Pandemic or No Pandemic, Singapore Readies for Polls

Officials say better now than later

The government of Singapore, its reputation for technological supremacy dented by its botched approach to Covid-19, with the economy sagging and the patriarchal Lee family in a divisive dispute, is about to attempt to pull off a national election, apparently sometime in July, with in-person voting likely in the middle of a pandemic.

Under the country’s Westminster parliamentary system, a general election must be held before April 14, 2021. Under Singapore’s own rules, which critics charge are designed to hamstring the opposition, an extremely short period of only 20 days is scheduled between the dissolution of Parliament and the election. Voting theoretically is compulsory.

No dissolution is yet appearing on the cards. However, according to widespread speculation, the feeling is that a second wave of the coronavirus, which has afflicted more than 35,000 people – the highest in Southeast Asia – and killed at least 408, will return sometime in the autumn or around the first of the year and that it is better to go ahead before the economic situation gets worse. The country appears headed for its worst recession on record, with retrenchments because of the crisis ranging from 50,000 to 150,000 despite various relief packages put forward by the government.

Economy sinking

The Ministry of Trade and Industry, on May 25, estimated the gross domestic product would shrink by anywhere from 4 percent to 7 percent in 2020. Other economists put the figure even higher, as much as 10 percent. GDP contracted by 0.7 percent in the first quarter, better than official estimates of minus 2.2 percent after relatively anemic growth of only 0.7 percent in 2019. The island republic’s per capita GDP, however, remains among the world’s highest at US$64,591.

The People’s Action Party, which has ruled the country since self-government in 1959, controls 83 of the 89 seats in Parliament despite winning 69.86 percent of the popular vote. Notwithstanding the perilous economic situation and other problems, most observers believe the PAP is likely to continue its dominance, built on mostly-steady performance, a weak opposition and brutal gerrymandering. Public opinion polls are outlawed in Singapore and there is no way to gauge support officially.

Lee family squabble

However, with Lee Kuan Yew now long gone and with the Lee family siblings in a bitter dispute over the disposition of the patriarch’s stunning black-and-white colonial-era mansion that has spilled into the political arena, there are cracks in the PAP’s impregnability. A disciplinary tribunal in February shocked observers when it found lawyer Lee Suet Fern, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s younger brother Lee Hsien Yang, guilty of “grossly improper professional conduct” in the preparation and execution of Lee Kuan Yew’s final will, leading to a widespread belief that the instruments of the government were being used for political purposes in the family brawl.

Lee Hsien Loong, 68, has committed to stepping down from the leadership following the election and allowing a new generation of Singaporeans to take over. However, there appears nobody with the outsize stature of the Lee family waiting in the wings. There is resentment over crackdowns on online publications and over the much-debated and much-criticized anti-fake news bill, which critics contend has been used to stifle legitimate dissent. Every order so far has been directed at an opposition party or politician or a government critic.

Covid blunder

The country’s biggest blunder came in early February, when officials thought they had beaten the  Covid-19 crisis, having won praise from the World Health Organization for having responded quicker than almost any other country, only to have it come roaring back because of a lack of testing of the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers who live in dormitories and toil in construction and other jobs that Singaporeans now are too well off to do themselves.

Today, because of the failure, Singapore still has 12,800 active cases and hundreds of new ones appearing every night – 408 last night – as authorities have vowed to test every single foreign worker in the country. The virus has killed only 24 people, one new death overnight, testimony to the country’s excellent health system, and the fact that most of those affected have been young and relatively healthy. 

For the most part, one of the legacies of Lee Kuan Yew is that fledgling opposition parties have been hounded, harassed, embarrassed, and harried into oblivion. They haven’t been helped by the fact that they have been mostly incompetent and have dwelled on invented issues to attempt to bring down a government that has largely been competent, honest, and innovative while at the same time being brutally repressive politically.

Three contending parties

Facing the PAP are three major parties – the center-left Workers' Party, which has six seats in parliament – the only opposition party to have elected anybody in the 2015 election besides the PAP, and which has been a Singapore mainstay for decades and in the past was a particular whipping post for the late Lee Kuan Yew, who made it his personal crusade to bankrupt the party’s leader Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, jail him and seek to disgrace him as much as possible.  The second is the Social Democratic Party headed by Chee Soon Juan, which was drubbed in 2015 and left without a single parliamentary seat.

The most intriguing development is the formation of the new Singapore Progress Party headed by the octogenarian surgeon Tan Cheng Bock, who had been a PAP stalwart for 26 years before resigning in 2006, then standing as a candidate in the 2011 presidential election, a ceremonial position, losing by only 0.35 percent to Tony Tan. Cheng Bok stood again in 2017 only to have the government change criteria for candidates to elect a Malay, Halima Yakob, impelling him Cheng Bok to call it the “most controversial presidency in the history of Singapore."  

Ex-PAP stalwart

Lee Hsien Yang has aligned with Tan, the first heavyweight former PAP stalwart to cross over to the opposition. Tan has said publicly that the new party has recruited more than 1,000 members. However, in mid-May, 20 to 30 members resigned, splitting off to start a new party and stirring Tan to say they were a handful with "big egos" who believed their way of doing things was the "only correct way."

“We have party discipline,” Tan told local media “We have party ways for allowing people to come and express their disappointments and dissatisfaction. But when they have big egos, it is very difficult. When their egos get hurt, they react very negatively.” He went on to say, “there are so many waiting to join us," while appealing to others to join.

Although observers and backers were quick to attribute the problems to “growing pains for a new party,” in the face of PAO discipline, those are not encouraging signs.

Macro challenges

Certainly, the country faces significant challenges that could persist for as long as a decade from the coronavirus and because of the weakness of the surrounding countries for which it serves as an entrepot.  Both Malaysia and Indonesia face massive economic problems. Singapore’s exports and reexports face problems finding a destination in an impoverished world.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in an interview with local media said that, “Yes, elections are coming nearer by the day. The sooner we get it done, the earlier we can rally everybody together to deal with these very significant challenges ahead, and also to deal with these very significant uncertainties in the months and years ahead.”