Humble Views from Across the Causeway: Singapore’s Political Transition and the March Towards Democracy – KSInsights Apr 2024

Published on 07 May 2024

From the vantage point of a Malaysian observer, the political landscape of our neighbour Singapore offers both a study in contrasts and a mirror to our own political experiences. Last month’s announcement by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, detailing his plan to pass the leadership baton to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on 15th May 15 2024, serves as a point of reflection.

Singapore’s political succession is reminiscent of a well-orchestrated corporate handover rather than the tumult typically associated with democratic transitions. Since achieving independence, the seamless transition of power within the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP)—from Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong, and then to Lee Hsien Loong—has been a hallmark of Singaporean governance. This system was starkly highlighted in April 2021 when the previously anointed successor, Heng Swee Keat, withdrew from the race, citing the heavy demands of leading in a post-pandemic era.

The PAP’s uninterrupted rule over six decades is unparalleled among modern multiparty parliamentary democracies and has provided Singapore with both political stability and policy certainty. Many Singaporeans endorse this model, valuing the governance that has transformed their country into a global hub. However, this controlled transition process suggests a limited democratic engagement, which could be perceived as Singapore’s significant vulnerability.

The most recent transition highlights an elite bargaining rather than a participatory democratic process. At the end of 2021, a consultative procedure led by retired minister Khaw Boon Wan involved 19 key stakeholders within the government and affiliated organisations, culminating in the selection of Lawrence Wong by a majority. This approach, while efficient and possibly suited to Singapore’s unique needs, poses questions about the breadth of democratic involvement.

Particularly among younger Singaporeans, there is a burgeoning demand for greater political representation, as evidenced during the 2020 general elections. These voices are not seeking drastic changes in governance but are instead advocating for a more robust opposition to ensure a balanced democratic process.

Winston Churchill’s words resonate deeply when considering Singapore’s context: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” While Singapore has prospered under its current political model, enhancing democratic engagement could further legitimise and strengthen its governance framework.

As Lawrence Wong steps forward to assume leadership, he faces the dual challenge of maintaining Singapore’s economic dynamism and evolving its political framework to reflect a more participatory democratic ethos. Observing from Malaysia, it becomes apparent that while our political paths diverge, the underlying currents of people’s aspirations for more inclusive governance are strikingly similar. The unfolding political narrative in Singapore may well set a precedent for both nations, underscoring the universal quest for a balance between stability and democratic vibrancy.


07 May 2024