Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong helps a Singaporean adjust his surgical mask in a pre-pandemic file photo. Photo: Facebook

SINGAPORE – With classes in session and reopened workplaces abuzz, Singaporeans are easing into life after lockdown. Despite a continued rise in Covid-19 cases, the city-state began a guarded reopening this week following nearly two months of “circuit breaker” restrictions that brought its economy to a standstill.

With rising pressure to protect both lives and livelihoods, authorities hope to institute a “new normal” where businesses, social gatherings and religious services eventually resume with heightened safeguards in place to prevent a third wave of community spread.

The island-nation of 5.7 million has one of the highest infection rates in Asia, due mainly to outbreaks in its densely populated foreign worker dormitories. The still fluid situation is such that the government hasn’t fixed a firm timeline for its phased reopening.

Holding an election against such a backdrop, some critics say, would be socially reckless if not politically opportunistic.

But speculation is rife that Singapore will hold snap polls as early as next month. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat confirmed as much in a television interview in late March when he said elections were “coming nearer by the day” and that public health considerations “will be a foremost consideration.”

“It means that even the way in which elections are to be conducted will be different from before,” said the 58-year-old heir apparent to the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) leadership.

“The sooner we get it done, the earlier we can rally everybody together to deal with these very significant challenges ahead, and also to deal with these very significant uncertainties in the months and years ahead,” he said.

Singapore Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat delivers a keynote address at the 8th World Bank-Singapore infrastructure Finance Summit in Singapore on April 5, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman
Singapore Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat delivers a keynote address at the 8th World Bank-Singapore infrastructure Finance Summit in Singapore, April 5, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

PAP leaders have in recent months made the case for holding polls sooner rather than later, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arguing that a renewed mandate would allow the government to deal head-on with economic challenges and Covid 19’s threat to public health. Elections must legally be held by April 2021.

“Government-controlled media have to varying degrees echoed a longstanding depiction by the PAP of Singapore as a city-state vulnerable to crisis, that only the ruling party can effectively respond to,” said Garry Rodan, an honorary professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Political Science and International Studies.

“Prime Minister Lee’s declaration that this response can best be ensured through a fresh electoral mandate had thus not been subjected to any sustained scrutiny.”

Election preparations were apparent earlier in the year as Singapore earned early plaudits for its “gold standard” handling of the Covid-19 outbreak. But when thousands of migrant workers began falling ill in mid-April, election talk was put aside as the growing caseload put the government’s response under scrutiny.

Analysts say the city-state’s disparate band of opposition parties can be expected to hone in on authorities’ handling of the outbreak. The task ahead for the historically-dominant PAP, the sole governing party since 1959, is to persuade Singaporeans that its management of the virus crisis has been exemplary in the circumstances. 

Eugene Tan, a veteran observer of local politics and a law professor at the Singapore Management University, believes voting decisions could be influenced “to the extent that any perception of the government’s inadequate [coronavirus] response has led to the economic pain biting deeper and harder because of the eight-week circuit breaker.”

Faced with the worst recession in its 55-year post-independence history, some think voters could register their frustrations over mounting job losses at the ballot box. Others counter that generous state support given to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and worker wage subsidies will sway the electorate to stand with the PAP.  

Authorities have twice drawn on Singapore’s strategic national reserves to fund Covid-19 aid spending. The government has unveiled four separate budgets since February, committing an accumulative S$92.9 billion ($65.4 billion), equivalent to around 20% of annual economic output, to support the pandemic-hit economy.

The central business district of Singapore on April 7, 2020 is almost deserted as the country ordered the closure of all businesses deemed non-essential to combat the spread of Covid-19. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

While the PAP will seek to focus voters’ minds on overcoming the economic emergency by granting it a new and stronger mandate, Tan sees opposition parties operating as “more as a segue to critique the government’s ability to see beyond the horizon.”

Voters, he said, “may see the argument for the government to be kept on its toes.”

The PAP enjoys broad popular support and the consensus among observers is that it won’t face any serious challenge in winning a 15th consecutive term. Though the PAP is not likely to be punished at the ballot box for its handling of the dormitory outbreaks, it is conceivable that certain of its ministers might be. 

Should the ruling party win fewer votes than in 2015 and thus find itself on the political defensive, it could have trouble implementing and building support for its broader agenda. That would be significant given the PAP’s aim to usher in its so-called fourth generation (4G) leadership after the polls.

Heng, who is finance minister and the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general, is expected to succeed 68-year-old Lee, who has served as premier since 2004, soon after the elections. A cadre of younger 4G ministers have already been phased into key political positions.

