Singapore Readies for a Covid-Scarred Election

It’s what happens later that is worrisome

The government of Singapore has announced that it will go to the polls in a national election on July 10 in which seemingly the only suspense is in what will happen a couple of months later.

That is when the country, which will return the People’s Action Party to power unless something happens that is so far beyond reality as to be unimaginable, is expected to really have to face the consequences of its experience with the Covid-19 pandemic. So far, more than 42,400 coronavirus cases have been registered, the second-highest in Southeast Asia, with numbers stubbornly continuing to rise as public health authorities carry on with an intensive test and tracking program in teeming dormitories of mostly South Asian workers that they missed during Singapore’s first highly-praised reaction to the coronavirus. Amazingly, only 26 have died.

With growth revised downward in May for the third time by the Ministry of Trade and Industry to a range of minus 7 percent to minus 4 percent following lackluster 1 percent growth for the fourth quarter of 2019, the flagging economy dictated that life was going to get worse before it got better. For one of the world’s highest per capita GDP economies, Singapore is slipping into uncharted territory. It has never seen a dip this bad.

While 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. 

Under the country’s Westminster parliamentary system, no general election was necessary before next April. But in the third quarter of the year, with small and medium enterprises expected to start to fold, with authorities fearing a second wave of the coronavirus, and with the government’s ability to ameliorate the difficulties fading, the choice was between bad and worse.

The deeply entrenched People’s Action Party, the 76-year-old stepchild of the late founder Lee Kuan Yew, which has ruled Singapore in an unbroken reign, is predicted by some prognosticators to sweep 75 percent of the national vote, although others believe it will go lower as risk-averse older voters object to the sudden opening-up of the economy from coronavirus restrictions.

With a historically short authorized campaign period calculated to throw an already weakened opposition off guard, the opening-up looks far too much like a naked government ploy to allow government candidates time to cruise the housing estates in a search for votes.

“Singaporeans are risk-averse,” said a local political analyst. “There is some unhappiness even among people who are pro-government, they are unhappy that the PAP opened the economy too fast, everything is open, the restaurants are open, there is a feeling that the PAP is opening it too fast because of the election. My sense is that it could cut into the PAP vote, my sense is 65-66-67 percent.”

In any other election, that would be called a landslide. It will probably be called a landslide in Singapore as well, partly because even as Singapore has ceased some of the more egregious practices that paralyzed the political process, there really is not an opposition to speak of.

Nor, in fact, are there any really stellar PAP members to watch. Lee Kuan Yew left the prime ministership in 1990, vowing to act as a minister mentor to incubate a new political class of leaders who could run the country capably. It appears his main incubee was his son Lee Hsien Loong, who has served as prime minister since 2004 following an interregnum filled by Goh Chok Tong. Thirty years have passed since Kuan Yew set out on his mission. But today there are few if any who stand out among the faceless technocrats that make up the PAP.

Lee Hsien Loong, now 68, is expected to end the primacy of the Lee dynasty, with most expecting him to step down within a couple of years. But “the younger leaders are untested in terms of leading a crisis, they have been thrust into the spotlight to grapple with it,” said the political analyst. “In terms of matching the Lees, the current new generation is nowhere near there. The disadvantage is the short runway of political experience. Other countries, in terms of giving younger leaders time to learn, to form bonds and relationships, in Singapore it has been a much shorter time.”

The number of seats the combined opposition will contest won’t be known until nomination day, June 30. The Worker Party, the oldest and most visible opposition, currently holds nine seats in parliament. But senior members are retiring amid the Covid crisis and newer candidates aren’t well known.  The party expects to contest just five constituencies, half the number it fielded in the previous election. 

The Progress Singapore Party headed by the octogenarian surgeon and former PAP member Tan Cheng Bock is also expected to field a slate, but Tan has declined to detail his plans, saying he would wait until nomination day. At that, the party is the one that is likely to provide the most entertainment. Tan 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 to call it the “most controversial presidency in the history of Singapore."  

The new party, set up in 2018, has attracted a handful of peeved Singaporeans, the most prominent of whom is Lee Hsien Yang, the younger brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who along with their sister 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. The battle has ended up in the public domain, with Hsien Yang’s wife Lee Suet Fern facing possible disbarment and fine over her handling of the late prime minister’s last will and testament.  

While Hsien Yang, who officially joined the party on June 23, isn’t expected to stand as a candidate himself, he is likely to accompany Tan Cheng Bock on his campaign rounds, lending the star power of the Lee name to the campaign. He has also hinted he would raise money to help those having difficulty raising the deposits the government requires to qualify to stand.  But there won’t be enough candidates to provide even the remotest possibility of forming a government.

Thus the PAP, despite the problems engendered by the coronavirus, 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.