Singapore: Ruling party retains power, but discontent grows

July 16, 2020
Workers' Party candidates celebrate the election result. Photo: Workers' Party/Facebook

Singapore's People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled the city-state since 1959, called a general election on July 10.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong released his S$93 billion budget in the lead up to the election, in the hope of exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to gain an increased majority and wipe out the opposition parties.

Unsurprisingly, while the PAP retained its super-majority, by winning 83 out of 93 parliamentary seats, its decision to hold the election during the COVID-19 pandemic was widely criticised. This resulted in the PAP receiving 61.2% of the vote, significantly lower than the 69.9% it gained in the 2015 election.

The biggest winner among the opposition parties was the Workers’ Party (WP), which retained the single member constituency (SMC, in which individuals compete for election) of Hougang and the group representative constituency (GRC, in which groups compete) of Aljunied, with increased majorities.

Workers' Party gains

Overall, the WP gained 10 seats in the new parliament.

In a shock upset, the WP also won the newly-created Sengkang GRC, with a young inexperienced WP team overcoming PAP’s team, which was comprised of four experienced members, including three office holders.

In the lead up to the election, the PAP used its control of Singapore’s state and electoral machinery to disadvantage the opposition parties. For example, PAP flags and posters were everywhere, but in some constituencies, opposition paraphernalia was removed because it had not been put up according to regulations.

More importantly, the PAP carried out actions targeting the WP.

Firstly, PAP ensured that a lawsuit filed against the WP-controlled Aljunied town council over alleged mismanagement of council funds and accounts was repeatedly raised in the mainstream media to discredit the party.

Secondly, it targeted WP Sengkang team member Raeesah Khan, accusing her of “allegedly promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion or race”. This accusation was based on tweets she made in 2018. A police investigation into the matter is still ongoing.

These actions backfired on the PAP when it came to the popular vote.

Khan apologised for her social media posts and WP leader Pritam Singh publicly gave her the party's full support.

In contrast, when allegations emerged that former army officer and PAP candidate for the Jurong GRC Ivan Lim had bullied soldiers under his command, the PAP leadership forced him to step down in a way that led some people to suspect he was thrown under the bus.

Moreover, the way in which the authorities handled Khan's situation has led to accusations of hypocrisy, with people pointing out that PAP Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said some months ago that Singapore is "not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister". When a police report was filed against Keat, the matter was swiftly dismissed as not meeting the criteria for “promoting enmity between different groups”.

In response, the residents of Sengkang punished the PAP for bullying Khan. The WP also gained 46.2% against Keat’s team in the East Coast GRC, coming close to unseating him.

Finally, there was fallout against PAP Senior Minister of State for Transport Lam Pin Min — who ran on the PAP’s Sengkang GRC team — over his prohibition last year of the use of personal mobility devices, including electric scooters, on most of Singapore’s roads. This resulted in many food delivery drivers being severely financially disadvantaged.

While unable to win any seats, the centre-left Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) also did well, with SDP chiefs Chee Soon Juan and Dr Paul Tambyah gaining more than 45% of the vote in the Bukit Batok and Bukit Panjang SMCs respectively.

The newly formed Progress Singapore Party (PSP), led by former PAP stalwart Dr Tan Cheng Bock, came close to winning the West Coast GRC with a vote of 48.3% to the PAP's 51.7%. It is likely that Cheng Bock will become a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) as one of the highest-scoring candidates not to win a seat.

While not changing Singapore’s political landscape significantly, the 2020 election result has dealt a blow to the PAP's claim of a strong mandate, with some traditionally safe PAP seats becoming marginal.

'Fight for democracy goes on’

There are several reasons for the PAP’s poorer than expected performance.

Growing discontent among Singaporeans, together with a string of poor government policies was exacerbated by the government’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in a second wave. The timing of the elections (in the midst of the pandemic) could also have influenced the swing against the incumbents.

Demographics may also have played a part in the PAP’s poor showing. From the beginning, the PAP targeted older citizens, relying on their loyalty to the PAP brand because of its past achievements. The PAP used party TV broadcasts to show the elderly how to cast their vote and made sure they were given priority in voting.

This may have led some younger voters to conclude that PAP has lost touch with ordinary people and that the opposition parties have done more to connect with people between elections.

There was also a desire to see more opposition voices in parliament. As such, younger voters were keen to deny the PAP its control over all members of parliament.

This election came soon after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations parliamentarians for human rights (APHR) released a report on June 18, which made various recommendations to make Singapore's electoral system fairer.

In a statement to The Online Citizen on June 20, APHR director Teodoro “Teddy” Brawner Bagwat Jr said Singapore has “an electoral process designed to ‘heavily’ favour the ruling party, which has essentially secured the PAP's victory in every election since Singapore's self governance”.

Singapore's election system is unique in that it features SMCs and GRCs. While it is claimed that this ensures minority representation, in reality the GRC system has been used more often as a tool to disadvantage opposition parties, while enabling the PAP to introduce new candidates who can coat-tail their way into parliament.

Singapore's political system has also drawn criticism from Singaporean academic and historian Pingjtin (PJ) Thum, who said on July 11: “Reminder: an election that is neither free nor fair cannot produce any sort of mandate, nor produce any accurate reflection of voters opinions. In a free and fair election, the results would have been very, very different. The fight for a democratic society based on justice and equality goes on.”

While the PAP gained an absolute majority, the election result shows that Singaporean citizens were unwilling to give PAP a blank cheque and wish to see a stronger opposition in parliament to hold them to account. This is a step forward in the struggle for a more democratic Singapore.

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