Singapore’s PAP has little to fear from Malaysia’s political transition

Pakatan Harapan’s recent defeat of Malaysia’s long-dominant UMNO-led coalition came as a near universal surprise, not least to the coalitions’ respective leaders Mahathir Mohamad and Najib Razak themselves. While the popularity of UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) had been in a decade-long decline, massive advantages in access to resources and a deeply biased electoral process seemed a sufficient guarantee of continuity.

UMNO’s defeat raises questions about the prospects of a similar transition in neighbouring Singapore, as the two systems bear extensive similarities. In the words of Dan Slater, ‘Malaysia and Singapore have long had authoritarian regimes that looked like no others in the world — except for each other’.

While Singapore’s dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) is free of the major scandals that have plagued UMNO, it has had a series of smaller missteps and is not projecting regime-typical efficiency in its internal leadership transition. UMNO’s unexpected defeat at the hands of an opposition coalition headed by a former UMNO prime minister also appears to have inspired renewed efforts by a number of Singapore’s fragmented and fractious opposition parties to organise a similar coalition.

What does Malaysia’s surprise election mean for Singapore, which must hold an election of its own by early 2021? The answer is relatively little, as despite regime similarities, the PAP relies on substantially different political foundations to build mass support.

The PAP has fostered a political environment in which Singaporean voters focus primarily on valence considerations — in other words, on party trustworthiness, competence and professional qualifications —  rather than on ideology or policy positions. This provides the PAP with several fundamental advantages. Its penetration of Singapore’s high capacity state, for instance, gives it access to a pool of talent for recruitment that is largely unavailable to the opposition. Meanwhile, its position at the helm during Singapore’s half-century of developmental successes allows it to refer to a concrete record that the opposition can counter only with hypotheticals.

Simultaneously, the overwhelming focus on valence politics crowds out discussions of ideological alternatives that are incompatible with the PAP’s platform. The centrality of valence politics, in short, allows the PAP to leverage its comparative advantages over the opposition while limiting its vulnerability to ideational challenges. This presents the opposition with a fundamental dilemma: it is exceedingly difficult to effectively challenge the PAP on valence considerations given the structural advantages held by the dominant party. At the same time, campaigning on ideological or policy-oriented appeals does not resonate with a sufficiently large proportion of the electorate to secure victory at the ballot box.

By contrast, UMNO made ideological and policy issues — primarily in the form of bumiputera (indigenous Malay) privileges — a central part of its platform. This left it vulnerable to parties like the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and Bersatu, which were able to occupy similar policy spaces and disrupt UMNO’s exclusive linkage to relevant voters. The growing irrelevance of UMNO’s peninsular coalition partners undermined efforts to appeal on other policy positions, allowing the former opposition to capture most of the non-bumiputera vote in West Malaysia.

This does not mean that the emphasis on policy stances was absolute. Valence considerations also came into play. The scandals around Najib Razak clearly hurt UMNO’s credibility and pushed many former Barisan Nasional voters away.

But unlike in Singapore, Malaysia’s former opposition also had sufficient credibility to pull voters towards it on valence considerations. This results in part from their considerable governing experience at the state level, as well as the history of significant opposition presence in parliament. The central position of Bersatu — essentially an UMNO-splinter party — in the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition also ensured that a post-transition government would be led by a figure that many Malay voters viewed as trustworthy and competent, as well as likely to maintain some degree of policy continuity.

Predicting elections is an inherently risky endeavour, as Trump, Brexit, and now Malaysia so clearly exemplify. But those political contestations involved relatively thin margins. That is not the case in Singapore, where the PAP maintains a substantial buffer that should remain robust for the foreseeable future. The timeframe for a transformation of political culture sufficient to open space for meaningful competition on positional issues is likely well more than the next election or two, as is the timeframe for building a credible opposition on a scale that could unseat the PAP on valence considerations.

