Singaporean Prime Minister and secretary general of the ruling People's Action Party Lee Hsien Loong leaves the party's office after delivering the speech live on Facebook to citizens during the counting of votes of the general election in Singapore, in the early hours of July 11, 2020. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

This month’s general election in Singapore concluded with the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) retaining power with its usual parliamentary supermajority and 61.1% of the popular vote.

It was the ruling party’s 15th consecutive election victory since the city-state first gained self-governance in 1959, and the result shows the continuity of its near total parliamentary dominance with 83 of the 93 seats.

While the result is considered a landslide by international standards and envied by many ruling parties in advanced democracies around the world, it is a defeat for the ruling party in the Singaporean context, as it is the PAP’s second-worst poll performance since independence.

The ruling party was widely expected to benefit from a flight-to-safety mode among the voters as the election was held in the midst of a health and economic crisis.

Leading up to election day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong further reinforced the message by telling Singaporeans that the world was watching the results and he needed a strong mandate to lead Singapore in tackling the Covid-19 crisis and beyond.

In the end, however, the PAP suffered a 9% drop in popular vote and lost an additional four seats to the opposition Workers’ Party (WP). 

At an election-night press conference, a grim-looking Lee admitted that the popular vote was not as high as he had hoped.

The new Parliament will have 10 elected opposition members – the highest opposition presence since independence.

PAP candidate Heng Swee Keat answers press questions after meeting residents seeking support as the city-state went to the polls for general elections on July 1, 2020. Photo: Zakaria Zainal / Anadolu Agency

More worryingly for the ruling party, the team led by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, heir-apparent to Prime Minister Lee, barely fended off a stiff WP challenge led by charismatic opposition politician Nicole Seah, whose debut in the 2011 general election electrified the Singaporean political scene.

The motive behind the last-minute decision by the PAP to deploy Heng out of his traditional stronghold of Tampines Group Representative Constituency (GRC) to East Coast GRC was to prevent an opposition takeover of that constituency and for the future PM to prove that he is able to secure broad support from Singaporeans situated outside of his traditional stronghold.

The current PM and his predecessors had often polled above the PAP national average vote, often with a 70% majority. Under Singapore’s Westminster system, cabinet ministers are also members of Parliament who derive their legitimacy from the local constituency that they contest in. 

A large winning margin, especially in a new electoral constituency, would have allowed the deputy prime minister to claim that he had broad political appeal of his own to take over and lead as prime minister.

Also read: The manipulation behind PAP’s ‘landslide win’

However, the narrow win for Heng raises doubts over his political appeal beyond his traditional political stronghold and his ability to rally Singaporeans across the nation under his leadership.

On election night, Lee assured Singaporeans that he and his senior colleagues would remain in charge to oversee the government response to the pressing health and economic crisis facing the nation. 

The prime minister vowed to hand over power only after he determines that the country is intact and in good working condition.

The remarks can be seen as an indication of his lack of confidence in his successor and the new fourth generation (4G) leadership.

For a start, no one can be sure how long the Covid-19 crisis will last and how fast the recovery will be. 

And what exactly did the PM mean by good working conditions? 

The vagueness of the conditions set by the prime minister gives him broad leeway to decide when the time is ripe for him to relinquish power.

With a dismal election performance by the ruling party and the 4G ministers in their respective constituencies, the widely expected 2022 leadership succession now may be delayed, and the state-owned Straits Times even published an article calling for a revisiting of the leadership succession.

A further analysis of the election results shows worrying signs that the PAP risks a downward spiral in future elections that may eventually render the party irrelevant in the fast-changing political landscape.

The 4G leadership has yet to earn the trust and confidence of Singaporeans fully. Despite a nationwide swing against the party, a closer examination of the election results will show that the current 3G leadership managed to outperform their 4G successors.

For example, 3G bigwigs such as Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Prime Minister Lee, and Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean won 75%71.91% and 64.15% of the votes in their areas respectively. In contrast, 4G bigwigs Heng and Speaker Tan Chuan Jin won 53.41% and 57.76% of the votes in their constituencies.

This shows that Singaporeans continue to have faith in the current 3G leadership led by Lee.

For an election that was been billed as a change of guard for the ruling party, it is a bitter disappointment for the 4G leaders to receive an underwhelming mandate from the public.

The roots of the 4G leadership can be traced back to the 2011 general election, when its first members such as Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, Heng and Tan made their electoral debuts.

Since then, the 4G leadership has gradually taken on more heavy responsibilities in governing the country and reached out to Singaporeans to try to gain their support.

This can be seen through initiatives such as the Building our Future of Singapore Together conversation to gather feedback from citizens, and the formation of the Future Economy Council to chart the nation into the next phase of economic development. 

Unfortunately, these well-intentioned initiatives are seen as ineffectual by the general public as they continue to grapple with a widening income gap, rising cost of living and white-collar joblessness.

Despite the 4G leaders’ vow to listen to and work with Singaporeans to formulate policies, the truth is that many people believe that the promise has not been realized based on the leaders’ actions.

There is no question that many of the 4G leaders are brilliantly educated and wish to serve the country. However, many of them suffer from an image problem where they are seen as aloof, arrogant and detached from ordinary Singaporeans. 

And that is the result of the dangerous trade-off made by the PAP between technocratic geniuses and the hearts and minds of the citizenry.

As Singaporean politics is set to get more contested in the coming decades, this doesn’t bode well for the future of the PAP, as it will need to secure support from the public in implementing tough policies to deal with the challenges facing the nation.

Winning future voters

The opposition victory in Sengkang GRC, a constituency with a predominantly young demographic, is a harbinger of the looming political changes in the coming decades.

For instance, the ruling party’s Sengkang candidates were all male and over 40, while the opposition team comprised young first-time parents. This made them much more relatable to the voters.

However, what may have sealed the fate of the PAP was the Raeesah Khan saga. The opposition candidate was investigated for her remarks made in regards to the judicial treatment of minorities in Singapore.

Many young Singaporeans were upset with her heavy-handed treatment and hashtags such as #IStandWithRaeesah began trending on Twitter.

Since independence, Singapore has adopted a strict approach on racial and religious issues due to memories of racial riots in the 1960s. However, the young generation has a different approach on race and religion, and hence the ruling party was caught flat-footed in this incident, which underpinned the fast-changing cultural values in the city-state.

Though young voters in their 20s and 30s comprise only a third of the electorate, and their swing is not sufficient to dent the PAP majority, over time, the number of these voters will only increase, as citizens reaching the age of 21 are set to join them, and voters in their late 60s and above dwindle.

These young voters grew up in a hyper-connected world and have different life aspirations from the previous generations. It would be a grave mistake for the ruling party to ignore the aspirations and hopes of these voters.

The ruling party must adapt to the changed political landscape by adjusting its policies and approach accordingly. For that to happen effectively, the PAP will have to work even harder to recruit younger Singaporeans and field them as candidates to appeal to young voters.

It will also be good for the prime minister eventually to allow his cabinet to have representatives below the age of 35. The current youngest cabinet member turns 43 this year.

The current holder of the post of minister for culture, community and youth is 56 years old, a clear age-mismatch for the post. The government should consider eventually emulating the practice of the previous government in neighboring Malaysia in appointing a younger person to helm that post.

While this year’s election has been a major setback for the ruling party, in the words of former PAP MP Inderjit Singh, it is still not too late and the party still has time to turn things around.

In other words, the PAP must change or be changed.

Maa Zhi Hong

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.