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Singapore's rulers hope a nudge to the left will keep voters loyal

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (C) of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) greets residents during a visit to the opposition Worker's Party (WP) stronghold Aljunied GRC in Hougang in Singapore on September 5, 2015, ahead of Singapore's September 11 election. Campaigning for Singapore's September 11 election began on September 1, with a resurgent opposition seeking a greater political role as voters chafe at immigration and high living costs.
Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (C) of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) greets residents during a visit to the opposition Worker's Party (WP) stronghold Aljunied GRC in Hougang in Singapore on September 5, 2015, ahead of Singapore's September 11 election. Campaigning for Singapore's September 11 election began on September 1, with a resurgent opposition seeking a greater political role as voters chafe at immigration and high living costs.

At breakfast time one day last week, Singapore government minister K. Shanmugam dropped in to a bustling food court to greet voters, listen to their grumbles and urge them to back the People's Action Party (PAP) in this Friday's general election.

There was a burst of applause from a table of tea-drinking men, old ladies looked up smilingly from bowls of noodle soup, and one of the sharpest complaints he heard was from a resident about pigeons roosting outside her house.

A bedrock of support from communities like this guarantees that the PAP, which has ruled this city state since it won independence 50 years ago, will be returned to power this week.

But Shanmugam, who is law and foreign minister, says the PAP can no longer take popular loyalty for granted: the party's share of the vote dropped to 60.1 percent in the last election, in 2011, its lowest ever, and a swing of just a few thousand votes in some electoral districts this time could erode its overwhelming majority in the 89-seat parliament.

To prevent that, the party has tweaked its policy playbook in ways that will shift the direction of a country whose meteoric rise from tropical backwater to haven of wealth was based on a no-nonsense model of growth at all costs.

Under the iron-handed founding father of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew, the idea of Western-style welfarism was scorned and people were mostly expected to stand on their own feet.

Nudge to the left

But years of galloping growth led to yawning wealth gaps and to resentment over an open door for foreign workers, overcrowded trains and expensive housing, forcing the PAP to respond with a nudge to the political left.

"In the 80s, 90s to 2000s there was a lot of emphasis on the private sector," Shanmugam said in an interview with Reuters. "From '07 the rhetoric has shifted to a center-left position."

Eugene Tan, a political analyst and associate professor at Singapore Management University, says this new strategy will have to stay as the PAP manages a more competitive political landscape and a population now less patient with paternalism and one-party rule.

"The PAP will now have to deal with much stronger pressures for populist policies, such as higher taxes for a larger swathe of income-earners and nationalistic manpower policy as well as more social spending, which are very often the antithesis of the ruling party's core policies for the past 50 years," Tan said.

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Shanmugam rejects the idea that the PAP's 2011 wobble triggered a reset of social policies and says Singapore was one of the world's most welfarist countries way before then.

But this year, the government has raised taxes on top earners to pay for a hefty increase in healthcare spending and a better safety net for the aged and low-paid workers, and just before calling the election Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced plans to make state housing more affordable.

It has taken other steps since the last election that many see as rearguard action, such as cooling the property market - from which many have felt increasingly locked out - and stemming the tide of foreign workers.

Immigration dilemma

A nation of 5.5 million people with no natural resources, Singapore became a global hub for financial services and oil trading and a major electronics manufacturer thanks partly to a liberal immigration policy that provided plentiful cheap labor.

Now, the government faces a backlash over immigrants who are blamed for taking jobs, fuelling inflation and depressing wages, but is in a bind because it needs them to underpin growth as the population greys and the workforce shrinks.

Already it expects growth in coming years to be less than half the 8 percent average rate of Singapore's first 50 years, and a tight labor market could make even that a challenge.

Shanmugam accepts that making the argument for immigration is not going to be "an easy message" for voters.

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Immigration has been a hot topic among the overwhelmingly young people at raucous rallies of the opposition Workers Party which have been attended by tens of thousands.

The PAP is hoping that a sense of patriotism inspired by this year's golden jubilee and the death of Lee Kuan Yew in March will work in its favor on Friday. However, opinion polls are illegal and so no one is making confident predictions.

Garry Rodan, a professor of politics and international studies at Australia's Murdoch University, said the increased welfare and social redistribution since 2011 was necessary but had been too little for a major reversal of inequalities.

"Singaporeans can reward these initial steps or ramp up the pressure on the government through their votes," he said.