party’s huge 82-2 majority in parliament may be cut back as the opposition benefits from irritation over the spin-offs of the success story: sharper income disparities and an unwelcome influx of foreigners.
Opinion polls are not published in Singapore but an online poll conducted by Australian group UMR Research indicates that the PAP’s share of the vote may fall to 61 percent from about 67 percent in 2006.
“Sometimes it’s just a case of the lesser of two evils,” said Marcus Yong, a 24-year-old advertising executive, as the election campaign wound down on Thursday. “I think I will vote for the PAP.”
“The opposition’s aimless bashing is getting stale; they should be focussing on what they can offer rather than what the PAP did wrong,” he said.
Boosted by hundreds of thousands of voters born after the PAP took power in newly independent Singapore in 1965, the opposition has drawn large crowds and is contesting 82 of 87 seats in parliament, the highest number ever.
Its rallies have been remarkable for the strident criticism of the government.
Singapore has been accused by New York-based Human Rights Watch and other groups of restricting freedom of expression and using defamation lawsuits to cripple the opposition, but so far in this campaign there has been no evidence of a government clamp down.
Most of the opposition’s criticism has focussed on bread and butter issues and a perception that the government was not listening.
Singapore’s economy has grown rapidly in recent years, including a 14.5 percent surge in GDP in 2010, but incomes of its citizens have not kept pace. According to the Department of Statistics, the bottom 10 percent of Singaporean households had an average monthly income of S$1,400 (689 pounds) last year, versus S$23,684 for the top 10 percent.
Government policies are focussed on attracting foreign wealth and making the city an easy place to live, and well as invest, in, which has drawn the ire of locals.
Foreigners now make up 36 percent of Singapore’s population of 5.1 million, up from around 20 percent of 4 million people a decade earlier. This, critics say, has led to competition for jobs and housing, the dilution of Singapore’s national identity, as well as crowded roads, buses and trains.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has apologised for mistakes the government may have committed and said issues such as housing prices, the cost of living and income inequality will be closely monitored.
Such an apology from the powerful PAP would have been unheard of in previous years, but some cynics have called it a show of humility designed to win back votes.
“They (the opposition) have a very different vision of how to achieve the best for Singapore,” said Paul Tambyah, a speaker at an opposition rally on Thursday night.
“It is not a top down, “we know better” approach but it is all about you. Two weeks of campaigning have made the government finally listen to the people - make unprecedented apologies, take notice of the issues. Think what five years could do.”
Despite the rhetoric, the election has drawn little interest in financial markets or among overseas investors because the PAP is unlikely to lose substantial support, analysts say.
“There’s no question about the outcome of this election,” said Hans Goetti, regional chief investment officer for Swiss fund manager Finaport.
“I think the question will be how many seats the opposition gets and how many votes overall. I think if the opposition wins a few seats, actually it would be a good thing for the overall debate in Singapore.
“It would be nice to see a real debate going on policy issues, and I think the stronger opposition will help that.”
Additional reporting by Kevin Lim and Walter Sim; Editing by Miral Fahmy