Singapore to hold snap election on September 11

Bhavan Jaipragas
1 / 4

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at the Istana presidential palace in Singapore on July 29, 2015

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at the Istana presidential palace in Singapore on July 29, 2015 (AFP Photo/Roslan Rahman)

Singapore will hold a snap general election on September 11, officials said Tuesday as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong seeks a new mandate from voters worried over immigration and the high cost of living.

Despite a slowing economy the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled for more than 50 years thanks to strict political controls and Singaporeans' rising affluence, is expected to keep its overwhelming majority in parliament against a fragmented opposition.

But the party will be under pressure to improve on its electoral performance in 2011, when it won just 60 percent of votes cast -- its lowest-ever share -- despite retaining 80 of the 87 seats in a block-voting system.

It will be the first election without the prime minister’s hugely influential father, independence leader Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March.

The election department set the shortest possible campaigning period of nine days after President Tony Tan dissolved parliament at the prime minister's request.

Lee, who has been in power for 11 years and had until January 2017 to hold an election, sought support in a Facebook post.

"I called this general election to seek your mandate to take Singapore beyond SG50, into its next half century," he said, referring to the 50th anniversary of independence from Malaysia.

Singapore celebrated half a century as a republic on August 9 with a massive parade which highlighted its rapid economic development and stability under PAP rule.

All eyes will be on whether the opposition can gain more than the seven seats it currently holds.

- Watershed election -

"I would say this would be the watershed election after independence because we will see whether Singapore moves in a definitive manner towards a two-party system," said analyst Eugene Tan, an associate law professor at the Singapore Management University.

A survey by local research firm Blackbox said the government enjoyed a "satisfaction index" of 76.4 percent in July after peaking at 80 percent in April following Lee Kuan Yew’s death, which triggered an outpouring of grief and stirred patriotism.

But its satisfaction rating on the cost of living in July stood at just 42 percent, housing affordability at 53 percent, public transport at 57 percent and population management at 61 percent.

An influx of foreign workers and immigrants as the local birthrate declined has seen the population surge from 4.17 million in 2004 to 5.47 million last year, of whom over 2.46 million are eligible Singaporean voters.

Middle-class Singaporeans complain that newcomers are competing with them for jobs and housing while straining public services like mass transport.

After the 2011 election the government invested billions of dollars in building new public housing flats and metro lines while curbing the intake of foreign workers and immigrants.

Michael Barr, a Singapore politics researcher at Flinders University in Australia, said the PAP had no doubts about being re-elected. "But they are worried about losing more seats than the last time, which was a record for the opposition."

However the main opposition Workers' Party has indicated it will contest only 28 of the 89 seats in the next parliament, with weaker parties fighting the PAP in the rest.

"Most of the opposition will simply secure a protest vote," said local analyst Derek da Cunha.

Singapore is now one of the world's richest cities, boasting top-notch education, health care and high-tech industries and financial institutions that attract workers and executives from around the world.

But rights groups have long criticised the PAP, particularly under Lee Kuan Yew, for jailing dissidents and driving political opponents to self-exile or financial ruin as a result of costly libel suits.

Singapore continues to impose strict rules on free speech and assembly, but social media have undermined the government's control over information and political debate.

Braema Mathi, president of independent human rights group Maruah, said the PAP has largely abandoned its "big stick approach" under the younger Lee, a British-educated former army brigadier general.