Singapore Goes to the Polls Amid Pandemic

People’s Action Party hopes voters validate their efforts

Singaporeans are to go to the polls tomorrow – in person, not electronically to protect themselves in the middle of a Coronavirus pandemic that has sickened 45,000 people – with a flagging economy, with members of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s family publicly opposing the government and with more criticism on social media than ever before.

Nonetheless, in the eyes of most observers, despite the fact that the campaigns have seen intensive use of social media including Facebook, the only question is how big will be the margin of victory for the People’s Action Party, which was founded by the late patriarch Lee Kuan Yew and which has ruled the island republic since 1959.

In case democracy might become too exciting for the fragile nerves of the 2.65 million people expected to go to the polls, the powers that be have done their best to limit the more electrifying features of electoral politics. Campaigning was limited to just nine days. No polling is allowed to give a sense of how the opposition is doing. Districts are fiendishly gerrymandered. Walkabouts and door-to-door campaigning are allowed, but with no more than five people per group. Airtime is limited to three minutes for single constituency candidates and must be aired on MediaCorp Channel 5. Candidates may not speak, livestream or broadcast music or videos.

On top of that, last year the government pushed through a draconian “fake news” law that critics complain has been used as a cudgel against political opponents in the country’s battered opposition parties. That is added to a propensity for government figures to sue for defamation or contempt of court at the drop of a misplaced adjective.

Nonetheless, some change is looming. Goh Chok Tong, one of only three prime ministers since independence who served as Lee Kuan Yew’s successor from 1990 to 2004, will give up his seat and depart the scene. Lee Hsien Loong himself expected to step down as well sometime over the next couple of years after the virus is defeated, he has said, perhaps to become a “minister mentor,” as his father was. With these mentors departing, Singapore is entering new territory with new leadership in one of the most challenging periods economically in the country’s history. Perhaps a million middle-class professionals will be going to the polls, many of them regarding this election as a referendum on the PAP’s handling of the economy.

If all goes as expected – admittedly during spectacularly unsettled times – Hsien Loong’s eventual successor is expected to be Heng Swee Keat, 58, the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general and the man appointed to head up the task force taking on Covid-19. The task force stumbled badly in April, neglecting to test hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, among whom the virus exploded. Conditions in the workers’ barracks drove infections from a few hundred in early April to more than 45,000 and led to the realization that there are two strikingly different societies in Singapore. The elegant skyscrapers and sparkling streets in the central business district are a far cry from the cramped wooden dormitories where construction and other manual laborers live in discernibly unsanitary conditions.

In a bid to bring in new blood, the PAP is fielding 27 new candidates. Hsien Loong told local media the new candidates have “been knocked about and learnt about life, made mistakes and learnt from them. They reflect our evolving society,” a statement met with a certain amount of wry amusement in a country where those who have been knocked about are mostly foreign workers in quarantine over the virus.

The international and domestic effects of the virus could lead to a good deal more knocking about, which is why the election is being held now rather than later. Growth was revised downward in May by the Ministry of Trade and Industry to a range of minus 4 percent to minus 7 percent following lackluster 1 percent growth for the fourth quarter of 2019, the biggest drop in modern history. Although unemployment currently is at around 3.5 percent, the government has been propping up industries by paying anywhere from 25 percent to 75 percent of wages. Aviation workers have been receiving 75 percent, hotel workers 50 percent, consulting staff 25 percent, for example. Those subsidies are to end, leaving a major proportion of the economy at sea.

Three major opposition parties are challenging the PAP – the Worker Party, which holds the only two opposition seats in Parliament, the Social Democrat Party, and the new and intriguing Progress Singapore Party headed by the octogenarian surgeon and former PAP member Tan Cheng Bock. Three deeply-experienced Worker Party members, Low Thia Kiang, Chen Show Mao and Png Eng Huat, have stepped aside, generating concerns about the party’s parliamentary clout.

Eight more splinter parties are also contesting, the most ever in Singaporean history, but the three in a loose alliance hope they can deny the PAP its two-thirds majority in parliament. With the districts gerrymandered massively by the government, that is a forlorn hope at best. They are seeking to defeat Heng Swee Keat, perhaps made vulnerable by the Covid-19 task force’s stumble. If there were to happen, the next candidate to succeed Hsien Loong as premier would likely be Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, Hsien Loong's favorite choice.

Another question is how long Heng might last if indeed he becomes prime minister, given the task of following a series of iconic leaders.

The new Progress Singapore Party, established in 2018, has attracted a handful of peeved Singaporeans, the most prominent of whom is Hsien Yang, who along with their sister Lee Wei Ling has been involved in a bitter fight over the disposition of Lee Kuan Yew’s colonial-style home. The patriarch, who died in 2015, had stipulated in his will that the house be torn down to prevent it from becoming a shrine to his memory. Lee Hsien Loong has indicated that it be preserved.

Hsien Yang, who officially joined the party on June 23, loaned the star power of the Lee name to the campaign. He has been joined by Li Shengwu, the grandson of Lee Kuan Yew and nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and son of Lee Hsien Yang, who posted this on his Facebook: “To my fellow Singaporeans: Over the past five years, the PAP has grown ever more repressive and less and less competent. If you give them a blank check, they will keep getting worse. ‘Ownself check ownself’ will lead to cronyism and poor government. Say no to them now, before it’s too late.”

First-time voters, most of them active online and well-educated, make up nearly 9 percent of those eligible and appear more prone to discard the renowned pact older voters made to trade economic security for political activism. There is growing irritation over the heavy-handed crackdowns on all free expression, including campaigns against the handful of opposition media such as the Online Citizen and others.

For instance, four independent news organizations The Online Citizen, Channel News Asia, New Naratif and TOC Asia were forced to deliver government-written corrections following a National University of Singapore Society campaign forum on July 3 over a statement by opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman Paul Tambyah on the ministry of manpower’s advice to employers of foreign workers on the coronavirus. Tambyah called the correction notices “inappropriate and a complete distraction.”

Supporting Asia Sentinel with subscriptions will help us continue holding governments to account, investigating, and providing the most thoughtful coverage of Asia in the English language. See what you’ll get when you subscribe.

Subscribe now