Lee Hsien Yang, younger brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on the campaign trail in Singapore, July 2, 2020. Photo: Facebook

SINGAPORE – When Singaporeans cast their ballots on July 10 in Southeast Asia’s first pandemic era general election, voters will choose between the region’s longest-governing incumbent party and one of ten smaller opposition parties who hope to clinch a toehold in Parliament.

The spirited, gloves-off contest since campaigning officially began on June 30 has so far belied the city-state’s reputation for placid politics owing to the uninterrupted rule of the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has won every election since 1959, when Singapore gained self-rule from Britain.

What sets this election apart isn’t just that it is being held amid a public health crisis with altered ground rules for campaigning. No political rallies will be held during the nine-day campaign period due to safe distancing requirements and restrictions on large gatherings, obliging parties to rely on virtual outreach, walkabouts and door-to-door visits.

Still, the entry of a charismatic former PAP stalwart, 80-year-old Tan Cheng Bock, as an opposition challenger under the new, electorally untested Progress Singapore Party (PSP) has enlivened the campaign. But it is the decision of one of the party’s newest members to join the fray that has tongues wagging.

Lee Hsien Yang, the 62-year-old estranged brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and son of the city-state’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, made a major stir when he officially joined the PSP in June. Though he has opted not to stand as a candidate because, in his words, “Singapore does not need another Lee,” he is a fast-rising opposition star.

Alan Chong, an associate professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, sees the younger Lee as the opposition’s most “significant artillery” even though he will not be directly contesting in the election. Instead, Lee has vowed to back the candidates and parties he believes in and said he hopes to be “a catalyst for change.”

“Political leadership in Singapore needs to be much more than about one family or one man. The empirical evidence shows that dynastic politics causes bad government,” he said in a Facebook post on June 30 that reiterated the PSP’s rallying cry of the long-dominant PAP having “lost its way.”

Progress Singapore Party’s Lee Hsien Yang speaks with a voter at a hawker center in Tanjong Pagar, Singapore, June 28, 2020. Photo: Nile Bowie

Prime Minister Lee and his two younger siblings remain at odds in a bitter public dispute over their late father’s estate. The younger Lee denies that personal issues with his elder brother influenced his decision to join politics, while the premier has stressed that the soon-to-be-held election is about Singapore’s future rather than his family dispute.  

“Lee Hsien Yang is playing it very smart,” said Chong of RSIS. “Many initially thought that he would probably stand in his father’s legacy constituency. By not presenting himself as a candidate in any constituency, he has the flexibility to fire broadsides at the PAP. This will be significant for the PSP and I think it will rub off on the opposition writ large.”

Even so, political analysts expect the ruling party to secure its 15th consecutive term comfortably. Indeed, opposition parties say they do not even seek to form a government. Instead, they explicitly aim to deny the PAP its two-thirds legislative supermajority, through which it can amend the constitution.

The looming electoral contest will also preface a changing of the guard within the PAP, whose leaders will hand power to a cadre of younger ministers known as its fourth generation, or “4G”, leadership in the coming years. Lee, 68, has signaled his intent to step down as party chief and prime minister before turning 70 in 2022.

Heng Swee Keat, 59, the incumbent deputy premier and finance minister, is his designated successor and will be only the second politician outside the Lee family to lead the island nation. Seen by some as a referendum on the PAP’s 4G team, a repeat performance of the party’s 2015 electoral showing – when it captured nearly 70% of the vote – would be considered a triumph.

With nearly 2.6 million eligible voters heading to the polls to elect 93 members of Parliament on a first-past-the-post basis, it is the margin of the ruling party’s share of the popular vote – which has never dipped below 60% – that counts. The PAP’s leaders, to be sure, do not believe the polls will be a cakewalk.

People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate K Shanmugam (C) and his team who are contesting in the Nee Soon group constituency. Photo: Facebook

“I would describe this as the most consequential election since 1959,” said K Shanmugam, the PAP’s treasurer and minister for home affairs and law, in an interview with Asia Times. “I expect these elections to be very competitive. It’s going to be tough because of economic concerns. People are concerned about their jobs; the economy has been affected.”

Amid contracting growth and the worst recession in its history following nearly two months of “circuit breaker” restrictions to contain its Covid-19 outbreak, Singapore faces a severe labor market contraction, with economists estimating retrenchments at anywhere between 45,600 and 200,000 workers.

Shanmugam says mass employment has been avoided so far due to an accumulative S$92.9 billion ($65.4 billion) disbursed by the government in four separate budgets since February to support the pandemic-hit economy. Still, official forecasts grimly project negative gross domestic product (GDP) growth of between -4% and -7% this year.

