싱가포르, 리콴유의 그림자는 여전하다

<사진=신화사/뉴시스>

* ‘아시아엔’ 해외필진 기고문의 한글요약본과 원문을 함께 게재합니다.

[아시아엔=아이반 림 아시아기자협회(AJA) 회장, 전 싱가포르스트레이트 타임즈 선임기자·번역 김아람 기자] 지난 9월12일 열린 싱가포르 조기총선에서 집권 여당 인민행동당(PAP)과 제1야당 노동당(WP) 간 치열한 접전이 예상됐다. 그러나 인민행동당이 69.9%를 득표해 의석은 전체 89석 가운데 83석을 차지하며 압승을 거뒀다. 인민행동당은 역대 최저 득표율 60.1%를 기록한 지난 2011년 총선에 비해 약 10%포인트 가량 상승하며 건재를 과시했다.

총선에서 패한 노동당도 낙심할 필요는 없다. 지난 2011년 총선 이후 노동당은 한 계단씩 성장해오고 있다. 당시 노동당은 6석을 얻었고, 2013년 보선에서 1석을 추가로 얻으며 약진했다. 올해 총선에서는 최초로 29개 모든 선거구에 입후보하기도 했다. 노동당의 지지율이 꾸준히 올라가고 있는 추세는 ‘개혁’을 꿈꾸는 싱가포르 국민들이 늘어나고 있다는 것을 반증한다. 싱가포르의 2014년 2분기 경제성장률은 사상 최저인 1.8%를 기록했다. 때문에 싱가포르 국민들이 여당을 견제하는 야권 세력이 더 많은 의석을 확보하길 바라는 것도 사실이다. 하지만 리콴유 전 총리가 속해있던 인민행동당이 그간 싱가포르의 눈부신 경제발전에 지대한 공헌을 해왔다는 사실은 부정할 수 없다.

지난 3월 사망한 리콴유 전 총리는 35년간의 장기집권 동안 국민들의 바람, 그 이상의 싱가포르를 이룩해냈다. 리콴유는 집권기 동안 부정부패 없는 ‘청렴한 싱가포르’를 확립한 것으로도 유명하다. 그는 장관을 포함한 모든 공무원을 선발하는데 있어 엄격한 기준을 적용했다. 또한 국가와 국민을 우선시하는 실용적인 정책을 앞세워 모든 국민이 평등한 교육과 일자리를 보장받을 수 있도록 힘썼다.

이렇듯 조국의 번영을 위해 일생을 바친 리콴유의 마지막 날, 전국민과 언론은 그를 애도했고 싱가포르 전역엔 그의 추모 물결이 일었다. 여기서 한가지 질문이 떠오른다. ‘과연 싱가포르가 리콴유 없이 제대로 돌아갈 수 있을까?’ 그럼에도 불구하고, 싱가포르 국민 대다수는 리콴유 전 총리가 속해있던 인민행동당을 여전히 지지하고 있다.

일부 평론가들은 이번 조기총선에서 인민행동당의 압승이 리콴유 전 총리 별세 6개월 후에 치러졌다는 점에서, ‘리콴유의 유산’이 그리 큰 영향을 미치지 않았다는 분석을 내놓았다. 그러나 리센룽 총리는 부친의 위상에 힘입어 싱가포르 노년층과 저소득층 사이에서 큰 인기를 얻고 있다. ‘인민행동당의 상징’으로 대변되는 리콴유의 유산이 여전히 싱가포르 국민 가슴 속 깊이 남아있는 것이다. 이는 리센룽 총리로 하여금 지지세력을 결집시키고, 경쟁자를 물리쳐 집권 토대를 마련하는데 주요한 역할을 할 것이다.

Lee Kuan Yew’s party reigns supreme in Singapore election

The heavens were gloomy on Sept 12, a day after Singaporeans voted in a new yet old government in a keenly-contested but unexpectedly one-sided general election. Not that the blurry skies were seen as carrying any message. They were only signaling the arrival of the dreaded haze — smoke with debris from forest and peat fires in nearby Indonesia that south-west monsoon winds fanned in the direction of the city-state.

