Singapore tries to induce feelgood factor

The ruling party is pulling out all the stops in an election it has no chance of losing, writes Stephen Vines

I am not sure which editions of British newspapers are delivered to Singapore but we have it on the authority of Lee Kuan Yew, the country's elder statesman, that the entire British press is supporting JB Jeyaretnam, the leader of the opposition Workers' Party, in tomorrow's general election.

Mr Lee's words are gospel in these parts, so there can be no doubt of the veracity of his statement that the British media is backing the Workers' Party.

As the sole British newspaper representative present when Mr Lee made these remarks, I must admit to having felt a tad self-conscious. Could it be that while I was toiling under the tropical sun, The Independent leader writers back in London were throwing the weight of this august organ behind the amiable Mr Jeyaretnam?

Mr Lee was speaking in the heat of an election campaign and strange things tend to get said at these times, never stranger than the remarks uttered by Goh Chok Tong, Mr Lee's successor as Prime Minister.

Yet, even in his exalted position, Mr Goh, who has problems bringing his sentences to an end, worries about becoming "a much smaller man". This is a problem because Mr Goh is unusually tall and fears being cut down in size if one Tang Liang Hong of the Workers' Party gains a seat in parliament. Should that happen Mr Goh says, "my word in future will have less weight both internationally as well as in Singapore". The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) accuses Mr Tang of Chinese chauvinism because of alleged remarks questioning the predominance of English-language educated cabinet members over their Chinese- educated colleagues.

In the past few days there has been a sudden absence of parking tickets on unlawfully parked cars. This is unusual in law- enforcement obsessed Singapore. Meanwhile, citizens are getting a barrage of letters confirming subsidy payments, waiving land taxes and generally offering all sorts of good news, again, remarkably, in the few days before polling. But electors have also been threatened with the withdrawal of government services if they voted for the opposition.

Surely the PAP cannot be trying to induce a feelgood factor? This suspicion may well be the genesis of one of the many jokes doing the rounds: "How many Singaporeans does it take to change a light bulb? - Answer: none, because there is no need. According to the PAP, Singapore is getting brighter all the time."

Not, however, bright enough to deter Singaporeans from turning out at opposition rallies in their tens of thousands. Bearing in mind that there will be only 765,332 voters in this election (like many things in Singapore, voting is compulsory) these numbers are very large indeed.

Despite the massive turnout the opposition rallies have become largely phantom events. Tight camera-work by the television news broadcasters gives the impression of sparse attendance. In reality, not only does the size of the crowds dwarf those attending PAP rallies but their enthusiasm is amazing.

This enthusiasm is unlikely to be translated into an avalanche of opposition parliamentary seats. Even if they win half the popular vote, they will not get more than 14 seats in the 81-seat legislature.

A glance at the map of electoral boundaries gives some idea of the creativity the PAP has shown in preparing for the election which it has no chance of loosing. One constituency meanders so ingeniously around the island that it defies the laws of geography but makes perfect sense in the way that it carves up centres of opposition support. Other boundaries have strange channels in their midst.

The real danger of the Singapore election is that it will become a model for other governments attached to the legal niceties of elections but unhappy with the unpredictability of what is sometimes known as "the free vote".

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