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Asean Affairs   3 October, 2014




Singapore Is Changing and Why That Matters

By Ernest Bower, (@BowerCSIS), Senior Adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

Singapore is changing in ways policymakers and corporate executives need to understand if they wish to be effective in managing relations and remain aligned with this important city-state over the coming decade. Understanding these new trends is vital for Singapore’s partners, not least for the United States.

Singapore has earned a reputation for stability, continuity, and good governance. While these characteristics are likely to endure, they cannot be taken for granted. Understanding the new pressures on Singapore’s government will help partners understand what will look like nuanced changes to outsiders but will represent significant challenges for Singaporeans.

Change is coming from within. Singaporeans are demanding a greater role in governance and more transparency in decision-making. They want choices, input, and a share of responsibility for shaping policy. Like many of their Asian neighbors who have prospered economically for the last several decades, an economically empowered and technologically connected majority in Singapore is beginning to assert itself in a largely constructive manner. Unlike in regional competitor Hong Kong, where the predicament is much more troubling, Singapore’s government has a clear opportunity to create new space and strengthen participation in institutions and governance.

We are witnessing political evolution in Singapore. The country’s general elections on May 7, 2011, were a key benchmark. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) lost 6 of 87 parliamentary seats to the opposition. For the first time an opposition party, the Workers’ Party, won a group representation constituency. That loss also cost the government George Yeo, the highly capable and internationally respected foreign minister and former trade minister. Surrendering less than 10 percent of available seats (and garnering 60 percent of the popular vote) would be considered a landslide in most countries, but in Singapore, where the PAP had dominated for five decades, the results were viewed as a harbinger of real change.

For the first time since former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew consolidated PAP control after Singapore’s 1965 separation from Malaysia, officials are awakening to a new reality: that areas such as foreign policy, national security, and economics are no longer immune from domestic politics.

Since 2011, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his government have been struggling to adapt to the new and unfamiliar terrain of a more viable and vocal opposition. Young voters are pushing for more political space and dialogue, though to date that push is largely restricted to blogging and social media. Voters are challenging the government’s practical and business-minded policies by asking questions about what is in these policies for Singaporeans in terms of equity, jobs, access to affordable housing, and sustaining services and infrastructure for all citizens.

What has made Singapore such an outstanding strategic partner and destination for foreign businesses looking for a hub for their Indo-Pacific expansion has been its ability to think and act rationally and practically. The government has been dominated by the best and brightest, and they have done a good job crafting policies that protect Singapore’s national interests, promote economic growth, and attract foreign investment and ideas. For decades, Singaporeans largely took good policymaking for granted, as did the country’s partners. And this created a sort of policy bubble.

But new activism by voters in general and the opposition in particular will drive subtle changes in Singapore’s national security, foreign policy, and economic strategies. The 2011 election, for example, had the immediate effect of removing the country’s foreign minister. As another example, Singaporeans are increasingly concerned about immigration and its impact on their society, which will have some effect on relations with other countries. It will also affect investors, who now will have to recognize that finding and developing competent Singaporeans to manage businesses will become part of a smart long-term strategy. This will be a departure in a country long known for focusing only on finding the most talented person for the job, no matter where she or he was from.

For the U.S. government, it is time to take a deeper look at Singapore and reach out beyond official counterparts and interlocutors to engage a broader and more diverse range of Singaporeans. including members of civil society, young leaders, the political opposition, entrepreneurs, and a wider cross-section of businesses. Doing so will add depth and balance to the bilateral relationship and position Americans as trusted partners.

U.S. military planners too should never take Singapore’s stalwart support as a given. The city-state has spent considerable money investing in U.S. military equipment, vital electronic assets for maritime domain awareness, and docking and repair facilities for U.S. naval assets, including nuclear ships and most recently the long-term rotation of four littoral combat ships. These commitments were strategic, and spending has not yet been challenged significantly. But it could be in the future, and the time is right to work with Singaporeans to share information and build a broader political constituency for investing in national security. Investing now will pay dividends decades into the future.

As the reaction to Chinese heavy-handedness in countries like the Philippines, Myanmar, and most recently Hong Kong indicates, China’s political risk-analysis in the region has been lacking. While bilateral trade has skyrocketed, Chinese soft power in the region has continually diminished, as evidenced by recent CSIS polling showing that “uncertainty about a rising China” rates high as an obstacle to community building in Asia. Broadening engagement should not diminish, or come at the expense of continuing to deepen, strong ties with Singapore’s government. In fact, the effort will add foundational balance to those ties.

Singapore is not immune to the regional trend of citizens seeking a bigger role in governance. Voters are challenging institutions and the government in Singapore in ways that we need to understand and watch carefully. While Singapore will remain a relative island of stability, old assumptions should be consistently tested and updated strategies employed by the United States, other partner nations, and investors interested in effective, long-term returns.


Courtesy: This post originally appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C. cogitASIA blog

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