Taken from East Asia Forum
Singapore’s 2018 was eventful. Key developments had less to do with the city-state’s ASEAN chairmanship and more to do with the governing People’s Action Party’s (PAP) responses to growing uncertainty related to domestic pressures and regional developments. In keeping with the norms of the conservative government, the PAP opted for the familiar. But in doing so it has opened itself to greater risk as the country faces increasing headwinds.Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Singapore, 12 November 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha).Politically, Singapore prepared the ground for elections. The announcement of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as the prime minister-designate in November reduced speculation about the hierarchy in the party’s fourth generation leadership and provided an answer — at least for now — to the question of who will succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.Heng represents a safe choice, known to the cabinet as a team player, a consummate and tested PAP cadre, and a technocrat in the area that poses the biggest challenge for Singapore — its economy. Heng now faces the daunting tasks of winning over the increasingly sophisticated public and coming out of the shadow of the Lee family.The internal wrangling for positions coincided with increased attacks on Singapore’s opposition. In October, the strongest opposition party, the Worker’s Party (WP), was sued in a civil proceeding for making alleged improper payments in their management of two town councils. While the lawsuit was not the direct action of the PAP government, it is widely perceived as part of a broader effort to discredit the WP. Facing potential bankruptcy, party leaders appealed to crowd funding and managed to raise over SGD$1 million (US$729,000) for its legal defence in two days.

Civil society activists also faced greater pressure for raising questions about governance and the PAP’s legitimacy. Multiple charges were filed for political organisation, protesting or (re)posting views. The most prominent was the trial, also in October, of activist Jolovan Wham and politician John Tan who were convicted of ‘scandalising the judiciary’ for posting an article on Facebook that compared the Singaporean judiciary with that of Malaysia. Prime Minister Lee also filed a defamation suit in December against a blogger who shared an article that tied his leadership to Malaysia’s kleptocracy 1MDB scandal.

These events occurred after the chilling tone of the controversial Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods’ parliamentary debate on alternative academic views and public discourse in March went viral. The committee report published in September called for a substantive multi-prong approach to address the problem of fake news but simultaneously reinforced perceptions that the government is increasing interventions to control the online national narrative. These actions served to reinforce positions across the political spectrum. The opposition’s fortunes are dependent on ongoing efforts to forge cooperation among fragmented parties and personalities.

Domestic political developments overshadowed persistent concerns about the economy. Projected growth levels for the year are 3 per cent, but growth slowed as the effects of the fiscal stimulus implemented earlier in 2018 faded and monetary policy was tightened. Global conditions — namely the trade war between the United States and China and capital outflows from emerging markets — contributed to a more sombre outlook. Underscoring these broad conditions was a dependence on pump priming to maintain growth and resistance to moving away from a pro-immigration growth model. There were few initiatives towards meaningful economic reform.

With the blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians featuring the Singaporean super-wealthy in the backdrop, the year saw intense debate about inequality. Discussion was ignited by the January release of sociologist Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like and reignited in October after Oxfam ranked Singapore in the bottom percentile for failing to reduce inequality. From the minimum wage, the fairness of the tax structure to limited spending on social safety nets, Singapore has been painted as unwilling to redress the widening income gap and social disparities.

Despite trends pointing to a widening class divide, further reinforced by gender and ethnic cleavages, the PAP’s response has been largely defensive. But the new election-oriented Merdeka Generation package touted in August, geared to those retiring, points to a recognition of the growing need for health and social services.

Regional developments enhanced the PAP’s defensive stance. The victory of Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia took Singapore’s leadership by surprise and brought with it a deterioration of bilateral relations. Spats over territory suggest a return to the strain of earlier decades. The PAP’s response to Mahathir contrasts sharply with the warm relations that it enjoyed with Malaysia’s former government under Najib Razak, now a burden for the Singaporean government to deal with.

While Singapore scored a diplomatic success by hosting the US–North Korea summit, there was a reversal in expected ties with the United States. The Trump administration’s trade war seems to betray long-standing positions on economic cooperation and has placed Singapore in an uncomfortable position as the region’s strongest US ally.

Traditionally Singapore has thrived in uncertainty, finding strength in its proactive governance, long-harnessed diplomatic ties and impressive economic success. But this year the mix of flavours in the country’s rojak are not as balanced, with a sour note overpowering sweetness and spice.