SINGAPORE – With public health at risk from Covid-19 and job losses mounting amid the worst recession in its history, Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has appealed to voters to not only renew its rule at July 10 elections but to hand it a “strong mandate” to manage the unparalleled twin crises.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appeared to equate national unity with voting for the ruling party in a rally speech this week where he said that strong support for the incumbent would show investors and the world that Singaporeans are “united”, while diminished support for the PAP would reveal the electorate to be “fractious and divided.”
“Do not undermine a system that has served you well,” said the premier, secretary-general of the ruling party that has governed the island-nation since 1959. He cautioned Singaporeans not to be “taken for a ride” by smaller opposition parties that want to deny the PAP a legislative supermajority in Parliament and “blank check” to rule.
While Singaporeans are widely expected to return the PAP to power when the city-state’s 2.6 million registered voters cast their ballots on Friday, the challenge brought by the opposition camp over the course of this year’s brief but spirited nine-day campaign period has been unlike any other in the nation’s post-independence history.
For the first time, the PAP faces a challenge from one of its own in the form of the newly founded and electorally untested Progress Singapore Party (PSP) led by ex-ruling party stalwart Tan Cheng Bock, a charismatic octogenarian who held a seat in Parliament for 26 years and came within a hair’s breadth of being elected president in 2011.
Wielding grandfatherly charm and casting himself as an opposition unifier, Tan has made the case that the PAP, the region’s longest-governing incumbent party, has “lost its way.” That message has been amplified by the prime minister’s estranged brother, Lee Hsien Yang, who joined the PSP last month in another unprecedented twist.
“Voting for the opposition is the safest choice for Singapore,” said the younger Lee in a recent PSP campaign video. “It’s not rocking our boat, but saving our boat from sinking. The maze we live in today is the result of having a single party in charge with no checks and balances, no transparency or accountability.”
Lee, the youngest son of Singapore’s late modern founder, Lee Kuan Yew, isn’t directly contesting in the election. With no opinion polling allowed at election time, it is unclear to what extent his foray into opposition politics will impact the vote, particularly as the PAP has driven home its performance legitimacy and flight to safety appeal on the hustings.
“Even before the circumstances we are in, many people have highlighted that elections in Singapore are conducted in a way which is different from anywhere else and stacked against the alternative parties. This time it’s just been stacked more,” said Lee Hsien Yang in response to a question posed by Asia Times during a PSP campaign walkabout.
“We hope people can see through this, that they recognize the game is an uneven playing field and they will compensate for it in the way that they respond and in their vote.”
Analysts are split on how deeply the opposition’s message will resonate with the electorate.
“The PSP is making a bet that the depth and severity of the crisis might get Singaporeans to ask whether the familiar approaches offered remain good enough for the future,” said Ja Ian Chong, a Harvard-Yenching Institute visiting scholar in Singapore. “I think the presence of long-time establishment figures like Tan and Lee lend credibility to the party.”
Opposition parties will need to win 32 of 93 seats in Parliament to deny the PAP its supermajority, which it has used to amend the constitution and pass legislation without having to seek compromise with any other political party. The Workers’ Party (WP), the sole opposition group in the last Parliament, won just six seats at polls in 2015.
The PAP garnered 69.9% of the vote but secured an outsized 93% of parliamentary seats at the last election owing to its Westminster first-past-the-post system. The stellar showing for the ruling party in 2015 coincided with national mourning for the passing of Lee Kuan Yew that year and celebrations to mark 50 years of independence.
The PAP’s worst showing occurred in 2011, when it clinched just 60.1% vote share and lost six-seats, a result that would be considered an electoral triumph in more contested democracies. Whether this year’s results tally closer to the electoral outcome of 2015 or that of 2011 will be of high symbolic importance to the ruling party.
A cadre of younger PAP ministers who represent the ruling’s party’s fourth-generation, or “4G”, leadership have been front and center of this year’s campaign ahead of a planned leadership transition that will see 68-year-old Lee and other third-generation, or “3G”, figures make way for their successors within the next two years.
“If the result in this general election were to be similar to 2011 or worse, it would mean the 4G leadership will have lots to do in the lead-up to their taking over from the 3G leadership to rebuild trust and confidence with the electorate,” said Eugene Tan, a veteran observer of local politics and a law professor at the Singapore Management University (SMU).
Though PAP is likely to retain most, if not all, of its seats, says the academic, he believes the looming contest will be “the toughest election for the 4G leadership since the bulk of the core leadership first contested in 2011.”
Heng Swee Keat, 59, the incumbent deputy premier, finance minister and the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general, is Lee’s designated successor. The premier has lead Singapore since 2004 and previously said that he hopes to step aside before he turns 70 in 2022. In the midst of the current crisis, it is unclear whether he will put off plans to retire.
Lee recently declined to rule out contesting in future polls and earlier this week said that he and other senior leaders will see through the Covid-19 pandemic – which he has describes as a “more complex and dangerous” crisis than any Singapore has faced before – and hand over the reins with the country “in good working order.”
“I think the most significant development since the election was called is that Lee Hsien Loong straight away flagged that he may not retire or even step down during this term of parliament after all – the second postponement of his retirement,” said Michael Barr, an associate professor of international relations at Flinders University.
“This is effectively a declaration that he is watching to see how much confidence he can place in Heng as his successor.”
Garry Rodan, an honorary professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Political Science and International Studies, says that the challenges faced by PAP leaders at the last three elections, which have bred discontent among segments of the electorate, are not fundamentally different from what confronts the 4G leaders now.
“With or without a supermajority, the PAP is struggling to resolve tensions inherent to the structure of Singapore’s economy. This includes heavy dependence on low-cost labor at one end of the economy, and high-cost professionals at the other, fuelling social inequality and continued reliance on guest workers and immigration,” he told Asia Times.
