Singapore, not so long ago a candidate of the world’s dreariest major city, has certainly become more vibrant, relaxed and more culturally liberal under the 10-year reign of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Still very much Asia-late, it’s a well-oiled city-state no more than six hours from any Asian capital, and it’s one of the most low-tax, business-friendly places on Earth. It has a singular focus: making money. It’s overtaken Hong Kong (as the grip of the Communist Party tightens and pollution levels rise) as the preferred domicile for Asian-based expatriate businesses.

But despite this, the effective one-party state, which has the fig leaf of elections every five years or so, has hardly become any more democratic. The electoral system is rigged in favour of the party that wins a majority of votes in a first-past-the-post system based on 29 groups around 89 electorates. The first opposition member was not elected to parliament until 1981. In the last election in 2011, despite garnering a record low 60% of the vote, the ruling People’s Action Party won all but six seats in what is now an 89-person legislature. The unexpected priest vote in 2011 owned a lot to the dissatisfaction of  the wave  of migrant workers swamping  the country — Singapore is home to about 1.5 million foreign nationals out of a population of just 5.4 million, and the new generation born after the nation’s formation in 1965 are insisting on having their voices heard. Their concerns have only risen since the 2011 election.

Today, an early snap election will take place after just nine campaign days. The election was called to capitalise on the country’s 5oth anniversary, and ride the wave of national unity over the recent death of Singapore’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew. Polls are predicting the PAP may edge up one or two percentage points. It has been forced to move on immigration by the main opposition Workers’ Party of Singapore, which has a more aggressive policy.

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Singaporeans want a more politically pluralistic system as the next step in a slow move to real democracy as recognised by the country’s constitution. But instead of initiating any political reform that would lead to representation more in line with voting, the PAP has fallen back on pro-business programs, consumer handouts, ramping up new sectors such as gambling, and a a savvy but ethnically questionable move to make Singapore so attractive for private wealth that it is set to pass Switzerland as the world’s largest deposit of no-questions-asked money

Scratch the surface of the glitz, the burgeoning gay scene, art fairs and too-cool-for-school gentrification driven by a buzzing start-up, adverting and design sector, and the brick walls are still there.

Gay bars and pride marches are here, but homosexuality remains illegal, the death penalty remains, the media is censored and self censors, and if one crosses the aristocracy, who remain in total control, it’s a often a career-killer. Appointments to the judiciary and other regulatory “independent bodies” have only one non-negotiable: fealty to the powers that be. The same people who control the political system naturally control the wealth, making investment decisions formed by their own economic prejudices and interests.

The manifestation of the disconnect between Singapore’s success and wealth and its effective political suppression is this: for all the banks and multinational headquarters, the convenience and connectivity, the English lingua franca, a fine education system topped by three of Asia’s best universities, the country is yet to give birth to a globally successful company that has changed its industry. Its biggest company is the government-owned former incumbent telco Singtel, which is successful in the some parts of the region via canny investments, yet it’s still only 65% the size of Australian rival Telstra.

Its success remains in shipping due to its unique geographical position at the fulcrum of the word’s busiest trade route, and property.

For all the billions the Singaporean government has poured into ministerial programs to create a technology hub, the country has yet to create one global technology group in the top tier. Still, Singapore has countless advantages over its neighbours. It is likely the Singaporean people will continue to rouse themselves awake and realise that, in order for the country to reach its full potential, it’s time the PAP started listening, whatever the result of today’s poll.

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Crikey is an independent Australian-owned and run outfit. It doesn’t enjoy the vast resources of the country’s main media organisations. We take seriously our responsibility to bear witness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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