The People’s Action Party (PAP), the ruling party in Singaporean politics since the 1960’s, held a snap election this September 11. This election was important for two different reasons; one was that it is the first time in decades that all the ridings in the election were contested, and two was that the PAP exceeded predictions to win by a landslide. Rather than losing support as they had in the last election, the PAP had a sweeping victory with 80% of the vote. So how can the PAP remain strong in the midst of growing presence of opposition parties in the elections?
The simple answer is good timing, that this election was called following the death of the PAP’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, a man often credited with leading Singapore “From third world to first” as he liked to put it. It also followed the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence from the British Empire. These two factors draw attention to the PAP’s past and therefore they strengthened official narratives that make the PAP appear the natural leaders of Singapore. These official narratives are that the PAP’s policies in Singapore brought wealth and stability through a merit based bureaucratic and corporate system.
At the rallies last week the running metaphor for this election was the idea of the national boat. A PAP minister had commented that the main opposition, the Workers Party (WP) wanted to run Singapore like a casino cruise ship, spending lavishly and not attending to budgets. The WP had adopted this metaphor and integrated it into their rhetoric, saying that the PAP had been running the boat in the same direction for so long they were going to run it aground. In counter, PAP candidates shot back that if you want to run a ship, you need an experienced crew, and no one can argue that the PAP are not the most experienced crew in Singapore.
In fact many of the PAP candidates are drawn from civil service, military, and academic positions that are emblematic of its emphasis on meritocracy and competitive government wages. The high wages is a controversial position, and the opposition was quick to point out that Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister of Singapore and son of Lee Kuan Yew, is the highest paid head of state in the world. Critics point out that the PAP runs Singapore more like a corporation then a government and sometimes that rhetoric is embraced within the PAP. One candidate mentioned that Singaporeans working for corporations based in Singapore are brothers and sisters of the government.
So what does the elections of the government have to do with Singapore’s overseas students and neoliberal regimes in international education? The connection between the meritocratic/corporate model of governance, and the sustenance of elite families like the Lees goes hand in hand with the significance of overseas educations. Despite the opposition’s rhetoric of protecting Singaporeans from the alienation and inequality of a global city with its emphasis on migrant labor, the elite credentialism of Singaporeans going overseas is a reality, which transcends all the parties. The PAP proudly states that now even lower-middle class Singaporeans can travel with their families abroad, while the WP and other opposition parties say that Singapore needs to establish a ‘first world parliament’ with an opposition party that can challenge the government. Implicit in the idea of a first world parliament and the mobile middleclass is the idea that Singapore must turn outward and become more globally aware, which might seem the natural outcome of living in a tiny island city state.
When these topic of first world politics and first world economics comes up, they relate back to the countries that are ‘first world’, and Japan, US, and the UK are common examples that all parties pointed to at rallies as places that Singapore should aspire to or critically analyze. Switzerland comes up as the European equivalent of Singapore, despite its lack of ports. By contrast Malaysia and Indonesia are both threats and negative examples in the PAP rhetoric, and Lee Hsien Loong even mentioned in a rally that he picked 9/11 for the election to remind Singaporeans of the threat of Islamic terrorism situated in Singapore’s Islamic neighbors. Perhaps most importantly, the candidates themselves are examples of how merit, prestige, and overseas educations are intertwined: for the WP 23/28 candidates have overseas credentials, in the PAP 16/20 new candidates have overseas credentials and for the Singapore Democratic Party, another opposition party, the number is 9/11.
While the PAP emphasizes a neoliberal discourse about first world success and the opposition parties emphasize a human rights/democratic discourse of first world success, both show through words and credentials that success can be found overseas, and can be brought back to Singapore by those who are qualified to lead the country.