Singapore has regularly held general elections (GEs) since 1948, first for limited self-government and since 1965, for the government of the day. The anomaly that stands out is the uninterrupted rule of the People’s Action Party (PAP) since 1959, making Singapore one of the most resilient one-party dominant states in the world. As such, most of the issues during Singapore’s GEs are associated with the rule and alleged misrule of the PAP.
Perennial Issues Confronting the PAP
There have been some perpetual issues facing the PAP as Singapore’s ruling party. Most of these are associated with so-called “bread and butter” issues affecting bulk of the population, especially the middle and lower classes. These traditionally involved costs associated with housing, health care, car ownership, general transportation, and for some, challenges associated with basic essentials. The last issue is particularly poignant for those without public housing, living in rental flats, and now, a very small group who happens to be homeless.
There is also a very small category of unemployed in Singapore. One can well imagine the challenges confronting them and how this group of people would march to the polling booth in “first-world” Singapore. The issues of poverty, lower income, and even the rise of social stratification has increased in relevance in Singapore, especially in the last decade or so. To the PAP’s credit, it has tried to deal with the issues by taking the bull by the horns through various assistance programs even though the word “welfare” remains a dirty word for the ruling party.
Over and above these basic bread and butter issues, there have intermittently been certain issues that have come to haunt the ruling party in the past. These specific issues are a function of the PAP’s policies that are deemed to have hurt the general public even though the government has justified their institution on grounds of the “public good.” Some of these issues include the “graduate mother scheme,” streaming in schools, delaying Central Provident Fund (Singapore’s pension plan) withdrawals, and the quagmire associated with opening up Singapore to foreigners to work, stay, and even become citizens. Unlike the bread and butter issues that tend to “hurt” the electorate differently, depending on one’s economic status, the latter tend to be “universal issues” and this is where the ruling party has been hurt in the past in general elections regardless of the opposition’s attractiveness or otherwise.
Singapore’s GEs tend to be determined by a number of factors. These include the need to keep the PAP as the ruling party, the need to have a credible opposition as a checking mechanism in parliament, the nature of local and national issues at any one time, and finally, the standing of the individual candidates in the GE, whether from the PAP or the opposition. In short, increasingly, the nature of issues and the popular appeal of the candidate have become important determinants as to whether someone wins or not. While this would have been wholly true in single member constituencies, this calculus has been complicated by Group Representation Constituencies, which tend to benefit the PAP with a strong minister helming it.
What Are the Key Issues in the 2020 GE?
While foreigners taking away jobs from Singaporeans and a Singapore without Lee Kuan Yew dominated the hustings in 2011 and 2015 respectively, in 2020, issues of similar potency simply do not exist. Prior to 2020, there were great concerns with rising costs of living, even though these were somewhat ameliorated by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s success in launching the 4Gen leadership under Heng Swee Keat (the majority of the key positions in politics today are now being helmed by these leaders). Issues involving housing, medical costs, transportation, and the influx of foreigners will not go away but will not be as toxic as expected. Even the expected rise in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) has been managed following the economic downturn stemming from the U.S.-China trade war. The big issue associated with the then-coming GE was primarily when Deputy Prime Minister Heng would take over as prime minister and what this transition would mean for Singaporeans and the country’s politics.
Then came COVID-19 and everything changed. This is definitely going to be a COVID-19 GE. In fact, the key issue is whether a GE should even be held when the threat of the spread of the disease remains. The opposition political parties — such as the Singapore Democratic Party, Reform Party, and Progress Singapore Party — have objected to the GE, saying it would irresponsible to hold polls and that doing so would aggravate the already dangerous situation in the country. Concerns have only grown as COVID-19’s reach has widened, with the United States as the new epicenter outside China. Public intellectuals such as Viswa Sadasivan and Dr K. Soin have joined the chorus in objecting to a GE being held during the COVID-19 crisis in Singapore.
And yet the leaders of the ruling party are signaling that the elections would be held sooner rather than later. Following the February 2020 budget, where many measures were introduced to assist those negatively affected by COVID-19, on March 13 the government, after an eight-month wait, released the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC). This usually signals that the GE is near, anytime between two to four months in the future. The EBRC slightly changed the electoral rules of engagement, with the number of MPs increasing to 93 from 89 and with an increase of Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) and Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) compared to the 2015 GE. Moreover, within weeks of the first budget, a second, so-called COVID-19 stimulus budget worth S$48 billion (US$34 billion) was unveiled to assist the different sectors affected by the economic downturn, including putting much needed cash into citizens’ pockets.
The Singapore prime minister has not ruled out calling a GE during the COVID-19 outbreak, arguing that calling for for an early election would allow the government to deal head on with critical tasks ahead with a fresh mandate and a full term. Lee also said that the necessary precautions would be taken if elections are held during the COVID-19 crisis. Pundits have talked of e-elections that would be devoid of rallies and house visits but include small-scale closed door dialogues and political messaging through internet and podcasts that would minimize large scale gatherings.
Why is the government likely to hold a GE soon? First, it is clear that COVID-19 is likely to last for a long time, probably up to early next year. As a GE must be held by April 2021, delaying the vote would mean that the government could go into a GE later with much more devastation to its record and its window to hold a GE very much reduced.
Second, what the government has done thus far is highly commendable and this has and will earn it much political capital during the GE. As the PAP is a tried and tested “crisis government,” be it during various economic crises in the past or in managing the SARS and H1N1 influenza outbreaks, the same can be expected of the ruling party during COVID-19. Also, Singaporeans have great confidence in the PAP in a crisis and this is likely to boost the PAP’s standing as the only one that can address the COVID-19 challenge no matter how bad it gets.
Third, unlike the ruling party, the opposition has largely been reduced to being a spectator in the COVID-19 drama. The most it can do is to criticize the government. All the active measures — and most importantly, the financial assistance — are coming from the ruling party. The PAP is clearly the leader, with the opposition screaming from behind about what can and cannot be done. Singaporeans are likely to be enamored by the ruling party’s proactive approach, with Lee already twice addressing the nation on the issue.
Fourth, as the COVID-19 crisis worsens in the region and world, Singapore’s situation, by comparison looks good, despite the increasing number of cases being reported of late. Singapore has somewhat managed the crisis even though it is unlikely to go away. Clearly the past SARS and H1N1 experiences have prepared the republic for the pandemic.
Fifth, as the COVID-19 crisis is likely to persist, the government’s stance that the “issue” of holding the GE should be addressed quickly so that Singapore is in a strong position to manage other important crises that may surface is an appealing and powerful one. That there are ways of holding a GE during a COVID-19 situation is also something that makes the GE a highly doable thing.
Finally, the question that can be asked from the perspective of the ruling party would be, why wait? What more can be done to change the electorate’s mindset as far as the ruling party is concerned, especially after the February budget? For the PAP, it makes sense to finish off the unfinished business of the GE and move on, especially when this is an important election that would see the baton being passed from the third to the fourth generation of leaders.
By all counts, Singapore’s forthcoming general elections appears to be a COVID-19 GE, where the pandemic would be strategically mined to benefit the ruling PAP so that the nation can move ahead to deal with more serious issues of governance in the coming years. It will also entrench the one-party dominant state in Singapore.
Bilveer Singh is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore.