Singapore prime ministers and election results

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Which PM had the toughest time of all?
Lee Kuan Yew built a nation,
Goh Chok Tong enjoyed good relations,
Now with the turning of the tide,
Lee Hsien Loong’s having a bumpy ride,
Support has dropped to an all-time low
The honeymoon ended years ago,
Blame it on the internet,
It’s proved a real pest,
Critics online all the time,
How do you make ‘em toe the line?

Mr Lee Kuan Yew didn’t have to face this. As Singapore’s first prime minister, he had to deal with communists, communalists, race riots, prickly neighbours, economic downturns and other problems, but he did not have to bother about bloggers, Facebook and Twitter. As for the press, he made it behave itself.

The internet seems to have been a game-changer. In the first post-Twitter general election, in 2011, the People’s Action Party (PAP) won only 60.1 per cent of the vote, its lowest share since independence, while the opposition secured six seats, more than ever before. (Twitter was launched only in 2006.)

The irony is the opposition made gains where there is almost full employment, the country peaceful and prosperous.

PAP: Seats won and share of the vote in general elections  since independence
PAP: Seats won and share of the vote in general elections since independence
Lee Kuan Yew

The elder Mr Lee led the country through uncertain times, fought communists, built  public housing, made national service compulsory, jailed dissidents. And the PAP won all the seats in 1968 (the first general election after independence), 1972, 1976 and 1980.

The PAP suffered its first big drop in support in 1984 when it won 64.8 per cent of the vote after polling over 70 per cent in every general election since independence. This was seen as a backlash against the Graduate Mothers Scheme, giving preference to children of graduates in primary school placement. For the first time, the opposition won two seats in Parliament as Chiam See Tong joined JB Jeyaretnam, who had won the 1981 Anson by-election.

PAP support continued to drop. It won 63.8 per cent of the vote in 1988 – the elder Mr Lee’s last general election as PM.

Goh Chok Tong

And in 1991 – Mr Goh Chok Tong’s first as PM – the opposition won as many as four seats. This was unprecedented.

After that rude shock, however, Mr Goh proved a popular PM. He fought his last general election as PM in November 2001 when the PAP won 75.3 per cent of the vote – one of its biggest mandates ever. It was an extraordinary show of support in highly fraught times. The election was held barely two months after September 11, when Singapore too faced terrorist threats. The militant Jemaah Islamiyah’s plot to bomb diplomatic missions in Singapore was uncovered only a month after the election.

Mr Goh is remembered for his empathy and rapport with the people. Yet, as the elder Mr Lee said, he could be tough. He responded sharply when the writer Catherine Lim wrote in The Straits Times in 1994 that there was an “affective divide” – “estrangement” – between the people and the government. He could be pragmatic, too, introducing the HDB upgrading programme to win back voters before the 1997 election.

Mr Goh showed his mettle leading the country through the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 2001-2003 economic recession and the 2003 SARS crisis.

Lee Hsien Loong

PM Lee Hsien Loong has also led Singapore safely out of the 2009 recession. The economy is growing, although at a slower pace, and almost everyone has a job, a remarkable feat when unemployment is a global problem.

Yet government support is at an all-time low and even the PM and his team acknowledge the need for change.

PM Lee has already committed himself to sustainable growth, curbing the inflow of foreign workers, boosting productivity so there is less need for manpower, and ensuring affordable housing.

Some policies have to be overhauled, said Mr Goh recently.

Major new announcements are expected in the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally speech on Sunday.

PM Lee in his message on the eve of National Day (August 9) said the government would play a bigger role in building a just and fair society.