The Upcoming General Election 2020 in Singapore

Partyforumseasia:   On 23 June, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong advised President Halimah Yacob to dissolve the 13th parliament and issue the Writ of Election. The time schedule is tight; nomination day is the 30th of June. After 9th of July as “cooling-off” day, the voting will take place on the 10th.

Typical campaigning in a food court in Singapore. Effectiveness is not guaranteed, but the tradition is at least more environmentally friendly than the poster battles in other countries.

As a former colony, Singapore inherited the British electoral system which gives the prime minister the prerogative of calling for elections at a time which he deems suitable for his government. Lee has hinted at elections several times in the last few months, and may have  hesitated to reconsider the dates due to the Covid-19 outbreak The pandemic appears to be stabilising after the unexpected mass infections among the foreign workers who live in congested dormitories under not always the best hygienic conditions are fizzling out. The mortality rate in Singapore is rather low, but a lockdown called “circuit breaker” has affected the economy quite badly. Like many other governments around the world, Singapore has injected massive amounts of cash to cushion the impact and help citizens who lost their jobs and businesses most affected by the lockdown. Even the foreign workers under quarantine were fed and paid fairly, instead of being sent back to their home countries such as India and Bangladesh.
The international image of the city state, apart from cleanliness, very low corruption levels, and high- tech affinity, is also dominated by the longevity of the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) grip on power and its efficient governance. So far, the PAP has always won an absolute majority, and this is not expected to change on July 10th. The ambition of the party, so used to success, was already hurt  in the 2011 election when its share of the popular vote sank to 60.1%, although such a result would have been more than a dream for most other parties world-wide.  But in the 2015 general election the PAP recovered with 69.9%.
The opposition, now as ever, is divided and hardly capable of building sufficient trust among themselves for strategic candidate-placing and avoiding three-cornered fights. The Workers’ Party alone has managed to win and defend a group representation constituency (GRC) where each party has to field a group of candidates. The system has been introduced by the PAP majority in 1988 to guarantee the official racial balance and a minimum number of minority candidates and MPs. For this year’s election, there are 17 GRCs and 14 Single Member Constituencies (SMCs). The British first-past-the-post system has always catapulted the PAP to a huge majority in parliament, but this time a minimum number of 21 MPs will be guaranteed a mandate, including 9 Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP) representing subgroups in the society and 12 Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP) – the “best of the losers” in case the opposition does not win these 12 seats on its own strengths.

Apart from the Covid-19 problems, this election is unusual in several aspects:

  1. It is the start of a change of leadership. Since Prime Minister Lee has announced that he plans to retire when he turns 70 in 2022, the PAP had started the “renewal” process and installed a new generation of leaders, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and a handful of younger politicians, called the 4th generation (4G). They have already taken up more prominent ministerial portfolios and given more presence in the media limelight.. At the same time, many prominent members of the old guard are retiring, with the most high-profile  and anticipated member being the former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, predecessor of Lee Hsieng Loong.
  2. There are several new opposition parties, increasing the probability that all constituencies will be contested. The fact that, in the past, with only the PAP fielding candidates in all precincts, so called walk-overs disappointed many of now middle-aged voters who so far hardly had a chance to really cast their votes in a ballot box.
  3. The Workers’ Party (WP) has held the Aljunied GRC in the East of Singapore since 2011 and will try to retain it this time, though they have been attacked for alleged shortcomings in the running of the town council which is the local form of municipal management with wide financial responsibilities. The respected father of the Aljunied success and long term party chairman Low Thia Kiang is retiring at the age of 63, and his successor since 2018, Pritam Singh, has been criticized in parliament for a variety of reasons, maybe for his courage to raise uncomfortable questions for the government.
  4. The former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock has formed a new party, the Progress Singapore Party (PSP). Tan (80) made the headlines of his political career in the presidential election 2011, when he narrowly lost against the PAP-supported candidate Tony Tan with 34.85% against 35.20. The PSP intends to field 24 candidates in 3 GRCs and five SMCs. Tan Cheng Bok, as his presidential success has shown, enjoys a jovial image attracting protest voters against the ruling party. One PR-coup is the surprise move of the Prime Minister’s estranged younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, to join the PSP. A photo session took place during a breakfast meeting in a food court, when Tan handed over a membership card to Lee. The family feud between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his two younger siblings seems to be bitter but rather unpolitical in details.
  5. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), under secretary-general Chee Soon Juan since 1995, has been unsuccessful in all elections since, but obviously attracts enough support from members and donors. Chee is a good speaker and has generated quite a number of reform proposals on democratic and bread-and-butter issues. He will run again in a single member constituency where he garnered respectable 38% in the last election.
  6. On the opposition side, altogether 10 parties are supposed to run for a mandate in the 93 seats parliament. That means, the opposition is divided, and the most successful one, the Workers’ Party, is focusing on its stronghold and is probably less interested in opposition agreements on who should have priority where. The daily reporting in the print media focuses mainly on the very typical “walkabouts” of candidates and supporters in food courts and shopping centres. Whether the prospective voters are always happy about the interruption is a mystery, but always a given for the candidates. In contrast to most neighboring countries, Singapore is not covered with smiling faces on big posters during the election campaign. All candidates must pay a deposit of S$ 13,500 which will be forfeited if they garner less than 12.5% of the valid votes. The system is being applied in Britain and most former colonies in different levels of vote percentage. Party funding is strictly controlled and limited. But at the beginning of the campaign, there are already all sorts of bags, toys, and mascots being seen. Donations seem to flow in sufficient quantity.
  7. Organization is one of the outstanding strong points of Singapore and the ruling PAP. So, not surprisingly, the preparations for a safe campaign period are all in place, such as no rallies allowed and a focus on online campaigning, etc. And the rules for the polling stations are meticulously set, including electronic registration, taking of temperatures, disposable gloves for the ballot paper, and, of course, compulsory wearing of face masks.
  8. Over the last weekend, the PAP withdrew a new candidate because he generated a social media storm for “elitist” behavior and arrogance. The very careful selection of new candidates was a hallmark of the party with grueling final interviews by Lee Kuan Yew himself. The party was proud of attracting always the most suitable and qualified characters to serve the voters and the country. Highly educated candidates running for the opposition were a sensation for many years.
  9. Predicting the outcome is always risky; in politics many things can happen. But all in all, Singapore is being well-managed by the incumbent PAP. For the unforeseeable expenses in the pandemic crisis, unlike most bigger countries, Singapore could fall back on financial reserves instead of borrowing everything from institutional lenders. The prime minister’s calculation may also have considered that in times of crisis the silent majority may not risk rocking the boat. So, the percentage of the PAP’s majority will be the interesting detail in the results and, of course, the number of opposition mandates.

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