Workers Party opposition leader Pritam Singh promises to change the complexion of Singapore's PAP-dominated democratic politics. Image: Twitter/WP

SINGAPORE – When Singaporeans went to the polls on July 10, voters handed the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) another landslide general election victory with 61.2% of the popular vote and all but 10 of 93 seats in Parliament.

But when party leaders addressed the media in the early hours of the following morning, the winners weren’t smiling.

Instead, those rejoicing the loudest were supporters of the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) as jubilant crowds spontaneously gathered to wave party flags and honk horns, rare sights and sounds in politically placid Singapore.

WP clinched 10 seats, up from six previously, unexpectedly capturing two group constituencies in addition to their stronghold single-seat Hougang ward. Prime Minister and PAP secretary-general Lee Hsien Loong conceded that the results showed “a clear desire for a diversity of voices in Parliament.”

Two months on, the city-state’s unicameral legislature now features the largest opposition presence since Singapore’s independence and, for the first time in its history, a Leader of the Opposition (LO) formally appointed by the premier.

Lee announced that WP chief Pritam Singh would be officially designated as LO, in the tradition of the Westminster parliamentary system, on July 11 in acknowledgment of the party’s electoral gains. Some observers sense the PAP will engage its political opponents in good faith.

The honorific designation “acknowledges that the loyal opposition has a legitimate role in Singapore’s system of governance,” said Donald Low, a professor of practice in public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It is a step, even if it’s not a large one, towards establishing the norms of a fairer, more contestable political system.”

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

The position entitles Singh to a salary of S$385,000 (US$283,500) – double that of a member of Parliament – as well as additional staff and other privileges. The 43-year-old welcomed his appointment as LO, which he said signaled “a change in the narrative and culture of how politics and government is to be conducted.”

Others are less sanguine that the PAP, accustomed to decades of one-party dominance at the helm of the wealthy city-state of 5.7 million people, intends to facilitate changes that would deepen political pluralism by helping the parliamentary opposition to exercise a more effective check or respond broadly to certain pressures for more democratization.

Since the election, senior PAP leaders have called on the WP to go beyond posing questions to government ministers in Parliament and shift focus to putting forward alternative policies to be scrutinized and debated. But the WP’s ability to formulate realistic proposals, it claims, depends on the PAP-led government’s willingness to share relevant data and statistics.  

“As far as information is concerned, the opposition’s output will depend very much on whether we can get the input we asked for,” said Singh in his maiden parliamentary speech on August 31. The government’s unwillingness to provide such information in the past, he suggested, may have been due to concerns that data could be misused or politicized.

Parliamentary queries from the WP requesting clarity on, for example, the proportion of jobs filled by Singaporeans and permanent residents relative to foreigners in government employment statistics, or the size of Singapore’s national financial reserves, have in the past seen senior PAP lawmakers respond by chiding the questioner.

“It remains to be seen whether there will be more substantive changes in the way the PAP does politics and governance,” academic Low told Asia Times.

“I’m not hopeful we will see a significantly more open information environment in the near-term. But I’m somewhat optimistic that our political debates…will be conducted in a less one-sided, heavy-handed way, and in a way that doesn’t vilify or demonize the opponents – whether real or perceived – of the PAP.”

Singapore’s Prime Minister 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

When Lee addressed Parliament on September 2, he said his government would be open-minded and take a constructive approach to policy-making, but reiterated a warning that a greater diversity of voices in the legislature must not lead to polarization, pointing to political dysfunction and partisan gridlock in Western democracies.

“The adversarial dynamic that is inherent in the parliamentary system can go wrong,” said the 68-year-old premier, claiming that such political polarization would send the city-state into a downward spiral. “If this happens to Singapore, we will not just cease being an exceptional nation. It will be the end of us. We must not go down this path.”

To avoid such polarization, both the government and opposition must share the overriding objective of working for Singapore, and not just for their party or their supporters, Lee added. Singh, admired for his dignified demeanor during the election campaign, has stressed that the WP would support the government on issues of national interest.

While ruling PAP stalwarts may find themselves fielding sharper opposition questions in Parliament, the party will face no hurdles in enacting its legislative agenda owing to its supermajority in the 93-member house. Observers, moreover, say the party’s perceived high-handedness has contributed to the hardening of political poles.

“The PAP’s overwhelming dominance, combined with a certain insecurity to its political opponents, and the often hardball measures it takes against them, has had the effect of polarizing opinion,” said Low, co-author of the upcoming book PAP v. PAP: The Party’s struggle to adapt to a changing Singapore.

Critics have long accused the PAP of browbeating its opponents, which it denies, and using threats of legal action to stifle dissent. Rights groups have more recently taken aim at the Protection of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), legislation to curtail the spread of “fake news” that has repeatedly ensnared opposition politicians and activists.

