Singapore's Prime Minister and Secretary-General of the ruling People's Action Party Lee Hsien Loong gestures to the media as he arrives at the party's office during the counting of votes of the general election in Singapore, in the early hours of July 11, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

SINGAPORE – Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) comfortably won a 15th consecutive term in office and retained its legislative supermajority in Parliament at July 10 elections, prevailing handily over smaller opposition challengers that cast their campaigns as a check and balance on the risks of single-party dominance.

Clinching 83 out of 93 parliamentary seats, a majority that ruling parties in more contested democracies would envy, the results represent by any measure a rousing PAP win. But in the context of the ruling party’s past electoral showings, the polls’ outcome marks one of its worst performances since first taking power in 1959.

On the hustings, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appealed to voters to hand the PAP a “strong mandate” to see through the twin crises of the Covid-19 pandemic and the worst recession in the island nation’s history. With another PAP win a forgone conclusion in the eyes of analysts, the margin of its victory had been the key indicator to watch.

The PAP’s overall vote share fell to 61.2%, a whisker above their record-low general election showing of 60.1% in 2011. Poll results showed a surprise swing for opposition parties, with the Workers’ Party (WP) securing ten seats, the most ever held by non-ruling party’s lawmakers since the city-state gained independence in 1965.

Ceding ground to the opposition, the PAP’s share of elected seats in Parliament will fall to 89.2%, its lowest ever. Previously, it had never won less than 93%. In several hotly-contested constituencies, ruling party candidates claimed victory with margins in the low 50% range, narrower than most analysts had expected.

“They cannot say it’s a strong mandate in any form or fashion,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Asia Research Institute. “The PAP made a mistake calling an election in a pandemic. In the Singapore context, this is seen as one of the biggest defeats for the PAP.”

Opposition parties and rights groups have been sharply critical of authorities’ decision to hold earlier than required snap polls so soon after lifting its strict coronavirus lockdown measures on June 19, warning that the polls would put voters’ health at risk and distract from government efforts to manage the outbreak.

An election official checks voters’ identity cards as they enter a school hall temporarily used as a polling station to cast their ballots during the general election in Singapore on July 10, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Among those standing for re-election were leaders of the PAP’s fourth generation, or “4G”, team who head a multi-ministry taskforce charged with directing the national response to Covid-19. Risk-averse tendencies among the electorate during crises past led many analysts to forecast that the PAP’s vote share would rise given its tried and tested appeal.

“Singapore is facing a major crisis and despite all this talk about a flight to safety, that people will run to the ruling party when there is a crisis, this has not happened,” said veteran journalist and former newspaper editor PN Balji. “I think what we are really seeing is that voters in Singapore are now maturing.

“The PAP asked voters for a strong mandate, although they never said what a strong mandate was, and some people could interpret that as ‘Let’s wipe out the opposition,’ and I think that really, in a sense, concerned people,” he told Asia Times. “You cannot take these voters for granted anymore.”

Opposition challengers contested against the PAP in all 93 seats across 14 Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) and 17 Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), which were 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.

Among the most surprising tallies occurred in the race for East Coast GRC, where deputy prime minister and Lee’s designated successor, 59-year-old Heng Swee Keat, stood against what analysts regard as the WP’s second-strongest team, which included 33-year-old social media darling Nicole Seah. The PAP prevailed with only 53.4% of the vote. 

Though the PAP is the constituency’s incumbent, East Coast had been its worst-performing ward in the 2011 and 2015 general elections. In a surprise tactical maneuver on Nomination Day, Heng switched constituencies at the eleventh hour and chose to stand in East Coast to shore up the PAP’s margin and keep the WP from making inroads.

But the man poised to be Singapore’s next prime minister led a team that scored considerably lower than its 60.7% vote share in 2015 and was among the lowest of the 4G leaders. “Without Heng Swee Keat there, they would have lost it. My sense is that he was a very important pull factor,” said Welsh.

Not all observers will see the result as a referendum on Heng’s suitability for the premiership, though Welsh believes the outcome could impact the PAP’s leadership succession calculus. Lee previously said that he hopes to step down and hand over the reins before turning 70 in 2022, “but it’s not so clear that that’s happening,” she said.