Posing threats to health and livelihood, the foul air raised political temperatures in the two ASEAN nations as they switched into crisis mode to tackle the perennial blight. Its reappearance at a time when the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) and its blue-suited supporters were tweeting “clear blue skies” disconcerted them as they thought they were poised to make inroads into the firmly held enclaves of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

The optimistic tweets followed massive crowds at WP’s election rallies that its followers concluded would bring in winning votes.

The shine went instead to the PAP headed by Lee Hsien Loong, son of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew. The party surprised many with a bigger vote share of 69.9 per cent, up from 60.1 per cent in 2011, despite drawing smaller crowds at its rallies during the nine-day election campaign. It clinched 83 of the 89 seats at stake.

WP supporters should have known better before sending out the tweets – the singular feature of Singapore elections: high attendance at pre-poll rallies does not necessarily translate into votes on polling day.

It must, however, be said that the WP’s optimism could have come from the 2011 election when the party had attracted bigger rally crowds and gone on to snatch a four-member group electoral constituency from the PAP plus one single-seat victory.

In this election, a surge of new-citizen votes enabled the PAP to wrest back the single-member constituency in Punggol East New Town won by WP in a by-election two years ago.
This time round, a similar trend of incipient support for the underdog WP and even the SDP had backfired in an unexpected way: Fear of a freak election outcome had led to a shift in support back to the PAP.

Many pro-Establishment voters had raised eye-brows seeing young professionals warming up this time to the much-criticized Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Chee Soon Juan. They not only cheered his speeches but also bought his books and queued to get his autograph. The SDP espouses a liberal political platform that appeals to Western-educated young Singaporeans. “No harm giving Dr. Chee a chance,” said a bank executive, queuing to take a picture with the opposition leader.

Yes, voters were eager to see the WP and other opposition parties gain more seats to keep the government on its toes. But they did not want to vote out the PAP because of its widely acknowledged sterling track record. A common sentiment of the average voter, as expressed by an elderly housewife who voted for the ruling party, goes as follows:

“What could the opposition do? They have no experience in running the country.”

In this respect, the impact of the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew comes to the fore.

Under 35 years of his authoritarian rule, he had succeeded beyond expectations to make Singapore a first-world nation.

The secret of his success could be traced, for one, to the PAP’s pragmatic approach to government, doing what works best for the country and people. Then again, the party’s democratic socialist agenda has given citizens fair and equal opportunities in education and employment to make good in life.

Next, a public service based on meritocracy ensures a continuing crop of capable and honest political leaders to run the country.

Lee is credited with crafting a template for good and non-corrupt government, complete with rigorous method of picking, testing and grooming Cabinet ministers and civil servants.

In 1990, Lee approved a formula to peg the top office-holders’ remuneration to the six highest paid men in banking, manufacturing, multi-national corporations, engineering, accountancy, and law. The six-figure pay is an incentive to attract talent into government but also acts as an antidote against greed and graft.

An added deterrence is seen in Lee’s placing the Corrupt Practice Investigation Bureau (CPIB) under the Prime Minister’s Office.

A bag of tricks or a set of instruction manuals for good government was how China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping once put it. As part of his reforms to open up new economic zones, Deng had visited Singapore to see for himself what made the republic tick.

For Singaporeans, Lee’s way of governing is well-received for bringing them the good life.

Considering that the election took place six months after Lee’s passing, some pundits tended to downplay the so-called Lee factor in the PAP’s resurgent victory.

Indeed, a post-election survey by the Institute of Policy Studies also found that Lee’s legacy ranked lower than other citizens‘ concerns like cost of living, housing, healthcare, jobs and retirement funds.

Ironically, when the aging Lee intervened in the 2011 election to warn voters in the Aljunied Group Representation Constituency that they would live to regret their decision to vote for the Workers’ Party, and should repent, his comments were not well taken and he was regarded as being out of touch with the times.

Yet, following his passing the people reacted favorably to the consummate politician as his career and speeches were replayed over the news media.

