Singapore General Elections: New Dawn for the Opposition?

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Singapore General Elections: New Dawn for the Opposition?

The PAP’s victory is a foregone conclusion, but don’t sleep on the changes remaking the opposition.

Singapore General Elections: New Dawn for the Opposition?

Lee Hsien Yang, the estranged brother of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, wears a face mask while doing a fist bump with a female resident at a private estate in Jurong West during a walkabout campaign for the opposition Progress Singapore Party in Singapore on July 8, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Ee Ming Toh

Most governments would be reluctant to hold elections on the back of a global pandemic and economic downturn. In Singapore, however, doom and gloom almost always bode well for the People’s Action Party (PAP). The PAP, which has handily won every election since the city-state’s independence, correctly understands that owing to the turbulent times in the country’s early years, Singaporeans prize economic growth and stability above all. By announcing elections only weeks after exiting lockdown, the ruling party expect that voters will embrace the comforting security of their leadership.

Conveniently for the PAP, campaigning during a pandemic presents unique challenges to the opposition. Rallies, which traditionally form the cornerstone of opposition campaigns because of their propensity to draw large enthusiastic crowds, are not permitted. Walkabouts, which allow candidates to tour the constituency and engage with their voters, are now subject to social distancing guidelines. Instead, the government allocated airtime on state media for political broadcasts.

Given economic uncertainty, an ongoing pandemic, and the blunting of the opposition, many analysts expect that the risk-averse Singaporean electorate will flock to the familiar, safe hands of the ruling party. Citing past crises such as the Asian Financial Crisis and SARS epidemic, most analysts predict that the coronavirus and economic fallout will heavily favor the PAP and deliver them a routine win.

While I do not propose that the PAP will lose this election, I do not think that the 2020 general election can be written off as a routine win for the ruling party simply because of the economic uncertainty, even if it is crisis induced. It is worth noting that the 2010 election, held amid the fallout of the 2008 Great Recession, was the opposition’s most successful election. This included the capture of a Group Representative Constituency (GRC), a feat previously thought impossible as the GRC system is thought to heavily favor the PAP. This shows that while voters tend to flock to the PAP during economic crises as a rule, there are exceptions.

It is not clear how voters will react to the unique issues posed during this election, such as the 4G (fourth generation) leaders’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis, the prospect of more austere policies following the government’s three support budgets, or even just the quiet dissatisfaction over the hardship of the last few months. This is on top of the regular bread-and-butter issues that have been worsened by the impact of the pandemic, such an anticipated rise in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in the coming years, quality and quantity of jobs, and cost of living. Singapore was already experiencing slow economic growth and rising inequality before the pandemic, with 2019 seeing the slowest growth since the 2008 recession. COVID-19 and the ensuing economic fallout will sharpen the focus on economic issues and social welfare, which happen to be the main platforms of the opposition parties. While Singapore faces even more economic uncertainty than before the pandemic, the PAP also faces a fatigued population with no stamina left for more economic hardship. Even if voters do eventually flock to the PAP in this time of crisis, could the dismal outlook mean they are now more willing to entertain alternative ideas?

With the spotlight on the pandemic, less attention has been given to the quiet renewal of the opposition parties. Eleven parties are contesting all 93 seats, making this election the most contested in Singapore’s history. Several parties have gone through a rejuvenation of their ranks, with a diverse slate of new candidates boasting credentials that are on par with their PAP opponents. The number of quality candidates fielded by the opposition prompted Bilveer Singh, the deputy head of the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, to question if the PAP has lost its monopoly in attracting the best political talents.

Several parties have gone through leadership transitions, including the Workers’ Party (WP), the only party to hold seats in the previous term. Low Thia Khiang, who was leader of the WP for 17 years, is a particularly popular figure that has been roundly lauded by supporters and opponents alike as a caring and credible politician, even gaining the respect of several senior PAP figures. As the longest serving opposition MP, Low spent his career advancing the Workers’ Party as a credible and constructive opposition. Taking over this mantle is Pritam Singh, a scholar and lawyer who is cementing the image of the WP as a party that offers fair criticism and viable policy alternatives. By conceding that the opposition parties have no chance of winning the election, while concurrently advancing detailed policy alternatives that do not fundamentally challenge the PAP’s economic model, a rejuvenated WP is hoping to win over voters who want a PAP government, but with a larger opposition presence to act as a check on its power.

In seeking to prove that it is a credible alternative to voters, the WP has shown enthusiasm for competing with the PAP in ideas. This was best exemplified in the live political debate on July 1. When Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister of foreign affairs, accused the Workers’ Party of being “PAP lite,” offering similar policies but with a “half-step to the left,” Jamus Lim, a Harvard-educated economist making his political debut this election, first responded by repeating the party line in saying that the WP does not oppose for the sake of it. He then eagerly dived into the economics of his party platform and contrasted it with that of the PAP. He stated that his party’s proposals were budget-balanced and did not require any fiscal overhaul, and where trade-offs need to happen, the WP differs from the PAP by supporting labor instead of capital. While Jamus’ eloquence was widely applauded, what was most impressive about his performance was how he was able to impart to voters that the WP is more than capable in competing with the PAP on ideas and solutions to the country’s issues. In driving this message home, he helps to sell another party line in his closing statement, that the Workers’ Party could offer an alternate voice and deny the next PAP government “a blank check.” Regardless of their performance, the 2020 election will see the WP complete its transition from a party traditionally associated with the Chinese-speaking community and working class to one of diverse backgrounds and constructive alternative views.

