Singapore is officially on the cusp of an election season following an announcement this week that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong initiated a review of the city-state’s electoral boundaries.
While Lee’s long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is widely expected to score another win, it may face its stiffest challenge to date as a new generation of PAP leaders square off against an energized opposition that draws on the support of the premier’s estranged brother.
Speculation has been rife that a snap poll could be called after Lee earlier hinted that elections, which legally must be held before April 2021, could be held as early as this year. The election is expected to be the premier’s last before stepping down to make way for the PAP’s so-called fourth generation (4G) leadership.
The panel tasked with evaluating the electoral map and making recommendations to reshape constituencies, known as the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC), will submit their report to the premier prior to its public release.
Previous elections have been held within six months or less of the report’s release. There is no fixed timeframe for the committee’s report, and previously it has taken between two and seven months to be issued. Parliament has traditionally been dissolved shortly thereafter.
“With the EBRC being formed, it is reasonable to suggest, when we take past elections as a guide, that the next election is likely to be within months, with an educated guess being the first quarter of next year 2020,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a political analyst at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Institute of South Asian Studies.
Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University (SMU), foresees the polls being held in the second quarter of 2020, or as early as late March, following Parliament’s expected passage of a generous annual budget.
“We can expect next year’s budget to be a very significant one, not least because the current government has accumulated relatively large current reserves since 2015” which it “can cleverly use to inspire trust and confidence in its leadership and policies at a time of economic uncertainty domestically and globally,” Tan said.
Singapore’s economy has been badly bruised by the US-China trade war, with recent data confirming its slowest growth rate in a decade. The city-state recently slashed its 2019 growth forecast, with economists expecting a meager 0.6% expansion this year amid fears of a looming recession.
Lee, 67, whose PAP has ruled the island republic since achieving independence in 1965, has said his government is ready to stimulate the economy to offset the trade war’s impact.
Tan said an estimated S$8 to $10 billion (US$5.7 to $7.2 billion) in reserve surpluses “place the ruling PAP on a comfortable perch in terms of making financial provisions for major policy announcements.”
“The larger point the PAP would want to convey is that in times of uncertainty, the PAP remains the sturdy rock that Singaporeans can count on. The financial largesse that is likely to be in next year’s budget will showcase the PAP’s strength in governance, fiscal prudence and discipline, and over-the-horizon planning,” he said.
“They will, however, have to be careful and make sure that any budget largesse does not come across as pork-barrel politics,” Tan added, who noted such offerings would go toward climate change adaptation, financial assistance for companies incentivizing elderly re-employment and inducements for marriage and parenthood.
While it is widely held that Singapore’s fragmented political opposition is unlikely to unseat the PAP, which has never seen its vote share drop below 60%, some believe the upcoming polls will be more competitive than previously with the entry of ex-PAP veteran parliamentarian and former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock, 79, to the opposition’s ranks.
With plans to contest under his newly-formed Progress Singapore Party (PSP), the charismatic septuagenarian has criticized the ruling party for perceived lapses in governance and for having “gone astray.” Lee Hsien Yang, the prime minister’s younger brother, has publicly backed Tan’s PSP in a closely watched pre-election twist.
“The most significant thing about [Tan’s] entry into opposition politics is that he is from the ruling party,” said veteran journalist and former editor PN Balji. “He’s trying to draw a line between the old PAP and new PAP, and differentiate himself [and] differentiate the PAP of Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP of Lee Hsien Loong, the son.”
The estate of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first premier and founding father, is at the heart of a bitter public quarrel between the premier and his siblings. The latter have accused their elder brother of abusing his executive power to preserve their parents’ residence at 38 Oxley Road, which their father wanted demolished after his death. The senior Lee died in 2015.
Law professor Tan said it is “hard to determine where the public stands” on the Lee family dispute. While unlikely to be an electoral game-changer, Tan said the premier’s standing has taken a hit among those “who take the view that the dispute over the Oxley house is more than a family feud and speaks to issues of good governance.”
Mustafa noted that the PSP “has engendered a political buzz among the domestic citizenry [and] it is being closely watched by the party in government.” The PAP, he added, “does not currently perceive the PSP as a political threat, but sees it as important enough to keep an eye on the growth of and support for this new party on the block.”
Singapore’s 4G leaders have publicly rebutted Tan, with Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat – who is expected to succeed Lee as the city-state’s next leader – saying in July that the PAP “fundamentally disagrees” with the PSP leader’s critiques of its rule and that the next polls will test which party has “better ideas and ability to deliver results.”
Tan has tempered expectations of an electoral upset, remarking in July that “a regime change in the next election” is unlikely. His focus, he said, is to build the PSP into a “credible alternative” to the ruling party by getting enough candidates voted into Parliament, thereby depriving the PAP of a two-thirds supermajority, a prerequisite for passing constitutional amendments.
Some view the next election as a referendum on the ruling party’s 4G leaders, who were recently promoted into more senior roles and are currently – in Heng’s words – forging “a renewed bond of trust with the electorate” as they take up more governance duties.
Singapore’s premier, says SIM Global Education associate lecturer Felix Tan, has “taken a back seat in most issues and allowed other PAP members to be more vocal in their articulation of government policies. Indeed, it would seem that PM Lee has left the day-to-day running of the government and policy-making to the 4G leaders.”
At a public dialogue event in June, Heng spoke of creating a participatory “democracy of deeds” and said the best way for the current and next generation of PAP leaders to earn the trust of Singaporeans will come through telling the truth “no matter how unpopular.”
The PAP’s election manifesto will likely be shaped by the 4G leaders’ ongoing consultations with the public, said SMU’s Tan, who described such exercises as “a means by which the PAP can engage Singaporeans on potentially hot-button issues.” The city-state’s 4G leaders, he said, “need to make a stronger impression on Singaporeans, and also earn and win their trust and confidence.”
Balji notes that 4G leaders have had “a very short understudy period under the present prime minister” compared to the PAP’s previous generational leadership transitions. Should Lee step down before turning 70 in 2022, Heng would have less than five years to prepare, the shortest run-up for a leader-in-waiting in the city-state’s political history.
While it is unclear if Lee will withdraw from politics completely after stepping down, he is expected to retain influence as a senior statesman. Indeed, some suspect he will assume the overarching “mentor minister” role his father created and served. That is, provided the longest-governing incumbent party in Southeast Asia retains power after the next polls.