And no wonder. For the people were looking at him as a charismatic leaders in his prime, standing up to Indonesia with the execution of saboteurs it sent to bomb Singapore during President Sukarno’s Konfrontasi policy against the formation of Malaysia. Then when Singapore was part of Malaysia, Lee campaigned vigorously for a Malaysian Malaysia in which all ethnic groups would enjoy equal rights and privileges.

Alas, Lee’s valiant efforts was seen as a threat to Malay predominance in Malaysia.

Singapore was ejected from the federation in 1965, gained its independence but without a hinterland. This put the Republic in a perilous and precarious position. But declaring the world does not owe Singapore a living, Lee and his capable team of PAP leaders prevailed against the odds.

With the population behind them, the nation not only survived but thrived phenomenally. The bond and trust forged in adversity saw Singaporeans returning the PAP to power ever since.
However, some would like to downplay the impact of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy on the electoral outcome.

Rather, they attribute the PAP’s late resurgence to effective measures taken to address the concerns and unhappiness of both young and old citizens.

A S$8 billion Pioneer Generation Package of subsidies plus a Silver Support Scheme of annual bonus have placated elderly Singaporeans’ worries about high cost of medical care. A MediShield life insurance scheme taking effect in November will cover citizens of all age groups, even those with pre-existing illnesses.

On foreign professionals competing for jobs, the government mandated fair employment code that gives Singaporeans a first shot at jobs.

As for frequent breakdown in mass rapid transit train services, the authorities stepped up maintenance regime and improved services, including ordering more trains and putting new buses on the road.

But PAP leaders knew better.

The outpouring of grief and sense of loss at the passing of Lee Kuan Yew was coupled by questions about the future well-being of Singapore. Would the country do well without him? Would regard for the Republic be diminished without the elder statement reputation?

At the same time, a retrospective yearning for Lee Kuan Yew’s sure-touch in dealing with problems seemed to prevail.

Such was the sentiments that people felt that if elections were held, the party he built brick by brick would win hands down.

By law, general elections must be held by 2016. However, the PAP rulers were wise to the prevalent good vibes and chose to call fresh elections early — on Sept 11, six months after the demise of Lee Kuan Yew – lest memories wear thin.

Some analysts also point out the date 9/11 called to mind the Al Qaeda crashing American airliners on the Twin Towers in New York and evoked concerns about new terrorist threats posed by Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS). Singapore is a target owing to the Republic’s joining in the United States-led campaign to defeat ISIS.

Surely, a hint to voters that Singapore would be in PAP’s safe and steady hands.

Interestingly, some Singaporeans noted that the date in the Chinese calendar was the final day of the Ghost Month in Singapore when souls of the departed are due to return to Hades. The relevance of this popular belief is linked to Lee Kuan Yew’s cryptic deathbed comments that:

“…even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I’ll get up!”

Lee’s spirit lives on
On top of bringing the general election forward, Lee Hsien Loong also capitalized on his father’s legacy and popularity with older generation and lower-come Singaporeans.

At a key rally in downtown financial district of Raffles Place wrapping up the PAP’s election campaign, he appealed to Singaporeans to “chase the rainbow, go for it”, building on Lee Kuan Yew’s edifice, especially its reputation for clean and honest administration. “Mr. Lee is gone, but his spirit must continue,” Reminded the PAP leader.

For greater impact, he reprised his father’s political testament at the historical Fullerton rally in 1984:

“Whoever governs Singapore must have iron in him or give up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine. I spent my whole life building this and as long as I am in charge, nobody is breaking it down.”

He also spoke about the elder statesman’s 90th birthday wish during a celebration in Parliament in 2013:

“Remember, Keep Singapore Clean”

The impact of Lee’s legacy in swaying voters during this watershed election may be likened to the legendary Chinese prime minister Zhuge Liang a.k.a Kong Ming in the Chinese historical novel Romance of Three Kingdom.
The great strategist that he is, the dying general resorted to the ruse of placing a life-size cardboard image of himself on a chariot. Upon his death, his troops rolled out the chariot into the battlefield. That was good enough to scare off the enemy.
Lee’s reputation lives on and could be counted upon by the reigning PAP with its lightning party symbol to not only charm voters but also strike fear and doom in its challengers.

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