Written by Derek da Cunha.

Malaysia’s 13th General Election is being observed with a great deal of interest and fascination by its southern neighbour, Singapore. This is not least because the historical experience shared by both countries goes back to colonial days under the British and then later when Singapore was, for a short time, part of the Malaysian Federation.

The two countries were also to be part of the five original founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Today, of the five founding members, only Malaysia and Singapore share one thing in common politically. Both countries have had the same structure of power in place over the past half century even as, over that same period, that structure has changed dramatically in the other three founding ASEAN states, of Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

In Malaysia, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is at the apex of a sprawling Barisan Nasional coalition government. In Singapore, the People’s Action Party (PAP) rules the roost. Though publicly, UMNO and the PAP would never say so, implicitly, both appear comfortable in seeing the status quo maintained across the Causeway. Should the power structure change in one of these countries, the government in the country where that structure remains the same would feel somewhat lonely and defensive. Yet, the implications of a possible change in government in Malaysia arising out of the 5 May poll are not as clear-cut for Singapore as it might first appear.

A possible Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition government would clearly be keen in maintaining cordial relations with governments in all countries. But, as with any prudent government in its initial assumption of power, it would also likely review agreements made by the BN government with other countries, and this would include major economic agreements concluded with Singapore since Datuk Najib Razak became prime minister back in 2009. For Singapore, a review and possible revision to economic agreements with Malaysia might however be a minor matter as compared to any political effect or fallout arising from a change of government in Putrajaya.

Instinctively, the demonstration effect of dramatic political change in Malaysia might well spawn greater democratization in Singapore with an erosion of the PAP’s overwhelming dominance of power. However, that situation would only arise if a PR government proves itself to be competent and efficient, and succeeds in accelerating economic growth. If that happens, then a larger number of swing voters in Singapore might see the virtue of casting a vote against the PAP.

If, on the other hand, political instability were to ensue in Malaysia in the wake of the 5 May poll then the PAP’s stranglehold on power is unlikely to be loosened much. Here, two issues must be kept firmly in mind. One, unlike the electorate in Malaysia, the Singaporean electorate is by nature mostly politically conservative in nature and has an entrenched risk-averse mindset. Thus, it does not take much for many risk-averse Singaporeans to decide to stick to the familiar than to chance their arms with the unknown.

Two, the next general election must be held in Singapore no later than 2016, although I would contend that it is likely to be held in 2015 when Singapore celebrates its 50th National Day – that is, the day that Singapore left the Federation of Malaysia. So, between now and the next general election in Singapore, voters in the island-republic will have ample time to digest the lessons of Malaysia’s 2013 general election. For party political advantage, one can expect that those lessons would doubtless be spun in different directions by those across the partisan divide.

Dr Derek da Cunha is an Independent Scholar and author of Breakthrough: Roadmap for Singapore’s Political Future and Singapore Places its Bets.

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