PAP candidate Heng Swee Keat answers press questions after meeting residents seeking their electoral support. Photo: Zakaria Zainal /Anadolu Agency

“Who will become the next leader and the timing of it has really been put into question,” Welsh told Asia Times. “I think there will clearly be a cabinet reshuffle and a recalibration. It’s too early to say that Heng is completely out of the running. But I would say that there is definitely going to be other contenders looked at in this particular point of time.”

Heng, who is the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general and incumbent finance minister, emerged as primus inter pares among the 4G’s leaders in late 2018. The 59-year-old began his career in the police force before entering the civil service, eventually becoming the principal private secretary to Singapore’s late modern founder, Lee Kuan Yew.

For some, the choice of Heng as Singapore’s next premier came as a surprise partly due to his age in comparison to other 4G leaders. After suffering a stroke due to a brain aneurysm during a Cabinet meeting in May 2016, he was seen as out of the running to replace Lee due to ill-health, though he has since fully recovered.

“I suspect that Heng as a PM-in-waiting has not shown his credentials well,” said Balji, who pointed to the deputy premier’s fumbling of his televised Nomination Day speech. “This is our prime minister-to-be and the way he performed must have worried a lot of people, and that brought back memories of the stroke that he had couple of years ago.”

That the East Coast race was so close speaks to the fact that the WP has emerged as a national party in Singapore, says Welsh. “And if there’s one party that managed succession well, it is the Workers’ Party. They have managed leadership renewal. It stands in direct contrast to the leadership renewal problems that the 4G are facing,” she said.

This election was the first since former WP chief Low Thia Khiang, 63, Singapore’s longest-serving opposition lawmaker, retired from electoral politics. Famed for his rousing speeches in Teochew dialect, Low held Hougang SMC since 1991 until 2011 when he left to lead a GRC team in Aljunied, the first group constituency to fall to the opposition.

Pritam Singh, 43, took the reins as party chief in 2018 and led his party’s strongest team to a comfortable victory in Aljunied GRC, winning 59.9% of the vote against the PAP’s 40%. That marked a significant improvement over WP’s 2015 electoral showing, where it won with 50.9% and retained the constituency with a razor-thin margin.

In addition to retaining its stronghold Hougang’s single-member seat, the WP won an upset victory over the ruling PAP in the newly formed Sengkang GRC, only the second group constituency won by the opposition in Singapore’s electoral history, defeating a PAP team led by three officeholders.

Worker’s Party supporters wave party flags as they gather in the Hougang public housing district during the counting of votes, July 11, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Analysts say the WP, the only opposition party with elected seats in the last Parliament, improved on their performance due to their consistent messaging and perceived as credible slate of new candidates, particularly its breakout star Jamus Lim, an economist fielded in Sengkang whose eloquent performance in a television debate won hearts and minds. 

“They had a very good campaign,” said Welsh. “Their campaign had an overall message. In Sengkang, for example, their campaign messaging focused on issues of women, issues of young families. They learned the constituency and they spoke to certain groups within that constituency, and I think that that definitely yielded results.”

While Singh called the WP’s showing at the polls a “pleasant surprise”, the de facto leader of the opposition said he was “not feeling euphoric” given that its historic showing did not represent the “quantum leap” needed to allow it to challenge the PAP’s supermajority, through which it can unilaterally pass constitutional amendments.

It was a disappointing night for the newly founded and electorally untested Progress Singapore Party (PSP) led by popular ex-ruling party stalwart Tan Cheng Bock. Despite generally performing in the 40% range across several constituencies, the PSP failed to win any of the 24 seats it contested, the most among the opposition.

“I think Tan Cheng Bock was like a folk hero in this election. Everywhere he went, people were going and following him. They also trusted him because he was originally from the ruling party. And when he was in the ruling party, he was seen as a kind of rebel who will fight for his principles,” said Balji. 

“The fact that he didn’t win to many voters is quite sad because this could be his last election. He is 80-years-old.”