Singapore, one of the poorer countries of the world in the 1960s, became a prosperous financial center under the PAP’s watch, and the party’s performance legitimacy still holds with the voting majority. Some observers, though, see wider democratization in the city-state as the next logical phase of Singapore’s nation-building.

“Singapore’s system of elite governance needs to adapt to a more plural and diverse society, and accommodate the desire for voice and democratic accountability,” said Low.

“This requires the PAP to evolve from a system of elite governance to an elite democracy, in which sensible, evidence-based and long-term policy-making is balanced with democratic deliberation and engagement.”

A presiding officer (L) 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

At a parliamentary debate earlier this month, PAP and WP chiefs sparred over issues pertaining to July’s general election, with Lee cautioning Singh on the “moral danger” of campaigning on the notion that Singaporeans should cast their ballots for opposition parties since the PAP would, in any eventuality, remain in charge.

Voters who tactically supported the WP – whose leaders acknowledged on the hustings that they would not be able to form the government – because they desired a more diverse Parliament were “free riders”, claimed Lee, a characterization that stoked debate on social media and scorn from netizens who saw the remark as divisive.   

The premier went as far as to suggest that opposition supporters were “taking advantage” and not “expressing [their] true views and preferences” with regards to which party they would want to form a government.  If such tactical electoral strategies persist, Lee added, those voters would one day end up with “a government which [they] do not want.”

Ying-kit Chan, a postdoctoral fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) at Leiden University in the Netherlands, believes the PAP has contributed to political polarization in the city-state by insistently proffering itself to the electorate as the only party capable of ensuring political stability and sustaining economic growth.

“By implication, the alternative or opposition parties… are never offered a chance,” said the academic. “A manifestation of this polarization [is that] a group of Singaporeans equates the PAP – and only the PAP – with development and stability versus a group that wants to give the WP an opportunity to grow and prove itself.”

Data from pollster Blackbox Research showed that the WP and its calls to deny the PAP a “blank check” were most popular among Generation Z, those aged 21 to 25. Observers say many in this demographic see the PAP as prone to targeting opposition figures and its political culture as being unaccepting of dissenting views.

Voters under 30, however, represented only about a quarter of the electorate, according to Blackbox Research. Its data, moreover, suggests middle-class voters in their 40s through early 60s – a “sandwiched” demographic known to be particularly affected by Covid-19’s economic contagion – contributed most toward a national swing away from the PAP.

PAP leader-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat answers press questions after meeting residents seeking support as the state goes to the polls for general elections in Singapore on July 1, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Zakaria Zainal

Among the most surprising electoral outcomes was that Heng Swee Keat, 59, the incumbent deputy premier and finance minister, and his team only narrowly prevailed against what analysts regard as the WP’s second-strongest team with 53.4% of the vote at East Coast group constituency. Heng, the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general, is Lee’s designated successor.

Lee has led Singapore since 2004 and previously said that he hopes to step aside before he turns 70 in 2022 and pass the baton to a cadre of younger PAP ministers who represent the ruling party’s fourth-generation, or “4G”, leadership. Heng’s humbling performance at the ballot box, though, has raised questions about the PAP’s leadership succession plans.

Lee and his predecessors Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew – the premier’s late father – have traditionally polled above the PAP’s national vote share, often with a 70% majority. Heng’s showing in the closely fought constituency, by comparison, was below the party’s national vote share and among the lowest of the so-called “4G” leaders.

While the election results have more broadly obliged PAP introspection and soul-searching, party leaders have been adamant that there have been no discussions or plans to review Heng’s position as Lee’s eventual successor. The 68-year-old premier has, moreover, hinted that he could put off plans to retire amid the coronavirus crisis.

When asked by reporters in late July whether he would continue as prime minister beyond age 70, Lee said: “I do not determine the path of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a lot will depend on how events unfold. And all I can say is, I will see this through and I’ll hand over in good shape as soon as possible to the next team and into good hands.”

Lee unveiled a largely unchanged post-election Cabinet on July 25 that retained veteran politicians in key positions and rotated 4G ministers to new portfolios, explaining that he opted for “a greater degree of continuity” than usual because of the “existential” and “overwhelming” crisis facing Singapore in the wake of the pandemic.

Singapore’s usually bustling business district was almost deserted on April 7 as most workplaces in the city-state closed to stem the spread of the coronavirus after a surge in cases. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Heng took on an additional role as coordinating minister for economic affairs, which analysts say leaves him seemingly secure as heir apparent and suggests no change to the status quo. Others see the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity for Heng to prove his leadership mettle and suitability for the top political job.

“While Heng lacks the charisma and oratory skills expected of a political leader, he appears generally well-liked by Singaporeans and comes across as a decent, sincere technocrat who is capable save for his ability to conduct parliamentary debates and rouse crowds in political rallies,” said Chan.

“For the sake of its own credibility, the PAP will not make significant changes to its succession plans because it has prided itself on delivering political consistency and stability – having a clear successor in sight and sticking to him is integral to its credibility.”