The only clear danger to the PAP’s grasp on power is the erosion of its own credibility. With its fate in its own hands and only its own missteps to fear, it is perhaps not surprising that the PAP has been rather reticent in addressing a range of contentious issues from inequality to housing and social change, as well as in passing the baton to its fourth generation of leaders.


Authors: Kai Ostwald, UBC and Steven Oliver, Yale-NUS

Kai Ostwald is an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy & Global Affairs and the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is also the director of UBC’s Centre for Southeast Asia Research.

Steven Oliver is an assistant professor of political science at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

This article was based on the authors’ journal article ‘Explaining Elections in Singapore: Dominant Party Resilience and Valence Politics’ published here.



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15 Responses to “Singapore’s PAP has little to fear from Malaysia’s political transition”

  • 5 yr old even knows:

    bullshit article with no basis….PAP ha s been tweaking the social landscape with its GST voucher – Return yr own overcharged money and taxes to u ..

    GD Star Rating
  • LIONS:

    But,the PAP has better be fearful of sgs’ anger and growing frustration of its DAFT POLICIE$$$$$$$!

    Taking jobs away n then making COL go higher n higher will mean it only takes A STRONG N CREDIBLE OPPO ALLIANCE TO SEND these GREEDY N UNCARING ELITE FACE$ OUT OF THEIR MONEY COLLECTION BUSINE$$!


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  • Bapak:

    All politicians lie! PAP is the biggest liar. And very toxic too. Everything on the surface seems good for SG, but once all the skeletons are dug out, PAP is worse than UMNO. We don’t need a foreigner to tell us how good is PAP.

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  • opposition dude:

    While we may not have any substantial opposition MPs in parliament the article is correct in saying that the PAP has its own missteps to fear. We see an unreliable MRT system needing to be shut down early on Fridays and Saturdays for months now with commuters taking far more time to complete their journeys. We also see failed AGO audits, frequent ponding and NOTHING done to make BTOs cheaper or to bring down the high cost of living.

    The PAP hasn’t been taught a lesson by voters as of now, the loss of a GRC in 2011 is but a forgotten memory. We all expected PAP to lose more seats in 2015 but we never expected 70% dafts to give gratitude votes to their dead founder. For sure, PAP will leverage on the dead man whenever possible during an election to minimise losses so the opposition has to be prepared for that.

    So with the next election expected next year how far would PAP’s vote share go down by? No one is predicting a higher vote share for them since everyone knows that tehy got lucky on hratitude votes and gratitude votes alone.

    A few factors to note in the next election though. How many percent of voters are new citizens, how many are kiasees who will die die vote PAP and how much anger is there on the ground?

    Will it be like 2011 all over again with another GRC lost? Or will it be like 2015 with no opposition voted in?

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  • HarderTruths:

    A despot fears his own familee.

    Another country like MY is merely a convenient scapegoat to divert attention from the abysmal performance and huge salaries of the familee.

    Dr M only needs to sneeze and $G clowns will shit in their pants.

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  • Sg need real opposition:

    Aspiring politicians should tour Malaysia now to witness and learn how real politicians win elections.

    If remain impotent , you cunt win an erections.

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  • Chua Mui Loong:

    He works with NUS?

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  • Other reasons not to fear:

    Unlike Malaysians, Singaporeans are afraid to gamble and vote for the Opposition. They’d rather let themselves be shortchanged by overrated and overpaid bureaucrats.

    At the same time, non governmental organisations (NGO) like Bersih and Invoke provided the catalyst for change but in Singapore, NGOs are toothless tigers. Their job is made harder by mediocre one sided media in Singapore. Singaporekini is far from a reality here.

    Another thing to note is the lack of a royal institution that can be the voice of the people. When Barisan Nasional (BN) made mistakes like introducing GST which burdened the poor, even the Johor Prince and his dad could not help but ‘scold’ them publicly.

    In addition the lack of Opposition figures with the X factor doesn’t help matters. Regrettably, there is no Singaporean Opposition member who is in the same mould as Guan Eng, Tian Chua, Tony Pua, Rafizi, Gobind, Syed Saddiq etc that can appeal to younger voters even.