Meanwhile, one of Singapore’s newest parties, the Progress Singapore Party, offers a different line of attack. Founded and lead by Tan Cheng Bock, a former senior PAP MP, the PSP’s primary message this campaign has been that the PAP has lost its way and failed the common man. Its policies focus on supporting different subsets of Singaporeans, ranging from young professionals to the elderly, who have been impacted by the economic hardships of the past year, albeit in much less detail than those of other opposition parties. Their relatively airy manifesto is of no concern to the PSP, who seem to be primarily campaigning on character and sentiment.

Tan was a popular MP during his time and lost the 2011 presidential elections by the slimmest of margins. He was barred from running in the 2017 election after the PAP made use of their parliamentary supermajority to amend the constitution into reserving the presidency for Halimah Yacob. This manipulation of the law to ensure the victory of what many felt was the establishment’s preferred candidate sowed resentment among many Singaporeans. Tan is hoping to capitalize on popular dissatisfaction of voters who might have traditionally supported the PAP but have grown fed up in recent years. His party is boosted by the support of Lee Hsien Yang, the brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and son of founding father Lee Kuan Yew. His support for the PSP occurs in the wake of a very public feud between Lee Hsien Yang and his brother over their father’s estate and last wishes. As a member of the Lee family, Lee Hsien Yang’s assertions that the PAP is “focused on looking after the interests of the elite” and  “no longer the party of his father” will add credence to the PSP’s message.

What does this rejuvenation of the opposition parties mean for this election, then? It is often difficult to ascertain the mood in the lead-up to the election. This is largely because opinion polling is banned, but also partly because of the confusing mixed messaging deployed by both sides. In a strange exchange lasting days, the PAP and WP have taken turns playing up the prospect of their impending decimation at the polls. However, there is not one political commentator that has realistically entertained the prospect of the opposition even breaking the PAP supermajority, let alone winning the election. It is likely that the economic crisis motif is far too ingrained in the Singaporean psyche to for the electorate to confidently support the opposition. However, this unique election will allow the opposition parties to lay the foundations for future growth.

As mentioned earlier, the pandemic has put a focus on economic issues. While the poor economic outlook may sway voters back to the PAP this election, voters are aware of the opposition message that more opposition voices in parliament could offer a wider pool of solutions and policy alternatives. Given that it already seemed to struggle to address economic issues in 2019, the PAP will need to deliver quickly. Failure to address voters’ immediate economic concerns could eventually increase voters’ appetite for alternative solutions in the lead-up to the 2025 elections

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently indicated that the change of leadership will be put off until after the crisis. This signals either a lack of confidence in Lee’s successors or a recognition that Singaporeans have not sufficiently warmed to the 4G leaders. Whatever the case, it is safe to say that the 4G leaders have not inspired the same confidence as the incoming 2G and 3G leaders did in the past. While the 4G leaders are allowed to take shelter behind Lee and other senior figures, a rejuvenated opposition and their leaders are earning their election stripes. This will set up a tantalizing clash in 2025 between opposition figures and a relatively unproven 4G PAP leadership.

Now that all parties have had to embrace campaigning online, it is likely that this form of engagement will continue in subsequent elections. This shift will benefit the opposition as the internet is a fairer playing field than the government dominated mainstream media.

Opposition parties have a reputation for being better at online engagement and have hit the ground running this election with live walkabout broadcasts, live speeches and rallies, and neat infographics that explain their policies and dissect PAP talking points. Perhaps in a sign that the PAP is unnerved by the opposition’s proficiency in social media, many PAP candidates have publicly derided them, including Law Minister K. Shanmugam who called the online campaigns “slick PR.”

Facebook has stood out as the primary election battleground, likely exacerbated by boomers and millennials alike becoming accustomed to a complete dependence on digital communications after two months spent in lockdown. This allowed new types of discourse to be take hold. For instance, clips from Jamus’ performance in the debate immediately went viral on Facebook, dampening the ability of state media to bend the narrative to flatter the ruling party. Candidates on both sides also have the opportunity to grow in national stature by appearing full-time on party media rather than only as local candidates.

While it is safe to presume that 2020 elections will return the PAP to power without any upset, this unique election can lay foundations that the opposition can build upon for the future. This is not a certainty and opposition parties do have glaring obstacles. The PSP, for instance, need to ensure that their party builds up a base who will continue to support it after Tan Cheng Bock, who is 80, retires. Meanwhile, the WP will want to ensure that they retain their traditional Chinese-speaking, working-class base; the WP embarrassingly was not able to participate in the Chinese language political debate. Nonetheless, the 2020 election almost guarantees that the next election will be one to watch.

Keiren Goh is a recent postgraduate from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.