The 61-year-old senior minister and former top litigator identified the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and a global economic slowdown as interlinked “twin crises” facing the city-state. Shanmugam said that the situation thus demands a government that is capable of steering the country through turbulent headwinds.

“Why do I say the PAP is the best option for Singapore? Well, I would say our track record of having taken the country through various crises, led the country through modernization and now it’s also a question of people having to decide who do they feel has put forward the best plan to take us through the crises,” Shanmugam said. “We believe that we have the best plan.”

The center-left Worker’s Party (WP), the only opposition party in Singapore with members elected to Parliament in over a decade, also has a plan: to deny the PAP a “blank check” but not its mandate to govern.

WP’s leader, 43-year-old Pritam Singh, wants opposition parties to win a third of Parliament’s seats to better check the ruling party. He has, however, warned of a “wipeout” scenario in which all elected seats in the legislature are captured by the PAP, presumably as the result of risk-averse tendencies of the electorate.

Chan Chun Sing, one of the ruling party’s 4G leaders, inverts that argument, claiming that a coalition of the three biggest opposition parties could unseat the PAP. “We view them as people who might eventually replace the government after July 10,” said Chan in a television debate where he called on voters to carefully scrutinize opposition manifestos.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a walkabout ahead of the general election in Singapore, July 3, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Lee, the PAP’s secretary-general, labeled the WP’s suggestion a form of “reverse psychology” and remarked that a clean sweep for the ruling party isn’t a “realistic outcome.” Analysts see the WP’s concerns of a wipeout as tactical but not entirely misplaced, given the PAP’s record of harnessing crisis narratives to its political advantage.

“Singapore’s skittish electorate has a tendency to flee to what they perceive to be safety during crises, often regardless of whether such a choice is indeed safe or not,” said Ja Ian Chong, a Harvard-Yenching Institute visiting scholar. “The PAP has asked for a strong mandate, this could easily mean all 93 seats.”

Felix Tan, associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, concurs. “The PAP will get a supermajority and will most probably win in most, if not all, of the constituencies. There is a huge possibility of a complete wipeout of the opposition given that we are in a crisis, an economic recession. I think it’s something that the PAP should not disregard,” he said.

“The prospect of a ‘wipeout’ of WP MP’s is very real,” added Reuben Wong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He pointed out the WP retained its Aljunied group constituency by a narrow margin of 0.95% at elections in 2015, the loss of which would have cost it five of its six seats in the now-dissolved Parliament.

Changes to the so-called Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) scheme will enter force after this election, guaranteeing the presence of a maximum of 12 opposition lawmakers in the city-state’s legislature regardless of the election’s result. The arrangement will effectively give the “best-performing” losing opposition candidates seats in Parliament.

Singapore’s constitution was amended in 2016 to expand the number of NCMPs and grant them mostly the same voting rights as elected legislators. But the scheme has been the subject of fierce debate on the campaign trail and has been criticized by opposition parties who see the PAP as leveraging it to persuade voters against the need for an elected opposition.

Tan, secretary-general of the PSP, for one, has called the scheme a “ploy” to entice voters away from opposition parties and vowed not to take up a NCMP seat. The charismatic octogenarian sees the scheme as lacking a fundamental element – control over a constituency where the opposition can sink roots into as elected representatives.

Progress Singapore Party candidates seated at a hawker center during an election walkabout in Tanjong Pagar, Singapore, June 28, 2020. Photo: Nile Bowie

“Opposition parties rightly emphasize that the democratic political authority to hold a government to account can only derive from having been endorsed by those you claim to represent,” said Garry Rodan, an honorary professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Political Science and International Studies.

The Harvard-Yenching Institute’s Chong remarked that despite equal voting rights, NCMPs cannot affect the legislative process with their number of seats, nor have voters empowered them with a clear mandate. “Such conditions can make it appear that Singapore has to settle for losers if it wants diversity,” he remarked. 

Chong of RSIS, for one, is more sanguine about opposition parties’ prospects in the looming contest and believes they may not need to rely on the NCMP scheme to enter Parliament. He thinks the opposition as a whole could be poised to make broader electoral gains than many observers expect.

“Singaporeans have matured politically, and the opposition probably represents views closer to what the younger generation really thinks. By all appearances, [opposition politicians] are more confident and [are] potentially on course to retain what they have, plus a couple of constituencies more to their total hold,” he said.

“But if voters rationalize their decisions on a fear of losing out economically if they make the wrong choices, they might say let’s give the PAP the mandate it wants and needs, and hope it restores their jobs,” Chong added. “That seems like the only choice in front of a lot of people either working on reduced salaries or those who have lost their jobs completely.”