    I could go on and on but Singapore is set up in a way to keep PAP in power for a very long time and LKY made sure of that. The Opposition lack the numbers and have been firing blanks in Parliament as a result.

    PAP will win the next election, albeit with some seats lost.

    Perhaps when voters finally realise the extent of losses made by the ruling family via the government’s investment arm and the implications of a very open immigration policy, they will come to their senses. Exactly when that will happen remains to be seen.

    GD Star Rating
  • What ?:

    @ Aspiring politicians should tour Malaysia now to witness and learn how real politicians win elections.

    What ?
    Lim Guan Eng went to jail twice.
    Are u hinting send opposition to jail ???

    Sounds like ” pap sure win ” ?

    GD Star Rating
  • N.Jungne:

    What to fear, Run-Road lah. Even fruits, like coconuts, when ripen will fall. That is Karma.

    GD Star Rating
  • what goes around comes around:

    there is no such thing as ruling forever.

    in the case of pap, ruling to 60 is already a question mark.

    what valence theory?

    in 2018 INTERNET age, no 4G means can use free wifi? no S$m can S$3 hawker food? no cash can rent out 2 rooms from 4 room HDB rental flat?

    ffff. so high brow. at the end of the day, when 70% sheep cannot tahan, they switch and never come back.

    then time for all the Ljs and Cbs who say Pakatan Singapura cannot take place in Singapore unlike PH in Msia to be sent home.

    GD Star Rating
  • oxygen:

    CPF IS NOT YOUR MONEY (told in Parliament), HDB is not your property at common law – and actually, you are only a lessee in your property contract instrument documentation you will discover only 20- 30 years later AFTER YOU FULLY PAID UP YOUR LEASE. All through life, peasants slaved for no possession of value to past on to their children (PAPpys passed on millions maybe billions to their children in contrast) – not even healthcare and food for themselves in old age.

    THE SOCIAL-PSYCHOLOGICAL-ECONOMIC CONTRACT IN EXCHANGE FOR DICTATORSHIP TOLERANCE has already been ripped apart by PAPPys, where is the glue and of what use this might be useful after the drinking glass have already been smashed AND SHATTERED on the floor?

    Which G4 dares to open his/her big mouth to fart some fragrant gas on HDB ownership claims in the public platform or space?

    NOT ONE BECAUSE I AM WAITING FOR THE FIRST BRAVE ONE TO SPEAK UP – that person who dares to venture into this contentious space OWNS the problem and solution to the mess WHICH all other PAPpys know have NO SOLUTION.

    HP2 & VERs are just gimmicks to con whatever last penny in the peasants’ possession. Who is paying for these deceptions to improve land and fixtures (including flats) owned and must be returned to someone else??


    The two authors in this thread is academic of waffling on subject-matter which they probably don’t quite fathom, forget understanding. Chinese, in particular, wants property accumulation and if they get nothing for purchase with life-long earnings, IT WILL BE SEEN AS “THEFT AND/OR ROBBERY” or both. Peasants are all reduced to economic servitude. Who want this deception to pass on to their children’s future suffering?

    Sacking the PAPpys is a GOOD MOVE, we can re-invent ourselves and find our survival path in place of extinction certainty.

    GD Star Rating
  • rukidding:

    Now the “fixing” begins for WP !

    Next, ALL EFFORT will be made to STOP & PREVENT Tan Chenng Bok from “interfering” !

    Such “below belt”, “Chow ka” tactics are the hallmark of Pimps and prostitutes (P.a.p.) party !

    GD Star Rating
  • consensus by manipulation:

    this article is wrong… politics are unpredictable…..

    GD Star Rating
  • Gay Grandson:

    Singaporeans trust so much they dun even ask how much HC earns.
    They trust so much they dun even ask how much has been lost.

    If one day sg were to fail , it will be due to this extreme unquestioning trust.

    GD Star Rating
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