Singapore Parliament House and Round Table journal special coverSingapore Parliament House. [photo: Jason Knott /Alamy Stock Photo]

[This is an excerpt from the introduction to a special issue of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

Now we are in the middle of the transition to the fourth generation (4G). The candidate for the prime ministership, Lawrence Wong, has been chosen and is widely expected to take over just before or after the next general election. Elections must be held by the middle of 2025, although under the present system, they can be called earlier.

There is widespread belief that the 4G leadership will be significantly different. Contemporary Singapore was obviously very different when Lee Hsien Loong took control in 2004. The old tricks of ‘soft controlling’ everything simply do not work anymore. Young Singaporeans, with their skills and education, can basically move to a third country. In fact many have already done so, many even giving up their Singapore citizenship. This is often linked to the many arguments about the ‘nanny state’ and about ‘new’ Singaporeans, or migrants. Will they fit in like the Malaysians have done? How will it impact the Singapore identity?

Furthermore, social media and the internet have fundamentally undermined the government’s ability to control the narratives and information flows. Anyone with a smartphone in Singapore is exposed to ideas and opinions that challenge the PAP’s narratives. More and more Singaporeans want to engage in political discourse, although still in a cautious manner.

Yet there is also a sense that PAP can change with the times and is flexible and pragmatic. The PAP may be capable of learning new ‘tricks’ and learning from its past mistakes, especially political ones.

It is obviously not possible to cover the entire range of changes and choices that will take place as the PAP moves to a 4G leadership. The purpose of this special issue to give the readers a peek into the key issues facing the PAP and Singapore as they transition to a new generation of leaders. Singapore represents such a unique case when it comes to Southeast Asia that no single volume can hope to capture this city-state completely. The articles presented here can only provide the reader with key terrain and layout of the land and it is hoped that the reader will be much better informed about Singapore after reading this set of articles.

The 2015 Singapore General Elections – Round Table Journal special edition
Singapore and Covid-19: In the forefront of response efforts?
Singapore: A house divided?

The issue starts with a piece by Daniel P.S. Goh. He looks at the bowing out of the designated successor, Heng Swee Keat, from the leadership of the People’s Action Party and thus the prime ministership of Singapore in early 2021. It led to a sense of political crisis and Goh’s article argues that this troubled third leadership transition was preceded and conditioned by the similarly troubled protracted first leadership transition in the 1980s and 1990s. The technocratic statecraft that framed the first transition was ill-adapted to tackle the new contentious politics that have gathered pace since the 2011 general election, thus engendering the sense of crisis.

The next piece, by Norman Vasu and Terri-Anne Teo, deals with the 2020 general elections and their aftermath. Antonio Gramsci’s principle of consent is an essential factor for ideological hegemony. For Gramsci, there must be consensus between the dominant and subordinated groups for the successful maintenance of ideological hegemony. Of note, consensus for Gramsci is a dynamic and continuous process of readjustment to altering conditions. Hence, an exchange is required between rulers and ruled as norm-making for hegemony, rather than coercion alone or at all. This article argues that the ideological hegemony necessary for continued PAP dominance of politics and governance in Singapore may be fraying as the 2020 general elections show how the consensus required between the hegemonic class and polity may be weakening. The article concludes that, while the PAP faces challenging times, it may not herald the end of its hegemony as consensus may be retrieved among the broad electorate by addressing several key issues that arose during the elections.

From there we dissect deeper into the 2020 general elections, in particular the Singapore Indian community, a small but significant part of Singapore’s political mosaic. In the 2020 Singapore general elections, the PAP fielded 27 new candidates, but there was not a single new Indian candidate put forward. Against this backdrop, Bilveer Singh analyses the representation of Indians in Singapore’s politics, tracing this since the onset of general elections in 1948. In addition to Indian political participation in elections from both the ruling party and the Opposition, the holding of key political offices in the country is also examined. What is the state of Indian political representation and what it means for Singapore’s politics are discussed; whether this was a one-off thing or a considered and deliberate long-term policy to emphasise the Chinese-Malay duopoly at the expense of the Indians remains to be seen.

Marcus Teo’s article on Targeted Speech Directions, a novel way of dealing with contentious speech, reminds us that Singapore is way ahead of many jurisdictions when it comes to controlling what is published in cyberspace. As public discourse moves online, Singapore’s Government has begun to regulate online speech via the use of Targeted Speech Directions, which are issued against statements or communications deemed to amount to fake news or foreign interference. Teo concentrates on two laws – the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (No. 18 of 2019) (‘POFMA’) and the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (No. 24 of 2021) (‘FICA’). This article maps the law on Targeted Speech Directions in Singapore, touching on three issues – the consistency of these Directions with constitutional theories of free speech, the extent of judicial oversight available and the applicable evidential rules in challenges brought to these Directions – which bear materially on how these Directions are used and their influence on the future Singaporean public discourse.

Special edition of The Round Table Journal – May 2023

The next article, by Andrew Yu and Stephanie Want Nga Lam, deals with the controversial ‘Section 377A’ of Singapore’s Penal Code, which used to criminalise sex between men, making it punishable by up to two years in prison and which was recently repealed after a protracted debate. Over the years, there had been calls to do away with the law, on grounds of human rights, and access to health care and social support. However, opponents argued that decriminalisation goes against traditional and religious values and would lead to a breakdown of social order. The article explores the issue of, and the political responses to, decriminalising homosexuality from the perspective of secularism and electoral pragmatism. Electoral pragmatism, argue the authors, is highly relevant to the debate on repealing Section 377A. The article also examines the challenges and opportunities for LGBTQ+ advocacy in Singapore and the implications of decriminalisation for the country’s future.

The final article in this collection by the present writer and guest editor, James Chin, looks at the PAP’s durability. This article gives a summary of the key aspects of PAP’s successful methods to keep the polity on its side and argues that under the Fourth Generation (4G) leadership, the PAP is likely to win elections and continue to rule for some years to come. Any real democratic reforms, notes the article, are unlikely until the fifth generation (5G) takes over; for the PAP to lose power, there will have to be drastic mismanagement in three specific areas: economy, foreign talent and elite cohesion.

James Chin, School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia.