On June 23, Singapore’s Parliament was dissolved. The president of Singapore issued a writ of election, setting July 10 as Polling Day. Nomination Day for the candidates took place on June 30, setting only a 9-day campaign period (the day prior to polling day is known as “Cooling-off Day” where campaigning is not permitted). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for the election so as to secure a “new mandate” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the fact that elections were already supposed to be held no later than April 14, 2021.
Singapore’s 2020 general election brought the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP), which has governed Singapore since 1959, back into power with 61.24 percent of the vote share, an 8.62 percent swing against the PAP from the previous general election in 2015. Of the Parliament’s 105 total seats, 83 seats went to the PAP while 10 were secured by the opposition Workers’ Party (WP). While the PAP indeed won the election comfortably, the party failed to achieve the objective of gaining a new stronger mandate. “We have a clear mandate,” Lee said at the PAP’s post-results press conference, “but the percentage of the popular vote is not as high as I had hoped for.”
The PAP saw the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to call for a general election, betting on a possible “flight to safety” from the electorate to support the incumbent during times of crisis. In 2001 the Singapore government declared a general election on November 3, not long after the 9/11 attacks. The PAP saw an upward swing of 10.3 percent in vote share that election, a result the ruling party might have hoped to replicate in the 2020 general elections.
I had written before for The Diplomat about the possibility of elections being called during the pandemic. I discussed the initial success the government achieved in containing the number of cases, which prompted many government officials to hint the possibility of an election. This was up until Singapore experienced a surge of cases in foreign worker dormitories. The government saw fit to declare a “Circuit Breaker” (a partial lockdown) on April 7. Singapore then moved into “Phase Two” on June 19 where businesses, sports facilities, and tuition centers were permitted to reopen gradually.
There was a return to a degree of normalcy during this reopening stage in Singapore. Singaporeans were relieved to head out of their homes and to resume parts of their pre-COVID lives. The government had, through the Care and Support Package, provided $4.6 billion in stimulus in hopes to cushion the economic damages caused by the pandemic. Cash handouts were provided and an uptick of consumption resumed during Phase Two.
The ground seemed just right for the PAP to call for an election: Singapore re-entered some resemblance of normalcy and the government had provided sums of money to the people. Why then was the PAP unable to secure a stronger new mandate?
“As a hegemonic party,” Netina Tan of McMaster University writes, “the PAP does not need to resort to fraud as it enjoys ‘hyper incumbency advantage’… Yet, parties like the PAP are dissatisfied with winning because their mandate to rule depends on the size of their popular vote.” Singapore’s general elections are thus a referendum on the ruling party rather than strictly a competition between the incumbent and the opposition parties. One can prematurely conclude that the 8.62 percent swing against the PAP is a sign of displeasure against them, but how much of that can be attributed to the government’s handling of COVID-19? Furthermore, by reaching such a conclusion we ignore the role opposition parties played in the general elections campaign.
Ten parties and one independent candidate were up against the PAP in constituencies throughout the city-state. With a first-past-the-post electoral system, opposition parties in Singapore have to work tirelessly against the dominant PAP to secure a majority in the vote share. Moreover, the Elections Department, empowered to handle electoral matters of the republic, reports directly to the Prime Minister’s Office. Critics of the electoral system have alleged gerrymandering of electoral boundaries and quick changes to electoral rules, such as the earlier mentioned “Cooling-off Day” which was adopted in 2010 to, as Tan claims, “pre-empt rising Opposition support and large turnouts in election rallies.” This was in the name of preventing “emotional voting” and “risk of public disorder.” Tan writes, “The constant tweaking and changes in electoral rules reflects a desire to reduce electoral uncertainty and increase the margin of victory.”
The most notable of the new changes in electoral boundaries was the creation of the Sengkang Group Representation Constituency (GRC) — to be represented by four members of parliament. When the results for Sengkang GRC were announced, the PAP and much of Singapore were surprised. The Workers’ Party secured the constituency with 52.13 percent of the popular vote. The WP managed to unseat two long-serving members of parliament: Ng Chee Meng, minister in the prime minister’s office, and Lam Pin Min, senior minister of state for health and transport. This was a blow to the PAP.
During the campaigns, one of the WP candidates for Sengkang GRC, Raeesah Khan, was subject to several police reports over “insensitive remarks” on social media posts she had made. The PAP sought to drive the message home with a statement questioning why the WP still considered Khan as a “worthy candidate.” This prompted many Singaporeans who saw this as character assassination against Khan to support her; the hashtag #IStandWithRaeesah became trending on Twitter shortly after. The response from a wide portion of Singaporean society brings into question how effective the PAP’s control over the national political narrative is. With social media such control becomes ever more difficult.
Residents of Sengkang cited several reasons as to why they supported the Workers’ Party. They praised one of the candidates, Dr. Jamus Lim, who performed exceptionally during the televised debate. He made several notable statements such as “denying the PAP a blank check” and asserting that the “PAP does not have a monopoly of ideas.” One other reason is a demographic one: Sengkang is home to many young families. Younger voters are more likely to support contrarian positions and are open to voting for change. Those tendencies translated into votes for the opposition on polling day.
The significance of the 8.62 percent swing should not be underestimated. During the 2011 general election, the PAP saw their vote share dip to 60.1 percent, their lowest ever performance. The 61.24 percent result brings the PAP uncomfortably close to their 2011 days. This is a setback from the gains made in the 2015 general election, where the PAP gained 69.9 percent of the votes. The upsurge in support has been attributed to two factors: the “feel good factor” due to celebrations of Singapore’s 50th year of independence (SG50) and the passing of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. There was no SG50 or Lee Kuan Yew factor to bolster the PAP during the 2020 general election. There were however a few new factors that should not be ignored: the Tan Cheng Bock Factor and “Oxleygate.”
Dr. Tan Cheng Bock was a former PAP member, serving for 26 years as a member of parliament for the Ayer Rajah Single Member Constituency (SMC). His former constituency was absorbed into the West Coast GRC; it was there that he contested during this general election under the banner of his new political party, formed in 2019. The Progress Singapore Party (PSP), which contested in nine constituencies, failed to gain any seats. Tan failed to win West Coast GRC, with the PAP gaining 51.69 percent and his party 48.31 percent of the votes. Still, his fight in the West Coast GRC was not insignificant. Tan managed to bring about a 26.72 percent swing against the PAP, which had secured 76.02 percent of the vote there in the previous general election. Two non-constituency member of Parliament (NCMP) seats are to be offered to members of Tan’s West Coast GRC team. The NCMP scheme was put in place in 1984 to ensure opposition voices were present in parliament. The seats are awarded to the best losers of the opposition parties.
As a former senior PAP member running against the PAP, Tan’s campaign put more than a dent on the PAP’s image and electoral performance. For many Singaporeans he raised many questions as to whether the PAP was what it once used to be and whether it ought to continue to govern Singapore. The PSP would later welcome Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s brother, Lee Hsien Yang, as a member.
Lee Hsien Yang and Prime Minister Lee have been feuding over the status of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s residence, disputing whether or not to demolish their father’s estate. Lee Kuan Yew had long wished for the estate to be demolished after his death, but after his daughter Dr. Lee Wei Ling had moved out, Prime Minister Lee has yet to demolish the house. His siblings have accused their elder brother of going against their father’s wishes. This familial dispute has been termed “Oxleygate” and was even raised in Parliament in 2017. Lee Hsien Yang later threw his support behind Tan’s party, claiming that the “PAP has lost its way.”
While the PSP failed to win any parliamentary seats, their impressive electoral performance dispels one dominant belief in Singaporean politics: that new parties struggle to gain significant headway in their first election. Peoples Voice, led by Lim Tean, was another new party contesting in its first election; it gained only 2.37 percent of the national vote share while PSP gained 10.18 percent, not far off from the WP’s 11.22 percent. With good leadership and a strong campaign, any party old or new can succeed.
If elections in Singapore are to be seen as a referendum on the current leadership and the performance of the PAP, then the results for Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, set to be Singapore’s next prime minister, are rather telling. Heng’s team faced a formidable WP team in East Coast GRC and garnered 53.41 percent of votes. For comparison, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong won 71.91 percent of the votes in Ang Mo Kio GRC.
Many Singaporeans view Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam positively and wish for him to be the next prime minister. This prompted Heng, at the time only the finance minister, to state that a segment of Singaporeans would not be ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, bringing into question the state of Singapore’s “multiracial” society. The results of the elections might suggest otherwise; Tharman won with 74.62 percent of the votes in Jurong GRC, the best performer of all PAP candidates. The fact that Singapore’s prime minister-designate scored 21.21 percentage points lower than Tharman demonstrated something rather contrary to Heng’s assessment.
When it was clear that the WP had made significant gains this election, Prime Minister Lee went ahead to appoint WP leader Pritam Singh as leader of the opposition; such a title had been unofficial prior to 2020. The fact that Lee officiated this title suggests that the PAP has recognized that the opposition is here to stay. It also shows that the PAP is preparing for the possibility of alternative parties governing Singapore in the future. Bilveer Singh posits in his book Is the People’s Action Party Here To Stay? that the PAP faces a serious dilemma: “the more unprepared the Opposition is to administer Singapore, the more likely the PAP will remain in power.” But if it is inevitable for a party seated in power for too long to eventually give way, the PAP must prepare the opposition to govern Singapore. The new position as leader of the opposition also ensures that Singh can ensure an extent of discipline and unity among a fractured opposition. Whether this works in favor of the opposition will have to be seen in the coming elections.
The month of July this year saw the most uses of POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) notices, which are issued to “correct falsehoods.” Several were issued to opposition candidates during the campaign. Some have criticized POFMA for limiting free speech by silencing criticisms while others have lauded it as a means to protect society from falsehoods. Apparently, the usage of POFMA did not dampen opposition performance, calling into question its effectiveness as a possible political tool.
While 10 elected opposition seats can be viewed as insignificant against the 83 of the PAP, opposition parties faced a Herculean task to make any impact during the elections. That is why the gains made in the 2020 general election are a significant victory for the opposition, and a warning sign to the PAP. The ruling government will not only have to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic but will also have to win back the hearts and minds of the many voters that left them. The opposition parties have made significant gains this election, they have made more than a dent on the PAP’s legitimacy. They must maintain the momentum they created and continue to convince Singaporeans why a Singapore governed by alternative parties will work.
One thing is for certain. Singaporeans have demonstrated the worthiness of their democracy, despite the usual perceptions of Singapore politics as sterile, pragmatic, and illiberal.
Nigel Li a Singaporean citizen and a contributing writer to the Taipei Times. He is a co-founder of the student initiative singaporevotes.com and is currently studying at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.