Political Parties

Singapore Table of Contents

In 1989 the government of Singapore had been led since 1959 by one political party, the PAP, and one man, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. In the 1988 parliamentary elections, opposition candidates challenged the ruling party in an unprecedented seventy contests, but the PAP still won eighty of the eighty-one seats in Parliament with 61.8 percent of the popular vote, 1 percent less than in 1984, and 14 percent less than in 1980.

The PAP was founded in 1954, and in the 1950s acted as a leftwing party of trade unionists, whose leadership consisted of English-educated lawyers and journalists and Chinese-educated and pro-communist trade union leaders and educators. It won control of the government in the crucial 1959 election to the Legislative Assembly, which was the first election with a mass electorate and for an administration that had internal self-government (defense and foreign relations remained under British control). The PAP mobilized mass support, ran candidates in all fifty-one constituencies, and won control of the government with forty-three of the fifty-one seats and 53 percent of the popular vote. After a bitter internal struggle the English-educated, more pragmatic wing of the party triumphed over the pro-communists in 1961 and went on to an unbroken string of electoral victories, winning all the seats in Parliament in the 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1980 general elections.

With a single party and set of leaders ruling the country for thirty years, Singapore had what political scientists called a dominant party system or a hegemonic party system, similar to that of Japan or Mexico. There were regular elections and opposition parties and independent candidates contested the elections, but after the early 1960s the opposition had little chance of replacing the PAP, which regularly won 60 to 70 percent of the popular vote. The strongest opposition came from the left, with union-based parties appealing to unskilled and factory workers. In the early 1960s, the union movement split between the leftist Singapore Association of Trade Unions and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), which was associated with Lee Kuan Yew's pragmatic wing of the PAP. In 1963 the Singapore Association of Trade Unions was banned and its leaders arrested as pro-communist subversives. The NTUC was controlled by the PAP and followed a government-sponsored program of "modern unionism," under which strikes were unknown and wages were, in practice, set by the government through the National Wages Council.

The dominance of the PAP rested on popular support won by economic growth and improved standards of living combined with unhesitating repression of opposition leaders, who were regularly arrested on charges of being communist agents or sympathizers. In the mid-1980s, eighteen other political parties were registered, although many of them were defunct, existed only on paper, or were the vehicles of single leaders. Much of the electoral support for opposition parties represented protest votes. Those voting for opposition candidates did not necessarily expect them to win or even wish to replace the PAP government. They used their votes to express displeasure with some or all PAP policies.

At the top of the PAP organization was the Central Executive Committee (CEC). In 1954 the PAP constitution provided for a CEC of twelve persons directly elected by party members at the annual general meeting. The CEC then elected its own chairman, vice chairman, secretary, assistant secretary, treasurer, and assistant treasurer. This practice continued until August 1957, when six procommunist members of the party succeeded in being elected. In 1958 the party revised its constitution to avoid a recurrence. The document called for CEC members to be elected at biennial party conferences by party cadre members, who in turn were chosen by a majority vote of the committee. The CEC was the most important party unit, with a membership overlapping the cabinet's. The two bodies were practically indistinguishable. Chairmanship of the CEC was a nominal post. Actual power rested in the hands of a secretary general, a post held by Lee Kuan Yew since the party's founding. He was assisted by a deputy secretary general who was charged with day-to-day party administration.

Subordinate to the CEC were the branches, basic party units established in all electoral constituencies. The branches were controlled by individual executive committees, chaired in most cases by the local delegate to Parliament. As a precaution against leftist infiltration, the CEC approved all committee members before they assumed their posts. One-half of the committee members were elected, and one-half nominated by the local chairman. Branch activities were monitored by the party's headquarters through monthly meetings between members of the party cadre and the local executive committee. The meetings provided a forum for party leaders to communicate policy to branch members and a means to maintain surveillance over local activities.

The party's cadre system was the key to maintaining discipline and authority within the party. Individual cadres were selected by the CEC on the basis of loyalty, anticommunist indoctrination, education, and political performance. Cadre members were not easily identified but were estimated to number no more than 2 percent of the party's membership of 1989, a list of cadres had never been published.

Although clearly the dominant party, the PAP differed from the ruling parties of pure one-party states in two significant ways. Unlike the leaders of communist parties, the leaders of the PAP made no effort to draw the mass of the population into the party or party-led organizations or to replace community organizations with party structures. Singapore's leaders emphasized their government roles rather than their party ones, and party organizations were largely dormant, activated only for elections. Compulsory voting brought the electors to the polls, and the record of the government and the fragmented state of the opposition guaranteed victory to most if not all PAP candidates. In many general elections, more than half of the seats were uncontested, thus assuring the election of PAP candidates. The relatively weak party organization was the result of the decision of the leaders to use government structures and the network of ostensibly apolitical community organizations to achieve their ends. By the 1970s and 1980s, the leaders had confidence in the loyalty of the public service and had no need for a separate party organization to act as watchdog over the bureaucracy. The government was quite successful at co-opting traditional community leaders into its system of advisory boards, committees, and councils, and felt no need to build a distinct organization of party activists to wrest power from community leaders. Second-echelon leaders were recruited through appointment and co-optation and were preferentially drawn from the bureaucracy, the professions, and private enterprises, typically joining the PAP only when nominated for a Parliamentary seat. The path to Parliament and the cabinet did not run through constituency party branches or the PAP secretariat. In the view of the leadership, political parties were instruments used to win elections and could be dispensed with if there was little prospect of serious electoral competition.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress