How Diverse Have Singapore’s Politicians Been Over The Past 20 Years?

During this electoral season, many topics have become talking points among Singaporeans, diversity among political candidates being one of them. This is not new. Singapore’s political candidates are scrutinised during every election to see if they fit the bill and have what it takes to represent everyday Singaporeans when making key decisions at the highest level. At some point, factors such as age, gender, race, educational qualifications and the career background of these candidates are brought up during the campaigning period. 

This begs the question: how much choice do Singaporeans actually have when it comes to the voting at the ballot box? In other words, how diversified are Singapore’s political candidates during the national elections? 

Here, we look at the general elections held in Singapore over the past 20 years (those held in 2001, 2006, 2011, 2015, and 2020) to take stock of how diverse Singapore’s newly fielded political candidates truly are across the most prominent and long standing political parties. 

Average age of newly fielded political candidates (by party)

How old should our politicians be? That is a question that might solicit different responses based on who you ask. Some Singaporeans might argue that wisdom comes with age and life experiences. Others, probably younger Singaporeans, might see the benefits of having a constant renewal of ideas to keep up with the times.   

Over the past 20 years, there has been a general upward trend in the average age of newly fielded candidates by these parties. Yet, it should be noted that their average ages have mostly dipped this year, since the 2015 elections, with the exception of PAP, which spotted a very small increase in their average age. 

Among the various parties, People’s Action Party (PAP) seems to be the most consistent throughout the years in terms of fielding new political candidates of a particular age bracket – around the average age of 39 to 43 years old. The party’s new candidates this year average around 43 years of age.

Workers’ Party has fielded new political candidates at each general election who hover around the average age of 35 to 40 years old. This year, their new candidates have an average age of 39. 

Meanwhile, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) have both introduced new candidates with a relatively larger jump in terms of their average age at each election. For SDP, the average age of their new candidates was the lowest in 2001, at around 39 years, and the highest in 2011, at around 48 years. In 2020, their new candidates average around 45 years of age. SDA on the other hand demonstrates a bigger jump, with the lowest average age of 40 in 2006 and the highest average age of 51 in 2015. This year, their newly fielded candidates also have the average age of 45 years. 

Tan Cheng Bock’s Progress Singapore Party (PSP), one of the newest political parties on the scene, fielded candidates for this year’s general elections with the highest average age of 52.5 years. This is despite the fact that they have fielded the youngest candidate in this year’s election – Choo Shaun Ming at 23 years of age. This is in contrast to the more seasoned Workers’ Party that was formed in 1957, which introduced candidates with the lowest average age of 39 years.

Key takeaway: While the buzz around younger politicians like Shaun Ming and Raeesah Khan might have you thinking otherwise, politics in Singapore is generally still dominated by 40 to 50 year olds. 

Percentage of females among newly fielded political candidates (by party)

Having women in politics certainly leads to positive spillover effects. Championing issues facing women is imperative, and women in positions of power can do that. Just earlier this year, President Halimah Yacob herself called out the misogynistic behaviour of several podcast hosts, which created greater awareness of the issue at hand. This is probably why the representation of women in Singaporean politics has seen a general upward trend. 

The PAP, Workers’ Party, and SDP on the other hand, have all shown a general increase in the percentage of females fielded among their new candidates. 

In this year’s general elections, the PAP saw a spike in its female representation among their new candidates. The percentage stands at an all time high of 37%, much higher than its 24% in 2015. In fact, the PAP shows the highest proportion of female candidates as compared to the other parties this coming general election. 

Similarly, the Workers’ Party has also experienced a rise in the percentage of females that it has introduced among their newly fielded candidates. This year, that percentage stands at 25% – lower than that of the PAP – up from 12.5% in the previous election. 

While SDP demonstrated a 50% figure of female representation among its new candidates in 2006, this must be understood in relation to the number of candidates that it introduced. In that year, they had only fielded two new candidates on their team. In this year’s election, SDP’s new female candidates make up 33% of its new additions, a drop from 43% in the 2015 general election. 

Meanwhile, new political party PSP unveiled a slate of new candidates this year, where females comprised 18.2% of its contesting team. 

Coming in last, SDA has consistently fielded only new male candidates at each election in the past 20 years. Till this year, they have yet to introduce any female candidate on their team. 

Key takeaway: The representation of women has seen a general upward trend amongst most parties.

Diversity in race among among newly fielded political candidates (by party)

In a multi-racial society such as Singapore, maintaining good race relations among the racial groups is extremely important to ensuring social stability and cohesiveness. When it comes to politics, this translates into having adequate racial representation for each racial group. This is  so that the interests of each racial group are properly represented and advanced at the highest level, that is in Parliament. The Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system in Singapore serves an additional safeguard to entrench a level of racial diversity among competing teams of political candidates. 

It comes as no surprise that the majority of new candidates in each political party comprises the Chinese, given that the ethnic Chinese make up around 74% of Singapore’s total population

What is interesting to note in this year’s general elections is that the PAP, Workers’ Party, and SDP all did not field any new Indian candidates. According to PAP’s candidate Mr K. Shanmugam, who also happens to be Singapore’s Minister of Law, there are currently nine Indian Members of Parliament (MPs), none of whom will be stepping down during this election. He went on to share that Indians as a racial group are well represented in Parliament as they currently make up around 10% of the seats in Parliament. This is higher than their composition in Singapore, which comes up to about 7.5%, he added. However, the Minister acknowledged the need for younger Indian MPs in the coming future, especially when some of the incumbent Indian MPs retire from politics.

While PAP and the Workers’ Party have both introduced new Chinese and Malay candidates for this year’s electoral race, SDP’s latest additions are all of Chinese ethnicity. Meanwhile, SDA has fielded new candidates that belong to the Chinese, Malay, and Indian racial group. Among these political parties, PSP’s candidates are the most racially diverse among the lot as they come from all four major race groups, with one candidate coming from a Eurasian background.

This general election, 77.8% of PAP’s new candidates are ethnic Chinese, whie 22.2% of them are ethnic Malays. For the Workers’ Party, it is an even split of 50% new ethnic Chinese and 50% new ethnic Malay candidates. As previously mentioned, 100% of SDP’s newly introduced candidates are ethnic Chinese. Meanwhile, 50% of SDA’s newly fielded candidates are ethnic Chinese while 25% of them comprise of ethnic Malays and another 25% of them are ethnic Indians. For the PSP, 59.1% of its candidates are ethnic Chinese, 13.6% are ethnic Malay, 22.7% of them are ethnic Indians, and 4.5% of its candidates fall into the “Others” category. 

Key takeaway: There is no discernable upward or downward trend with regards to racial representation in politics, which probably means that the GRC system is doing part of its job well. 

Diversity in educational background among newly fielded political candidates (by party)

In Singapore, what does it mean when your parents ask you to study hard? The intuitive answer would be that it is very important for you to get into a reputable educational institution so as to establish yourself as the cream of the crop and to ‘meet the right people’. This is even more so as our Asian Values still hold education in high regard and despite the criticism, some of us may still continue to judge a person’s worth on the paper qualification he or she has. In this country, we don’t just want any leader — we want the best and the brightest of them all.

Following this logic, it is thus not surprising that the PAP has had the highest total number of ‘Oxbridge’ graduates throughout the 20 years. Undeniably, they are a political party which prides themselves on their reputation of stable and pragmatic governance. In fact, what raises eyebrows here is that there seems to be a declining trend in ‘Oxbridge’ graduates in favour of an increasing number of graduates from the Ivy League (and its equivalents). Particularly, there were three Harvard graduates making their maiden debut this year, namely Don Wee Boon Hong, Alvin Tan Sheng Hui and Mariam Jafaar. 

We have also debunked the myth that ‘all PAP politicians must come from top universities in the US or the UK’. The intake of NUS graduates has generally made up one-third of new fielded candidates by the PAP every year. Notably, the party also appears to be diversifying its recruitment to NTU and SMU in recent years. In fact, it seems to be making the effort to field candidates from different and unique educational backgrounds, such as Chan Hui Yuh, who has a Licentiate in Speech & Drama with Guildhall School of Music & Drama (London) and has been voicing professionally since 1995.

For the Workers’ Party, they have fielded a significantly less number of candidates this year compared to 2015. Nonetheless, longtime political watcher NUS Professor Bilveer Singh comments that WP may have broken PAP’s monopoly on attracting the best and the brightest talents. In 2015, it fielded Oxford graduates Bernard Chen and Leon Perera (who earned an astonishing Double First Class Honours). It also seems to be picking up speed in recruiting more graduates from top US and UK universities, one of which is the debate-famous Jamus Lim from Harvard. It also seems to be making an effort to be inclusive of unconventional educational pathways as it fielded 4 SMU graduates this year and had recruited two Polytechnic graduates before (Kenneth Foo from Temasek Polytechnic and Mohamed Fazli Talip from Nanyang Polytechnic). 

Tan Cheng Bock’s Progress Singapore Party has recruited candidates like Damien Tay, who holds a Masters in Finance from the University from Cambridge and Michael Chua who graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The party sports a significant number of NUS graduates and candidates from the University of London (UOL), with the majority of them in a course related to Business and/or Finance. Notably, it fielded 23-year-old Choo Shaun Ming, a Law undergraduate studying at NUS.

At first glance, the track record of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) headed by Chee Soon Juan can appear to be quite confusing. The party appeared to be cracking from within after Chee was jailed for not paying a fine for contempt of court in 2006, and the then-chairman of the SDP Ling How Doong even commented that the party “would be run better” without Chee. 

Yet in the next election year of 2011, they bounced back with a new election strategy, ‘the SDP Promise’ and fielded 9 new candidates. This high number could be that the SDP saw a strategic opportunity to capitalise on the growing discontent of the public from the apparent issue of foreign workers taking away Singaporean jobs from locals. 

It seems to be on a decline since then, which may be attributed to the emergence of a stronger WP and the new PSP. Notably, its pool of fielded candidates comprise of NUS graduates, diploma and professional certificate holders. Its sole graduate from Oxford was Tan Jee Say, who was then-Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s principal private secretary from 1985 to 1990. He recently dissolved SingFirst and has rejoined the SDP to contest for the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC this year.

Key takeaway: As much as we might not like it, the political parties seem to be paying careful attention to paper qualifications. 

Diversity of career backgrounds among newly fielded political candidates (by party)

In any government or Parliament, it is important to have a spectrum of people from different career backgrounds. This is because each individual would then be able to contribute their expertise, and in doing so would help to provide a clearer and bigger picture which makes for better policy making.

That being said, there are some clear career backgrounds favoured in Parliament, and amongst the different parties. We give you an insight into how the demographic of the fielded candidates have changed over the years, and how this may hint at our country moving in a certain direction.

Over the last 20 years, 50% of every new candidate pool of the PAP has consistently been made up of lawyers and civil servants, both of which are still following an upwards trend. Also mentionable is that there has been a consistent number of candidates recruited from the National Trades Unions Congress (NTUC), in fact in 2011 the PAP had fielded four people who held high-profile jobs in this organisation (Alex Yam, Ang Hin Kee, Desmond Choo and Ong Ye Kung). 

Notably, the trend of fielded candidates with primary military backgrounds has remained at a constant low despite much speculation. 

Since 2001, the Workers’ Party has had a healthy recruitment of candidates from all the career backgrounds identified. By observation, the number of candidates with business backgrounds fielded by the WP rivals the PAP and a significant percentage of which are entrepreneurs. With both the incumbent and the strongest opposition parties fielding candidates of such nature, it clearly confirms that both affirm Singapore’s economic direction towards the nurturing of its SMEs as a driver of growth. 

An interesting trend is that the WP seems to be making the effort to include more academics and lawyers in their team. The newest version of their manifesto has been hailed by netizens as “the most comprehensive” this year, which points towards the recruitment of such talents to be beneficial to the quality of their policymaking and further boosts their popularity.

Unlike the PAP, the WP seems to struggle with finding and fielding candidates with a primarily military background. It, however, has fielded a notable SAF scholar, Pritam Singh. 

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) seems to have met a roadblock this election. The total number of candidates fielded by this party has significantly decreased to only three this year, most likely due to the emergence of the PSP and a stronger Workers’ Party. There appeared to be an upward trend of academics and lawyers joining the SDP, but this has faltered in 2020. Like the rest of the parties, the SDP has a substantial number of politicians from a business background. 

These three political parties, namely the Progress Singapore party, the Red Dot United Party and the People’s Voice parties are making their maiden debut in the General Elections. 

The Progress Singapore Party (PSP), headed by Tan Cheng Bock and further made famous by Lee Hsien Yang’s support, fielded a strong team of 22 people this General Election. What is most interesting is that it has managed to field four candidates with a primarily military background, which is a feat that any opposition party has yet to achieve. It also fielded a student, which begs the question of whether the party will be looking forward to recruiting more young candidates in the future. A lesser known fact: Hazel Poa, the Assistant Treasurer of the party, attended Cambridge University on a PSC scholarship and completed a degree in Mathematics with first class honours.

The Red Dot United (RDU) is headed by ex-PSP vice-chairman Michelle Lee and took on the ‘mission impossible’ of unseating Tharman. She is a graduate from the London School of Economics (LSE) and has recruited an all-rounded team: a business consultant, the ex-chief editor of the Online Citizen and Independent Singapore (Ravi Philemon), an ex-Markets and Investments specialist at MAS and a theatre/ film director. Their manifesto is quite comprehensive, which is very promising for a party competing in the General Elections for the first time. 

The People’s Voice was created by lawyer Lim Tean, who is now infamous for being apparently banned from the live debate hosted on CNA which allowed for the competition of ideas between the PAP and the opposition parties. Notably, about a third of his team are educators and one is an activist running transitioning.org, an NGO (Gilbert Goh).

Key takeaway: If you see a Singaporean politician on the street, more likely than not, they probably have a background in business and entrepreneurship. 

In a country that prides itself on the melting pot of cultures, Singapore certainly has no lack of diversity among its people. More often than not, the notion of diversity tends to be associated with the idea of race, that is, racial diversity. However, there is so much more to soak in than just race alone. Diversity in age, education, and career choice for instance, are also significant to society in their own ways. Parliamentary representation will have to (and has been to a great extent) continue being a reflection of this.


Authors

Nelle Ng and Sheryl Yang

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In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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