Thailand and Singapore – crises and…opportunities in 2015

Some interesting news and insights from two Southeast Asian countries.

Exclusive: Who's Really Behind Thailand’s Erawan Shrine Bomb Blast?

Experts investigate the Erawan shrine at the site of a deadly blast in central Bangkok, Thailand, August 18, 2015. Image Credit: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

First, in Thailand, Shawn Crispin writes in The Diplomat exploring the possible deeper background, the players, and ultimately the causes of the Bangkok Erawan Shrine bombings, in ‘Who’s Really Behind Thailand’s Erawan Shrine Bomb Blast?

A security adviser with access to Thai intelligence reports says agents outside of the police are pursuing leads that indicate extensive Thai involvement in what appears on the surface to be a foreign-executed attack. Local intelligence cited by the adviser indicates that the plot was planned for over one year, before the Uyghur deportations but likely after the military’s May 2014 takeover. The adviser says the apparent Thai actors have concealed their identities in various ingenious ways, including the use of Internet-based communication applications that are knowingly difficult, if not impossible, for local intelligence agencies to track and detect.

Then, in Singapore, two different views of the Singaporean General (parliamentary) Elections with similar broad conclusions: see “No easy win for Singapore’s PAP” in The Diplomat again, and “In staid Singapore, a national election that could change its course” from the South China Morning Post.

No Easy Win for Singapore’s PAP

Image Credit: REUTERS/Edgar Su

“Bring the [ruling party’s lightning sigil] home”, states one placard above…because, you know, it was like a spy out in the cold, or stuck fighting senseless wars in a foreign land, or lost like sheep wandering a desert for 40 years…oh sorry, those are real issues.

Both articles conclude that the ruling PAP will form the next government.

Let’s then look at some of the main none-too-subtle differences, either by omission or commission/contradiction, and my token critique particularly of the SCMP article, in brackets.

The Diplomat:

  • The ruling PAP may be counting on sympathy votes based on the demise of Singapore’s founding father (of the country as an independent state).
  • Almost every constituency is contested compared with previous elections (including a handful of three-cornered fights). [this blogger’s note: actually, every seat is being contested] Previously, most elections were contested based on less than half the seats, because the Opposition/alternative parties thought that more people would vote for them, if voters were content to know that the PAP would still come back into power. It’s implied that even those who would vote Opposition aren’t comfortable with “regime change”.
  • Large-scale immigration is a huge issue with the electorate, especially since “Many do not buy the government’s explanation that a small population, with a rapidly aging population, is not economically sustainable. Ordinary Singaporeans are more concerned about the pressures on public space, transport, health and education an influx of foreigners would create.” It did not help that the public behaviour of some foreigners do not endear themselves to locals.
  • After a riot by migrant workers last year, there is doubt about the PAP’s ability to enforce law and order. Arising from this, there is now a strict alcohol-control law.
  • The use of social media by PAP officials/ministers have been less than stellar. In addition, the use of social media to crowdfund a blogger’s costs for a defamation lawsuit that the prime minister has brought against him, and “Stories such as these suggest that the PAP’s online media strategy is not working and Singaporeans are increasingly willing to believe negative reports about the PAP.”
  • Many in the younger generation(s) of Singaporeans are “anxious about their futures” and based on a number of issues, are no longer confident that “the old steady-as-she-goes PAP model” works for them anymore. One concrete example was a 2013 single-seat by-election won by the Workers’ Party in an area that consisted heavily of young professionals and their families.

The SCMP:

  • In spite of not having any financial crises, intra-elite political unrest (or civil unrest of any discernible kind), the F1 Grand Prix would be more exciting, there is “still enough unpredictability in the polls to keep the bookies busy.” Yet the stakes appear to be high enough for the PAP to make the effort to “pound the pavements with a vengeance.”
  • The writer points out that even if the Opposition gets three times as many parliamentary seats, they will make up less than a quarter of them. [There is no mention of the mechanism of WHY and HOW the ruling party has some inadvertent aid and advantages. Hint: it’s called the GRC – Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs)! — a vote for one candidate in a GRC is a vote for all. More about this below..]

  • No one in the Opposition yet desires a strong rejection of the PAP by voters. There is also the idea that perception of “losses and gains” is important, not merely “stark numbers”.

  • The PAP victory in the 2011 elections, though a landslide by international standards, was its lowest share since independence. This included the loss of one GRC (to the Workers’ Party) and three ministers. in spite of (the usual practice of) grouping rookies with heavyweight candidates.

    [1. Well, three new (PAP) ministers were chosen from the new (PAP) Cabinet after the 2011 elections. Problem solved!
    2. The term “multi-seat” was used interchangeably with GRC, which is correct. However this is really an euphemism that masks the problematic issues surrounding it. For example, a voter may like only a specific PAP candidate within a “multi-seat” team, but has to vote the entire team in because…the answer is obvious.
    3. A GRC also thus helps to get inexperienced and new candidates into parliament; new candidates are not a bad thing by itself at all, but issues arise when all they manage to do is get into parliament via the GRC/hanging-onto-the-coattails-of-heavyweights system.]     

  • The “official campaign period” of nine days is short, and makes it difficult both for the Opposition “to get its message across” and the PAP less time to react to social media and Opposition attacks.
    [Okay. Let’s see…between them, the PAP government and local mainstream media outlets (which, though ‘privatised’, are not ‘independent’ in any meaningful sense) control and influence the structure, practice, and framing of media channels and mechanisms to reaching out to the public, including social and online media in Singapore. End of story. Is that clear enough?]

People attending a rally by the opposition Worker’s Party this week. Photo: EPA

So —

The Diplomat‘s writer ended by saying that the Opposition will make major gains in spite of the inevitable PAP victory. Specifically, another area will be lost to the PAP in addition to the ones already lost, and that the ruling party will get less than their previous 60 per cent of the vote.

All in all, a modest projection.

The SCMP writer has an even more modest projection, to the point of vagueness. At the very end, she writes about how the results of these elections could signal or even cause a “fundamental” shift in Singaporean politics from here on.

This is after she asserts that the basic arguments of and also any common goal (i.e. “good governance”) of the PAP and Opposition/alternative parties would remain the same: “Either route will keep the PAP government in power for five more years, but the country’s politics could be fundamentally altered by how Singaporeans choose at this fork in the road.”

Taking more specific references to the main body of her piece, what so-called fundamental changes could she be alluding to?

Apparently this seems to elude her too.

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