Opposition parties generally advocate steeper foreign labor curbs amid unease over rising immigration and a dearth of job prospects for local professionals, managers, engineers and technicians (PMETs). Official data from 2019 showed that over 1.42 million of Singapore’s 5.7 million population are foreign workers employed across various sectors of the economy.
Greater welfare and redistributive policies have also been proposed by opposition parties, who are against increasing the city-state’s goods and services tax (GST) and want basic necessities exempted. Past elections in Singapore have been fought on bread and butter issues such as the cost of living and housing affordability.
Covid-19 has added a new electoral wrinkle. Opposition lawmakers with the WP have called for an independent commission of inquiry to examine lessons learned from the pandemic and the creation of an independent medical advisory board. Opposition parties have disputed PAP claims that they have neglected to offer alternative ideas and strategies to tackle the outbreak.
Rights groups and opposition figures have also criticized the government’s decision to call snap polls amid a pandemic, citing concerns that opposition parties would be at a disadvantage with constraints on normal campaigning and other structural features of Singapore’s electoral process that are seen as favoring the PAP.
With required mask-wearing, social gatherings limited to five people and no physical rallies allowed, election campaigning this year was largely limited to walkabouts, door-to-door visits and outreach through social media and livestreams. Parties were given time for television and radio broadcasts in proportion to the total number of candidates fielded.
Singapore’s controversial anti-fake news law, which opposition parties had warned before its passage last October could be used against them in elections, has been invoked six times since the writ of election was issued on June 23, resulting in online news sites being ordered to carry warnings that remarks made by opposition figures contain false information.
Authorities deny suggestions that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) could be used to stifle free speech and political dissent. Government ministers wield the law’s executive powers in normal circumstances, though this responsibility rests with senior civil servants during election campaigns.
The PAP will be the only party contesting all 93 parliamentary seats up for grabs in Friday’s election, but the ruling party’s candidates will be challenged by opposition parties in all seats for the second general election in a row. The three largest challengers are the PSP, contesting 24 seats, the WP, fielding 21 seats, and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), competing for 11 seats.
Most constituencies will be two-way fights to clinch seats in 14 Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) and 17 Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), which are fought among teams consisting of four or five members of the same party with the requirement that one of these candidates be from a specific ethnic minority group.
Up to 12 opposition politicians who have lost their constituencies with the slimmest margins will be able to take up Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) seats in Parliament regardless of the election’s result. It is not clear whether opposition candidates will actually claim NCMP seats given that some have been vocally critical of the scheme.
Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore, estimates that the PAP is on course to win roughly 67% to 68% percent of the vote, which would be lower than in 2015 but still a “strong mandate” by Singapore’s standards. The party could expect to average 65% to 66% in a more normal situation, he said.
“This time around, you have to take into account that we’re in a crisis. And when you have this notion of sticking to the tried and tested, focusing on reliability, stability and certainty, this flight to safety, which has been spoken of, then you have to add a few more percentage points to what the PAP would get normally,” he told Asia Times.
Analysts have their eye on several key seats that are expected to be closely contested. Among them are Aljunied GRC, which fell to the WP during the 2011 general elections and remains the only group constituency ever captured by the opposition since the GRC system was introduced in 1988. The WP narrowly retained Aljunied by a margin of 0.95% at the 2015 elections.
Sengkang GRC, a newly formed group constituency, offers another potentially close fight owing to the WP’s popular slate of candidates, which include Jamus Lim, an economist who impressed Singaporeans with his eloquent performance in a live TV debate, and 26-year-old Raeesah Khan, a self-identified intersectional feminist with progressive appeal.
The SDP has not had any of its members elected to Parliament since 1997, but observers see the party’s chairman Paul Tambyah, a world-renowned infectious diseases specialist, as arguably the race’s strongest opposition candidate for a SMC seat. He will be contesting in Bukit Panjang SMC, while party leader Chee Soon Juan is standing in Bukit Batok SMC.
“It’s a daunting proposition for Chee Soon Juan, but because he’s a street fighter, he’s going to try get more of the swing votes to get over the line,” said Mustafa.
The PSP’s Tan, meanwhile, is intent on reclaiming his former stomping ground. Ayer Rajah, a single-seat ward he held during his tenure as a PAP minister, has been absorbed into West Coast GRC, where the 80-year-old maverick and his team of four others will contest against an opposing group anchored by two senior PAP ministers.
“The PAP has traditionally been strong in the West, more than even the east of Singapore. The swing of votes that he will need to bring to his side in order to win is close to 30%,” Mustafa estimates. “It is extremely difficult for a brand-new party like the PSP to achieve that in one electoral cycle.”
The electoral performance of the man poised to be Singapore’s next prime minister is sure to be closely scrutinized. In a surprise Nomination Day maneuver, Heng switched constituencies at the eleventh hour and filed his papers for the PAP’s East Coast GRC team in what analysts see as a tactical move aimed to contain the WP.
The PAP is the incumbent in the constituency, where it secured the vote by 60.7% in 2015 compared to 69.9% nationwide. For the WP, that showing meant that East Coast GRC was effectively lower-hanging fruit, say observers.
“It’s a high-stakes attempt by the PAP to prevent the WP from growing its electoral clout,” said Tan of SMU. “Heng should improve PAP’s performance in East Coast GRC compared with 2015. If he doesn’t, that is not a good sign as he gears up to take over from PM Lee Hsien Loong in the next 18 to 24 months’ time,” he added.
“I regard the fate of Heng as the key to this election,” said Barr of Flinders University. “He is taking the lead in this campaign and is being tested. He has to do well on both the nation stage and in East Coast. Singaporeans don’t like prime ministers who don’t win thumping majorities in their own constituencies.”