Tan deftly wielded his grandfatherly charisma to court a younger audience on social media and made the case to long-time ruling party supporters that the PAP had “lost its way.” He found an ally in Lee Hsien Yang, the prime minister’s estranged brother who joined the PSP in June but did not contest in the election.

“PSP’s campaign was not as honed,” said Welsh. “It’s still a new party, so its messages were not as clearly defined with the electorate and it was driven heavily around Cheng Bock’s personality. The question is what the future will be for this party longer-term, whether or not Tan hands the leadership on and whether or not it has traction.”

Progress Singapore Party’s secretary-general Tan Cheng Bock talks to the media on the hustings, July 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

With constraints on normal campaigning due to pandemic restrictions on social gatherings, many are likely to wonder whether opposition parties would have fared better had the election not been held in such unusual circumstances, with required mask-wearing and temperature-taking at polling booths and no physical rallies allowed.

Parties were given time for television and radio broadcasts in proportion to the total number of candidates fielded, which Garry Rodan, an honorary professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Political Science and International Studies, says widened the audience the PAP’s opponents could actually reach.

“Ironically, reduced avenues for grassroots campaigning as a result of the PAP choosing to hold the election during the pandemic gave unprecedented concentrated national broadcasting exposure to opposition candidates, especially on television. This was not likely the intent of the PAP,” he said.

“Seat gains by the WP and general vote increases for opposition parties in Singapore represent a clear rejection of the PAP’s desire for more freedom to unilaterally define and chart Singapore’s policy problems and solutions,” Rodan told Asia Times.

“Instead of the uncertainties engendered by the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic directions pre-dating the health crisis working in the PAP’s favor, many voters seem to have concluded this is all the more reason to ensure greater political diversity and accountability of government.

“Certainly, the notion that good policies are best arrived at by maximizing the political space for a meritocratic PAP elite to go about its business without the distraction of an opposition has taken a serious hit,” he said.

Addressing discontent over the city-state’s Elections Department (ELD) move to extend voting hours until 10 pm less than an hour before voting was scheduled to end at 8 pm to “allow enough time for all voters to cast their votes”, Premier Lee said that voting arrangements on Polling Day “could have been done better.”

Additional precautions to ensure safe voting “meant that the voting process took longer, the queues to vote were longer and, in some cases, in some polling stations, much longer,” he said, giving assurances that a “thorough review” will be conducted. The ELD is a branch of the prime minister’s office rather than an independent electoral commission.

Singapore’s Prime Minister leaves the party’s office after delivering a speech live on Facebook during the vote count at the general election in Singapore in the early hours of July 11, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

At a 5 am press conference, Lee said the PAP won a “clear mandate” but one not as strong as what the long-serving premier had hoped for. “We will make the most of it and we take this as an endorsement of the PAP policies, of our team and of our plans,” he said. “The results reflect the pain and uncertainty that Singaporeans feel in this crisis.”

Despite the historic gains by the WP, which prompted flag-waving celebrations in the streets of the party’s stronghold district, the electoral outcome reinforces Singapore’s reputation as one of Asia’s most asymmetric democracies and demonstrates the perceived credibility deficit that continues to plague political opposition in the wealthy city-state.

“Singaporeans don’t like to take risks with the unproven,” said entrepreneur Julian Chua, 31, who said he voted for the WP to “check” the ruling party’s power. “People will argue why fix something that’s not broken. The opposition doesn’t have the kind of experience PAP has. What if the opposition is not up to the task? That’s what I hear people asking.”

Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore, observed that while over the last three elections voters have still generally picked the PAP, they also want the opposition to provide a check and balance on its power. “But that opposition has to be an opposition of a certain quality,” he said.

“This time around, both the ruling party as well as the opposition have searched far and wide for candidates from different backgrounds with varying perspectives, different ages, and also a record number of women. I think that in itself has captured the attention of voters and this bodes well for the political landscape in Singapore,” he said.

“I think by and large this particular election has shown that the opposition parties can now attract good candidates or better candidates than before,” Mustafa added. “Even if they didn’t win the constituency that they are standing in, if they stay the course, they may spring a surprise in subsequent elections.”