It isn’t entirely clear how the 4G leadership will differentiate itself from previous generations, and opinions of its leaders tend to be mixed among Singaporeans, particularly those who revere the first generation of the party’s leadership. But some observers see the present crisis as a chance for incoming party leaders to clear the slate.   

“A political opportunist would argue that the coronavirus pandemic has been a gift to the PAP,” said local author Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh. “The pandemic has essentially helped Singaporeans forget about a whole series of leadership mistakes, character crises, policy missteps and democratic deficiencies.”

Those include the still-unresolved public quarrel among the Lee family over the fate of the estate of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first premier and father to the incumbent leader. The Lee siblings took to social media in 2017 to accuse their elder brother of abusing his executive power to preserve their parents’ residence at 38 Oxley Road for political gain.

The dispute has since played out in fits-and-starts, with the premier’s estranged younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, openly backing ex-PAP lawmaker Tan Cheng Bock, 80, as “the leader Singapore deserves” after the latter announced he would stand as an opposition candidate under his electorally-untested Progress Singapore Party (PSP).

Tan’s entry into the contest raises the prospect of a more competitive poll. The octogenarian politician says his priority is to build the PSP into a “credible alternative” to the ruling party by getting enough of his candidates voted into Parliament. It is still unclear to what extent the PSP’s challenge could impact the margin of the PAP’s expected victory at the upcoming polls.

Then presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock greets the public before a rally speech in Singapore in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Simin Wang
Then presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock greets the public before a rally speech in Singapore in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Simin Wang

At elections in 2015, the PAP won 83 of parliament’s 89 seats after capturing nearly 70% of the vote. Opposition parties have consistently tried and failed to strip away the PAP’s long-held supermajority in parliament. “There is no conceivable scenario under which the PAP could lose its thumping majority – let alone government,” said Rodan.

Opposition parties have balked over what they view as an opportunistic bid by the PAP to secure an even stronger mandate amid concerns that Covid-19 social distancing measures could be leveraged to prohibit election rallies and home visits, vital staples of opposition campaign outreach.

Legislation allowing for special arrangements to safely ensure voter participation in the upcoming election was passed in Parliament last month, though the bill did not set out what specific safety measures would be taken at polling stations or rules for how parties may campaign.

The lack of clarity has prompted criticism from opposition parties faced with developing campaign strategies without knowing the specific ground rules. Virtual campaigning is, however, widely expected to feature prominently in the coming contest.

“Covid-19 measures have forced us to be more creative and efficient with our methods of engagement,” Jose Raymond, chairman of the opposition Singapore People’s Party (SPP), told Asia Times.

“A lack of specifics will inevitably hinder some aspects of planning, especially in relation to logistics. Nevertheless, we are gearing ourselves up and preparing for all possibilities by increasing our capacity, both online and on the ground,” he said.

Some believe polls should not be held until a consistent pattern of single-digit or zero daily infections is established. The total number of infections in Singapore is now 37,183. Hundreds of new dormitory infections continue to be reported daily, while cases among the wider community are often in single digits.

The Straits Times newspaper published a report on March 30 citing Heng’s remarks and estimates by political analysts which suggested that polling day could fall on July 11, following the dissolution of parliament on June 24 and a nine-day campaign period beginning July 1.

Critics and some observers see no compelling reason to hold early elections and cite risks to public health if polls go-ahead in the coming weeks. Others suggest that an early snap poll would mitigate near-term uncertainties and risks, and could potentially be safer than end-of-term polls in a scenario where the pandemic worsens.

A Singaporean wearing a face mask walks past a bank advertising billboard, May 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

“However socially restrictive measures would be for an election during Covid-19, a foolproof strategy against a spike in virus contractions thereafter does not exist,” said Rodan. “If this spike happened, then the PAP government would face new levels of scrutiny, internationally and domestically, among traditional supporters and critics alike.”

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), an opposition party chaired by infectious diseases expert Paul Tambyah, maintains that polls can be comfortably held in the last quarter of this year and that holding elections now would needlessly jeopardize public safety and health.   

“With the rise in cases both inside and outside the dorms reported in the last couple of days, it still seems very reckless to want to hold an election in the next few weeks,” said Tambyah, a professor of medicine at the National University of Singapore and senior consultant infectious diseases physician at National University Hospital.

“Countries all over the world which have held elections, such as Korea and Israel, have seen resurgences of infections post-election. Even the US state of Wisconsin had Covid-19 infections directly related to elections,” he said, referring to the state-wide Democratic Party presidential primary election held on April 7.

“The people of Singapore need a diversity of voices in parliament to ensure that we are able to face the challenges of the post-Covid era,” Tambyah told Asia Times. “Beyond the direct public health impact of elections, we need our policymakers to focus on containing the epidemic at a time when it is still spreading locally.”