Politics of gratitude

Seah Chiang Nee
The Star

New migrants can be the single best thing going for the ruling PAP in 11 years’ time, when they are expected to make up half the population

At the rate their numbers are increasing, it will not be long before the population of new migrants will start leaving a mark on elections in Singapore.

It is widely believed that the bulk of their support will go “out of gratitude” to the ruling party for giving them a chance to get a new life here.

This has fuelled talk that the immigration policy is partly motivated by politics to keep the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in power for many more years.

Citizenship was given to some 20,000 foreigners a year in the past two years, half the number of babies born here. This is the highest in modern history here.

An online analyst calculated that in 11 years’ time – by 2021 – half the population here will be foreigners.

Straits Times columnist Rachel Chang said in a random survey she was hard-pressed to find a single new citizen who had anything but admiration for the ruling party.

“The new citizens I have spoken to – originally from India, China, Israel, Myanmar and Malaysia – ranged from the placidly approving to the aggressively proselytising.”

Popular social website Temasek Review also said these people were forming a new support base for the ruling party.

“To a Chinese or Indian immigrant family completely clueless about Singa­pore’s political baggage or history, the PAP represents a sort of ‘saviour’, without which they will not be allowed to start life afresh here.”

Others dismiss the talk of the PAP deliberately importing citizens to boost votes as merely venting anger against an unpopular policy.

Besides, they argue, the figures, although rising rapidly, are still insufficient to cause any fundamental change in an election now or in the next decade.

Official statistics showed that since the 2006 general election, 70,936 foreigners had become citizens.

Assuming that 25% are children, this amounts to 53,000 new voters.

And if an election is held a year from now, another 15,000 names could be added, pushing the total to 68,000 – or 5.5% of the total votes cast in the last election.

These new migrants will soon be voting in an election in Singapore for the first time.

These 68,000 new voters seem like small potato elsewhere, but here they can make a big difference in an election, especially if they are concentrated in a few constituencies.

They comprise 42% of the 163,700 more people who can vote in the coming election compared with 2006.

The PAP garnered only 747,860 (66.6%) votes when winning the last election, while the opposition polled a total of 375,000 or 33%.

Assuming these 68,000 people had gone to the PAP, its total votes in 2006 would have risen by 9.1%; and if it had gone the other way, the opposition’s votes would have been 18.1% higher.

In real life, of course, an en masse vote by such large numbers is impossible. In fact, few are likely to vote for opposition politicians, whom they know little about (the mainstream media generally avoids them).

The staunch pro-PAP sentiment of new migrants could, at least temporarily, be the single best thing going for the party in a future without Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

In its 50th year of uninterrupted rule, and led by younger leaders without the vision and ability of Lee’s generation, the party is perceived as losing some of the ground that it held in the past.

After massive election wins since 1959, the People’s Action Party is finding it harder to maintain its winning streak among the new generation of Singaporeans.

(Lee recently said he believed the PAP would win the next two elections, a span of 10 years.)

“In general, the longer political parties stay in power, the more reasons the electorate will have to dislike them,” said a retired journalist who had covered Lee’s brilliant past.

That’s why they seldom last very long. After half a century, the PAP and its policies are encountering increasing public coolness, he said.

Some analysts believe it is difficult to restore its former popularity, except to inject a brand new electorate with a new set of values different from that of many youths here.

The statistics do not include foreign permanent residents (PRs) who are not allowed to vote, but from whose ranks about a third are accorded citizenship.

To say that the government realises their potential political worth is an understatement. In recent years, ministries and party grassroots have been courting, and making, PRs feel at home.

Many of them have responded, an increasing number even joining community grassroots activities that exclude Singaporeans in opposition parties.

In recent years, more have become community representatives, seen as the first step to joining politics within the PAP.

PRs are believed to make up 10% of grassroots leaders, people who work in heartland communities and even help PAP candidates to campaign during elections.

The other side of the coin will be a more divisive entity in Singapore.

The theory that new citizens will always support the ruling party is not taken seriously here.

Most politicians, in and outside the PAP, believe that once they have settled down with their likes and prejudices, they will redistribute their political support.

And the PAP could end up on the wrong end of the stick one day – of finding support from older true-blue citizens and facing hostility from the new citizens.


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