Singapore’s Bruised PAP Returns to Power as Expected
Battered by the coronavirus and worsening economic times, government’s vote total shrinks
Beset by a botched response to the coronavirus crisis but protected by near-flawless gerrymandering, Singapore’s People’s Action Party has maintained its six-decade supermajority in Parliament via national elections on July 10 although it only eked out slightly more than 60 percent of the vote.
It was a kind of damned if you don’t, damned if you do election, with the country not only facing a public health emergency but its worst recession in decades as the coronavirus, the US-China trade war and a flagging global economy took their toll. However, an election was necessary under Singapore’s Westminster-style parliamentary system before April 2021 and with the situation likely to get worse before it gets better, government leaders swallowed hard and went ahead.
Despite receiving only 61.2 percent of the vote – its worst showing since 2011, when it won 60.1 percent – the PAP will return to power with 83 of the 93 seats, or 89.25 percent, a demonstration of the government’s skill in drawing the district lines to protect itself.
The big winner was the Workers Party, which now holds the 10 other parliamentary seats, for the first time winning 50.49 percent of the wards in which it contested, keeping its Aljunied Group Representation Constituency, winning another GRC in Sengkang and taking a single seat in Hougang.
The newly minted Progress Singapore Party (PSP) headed by septuagenarian surgeon Tan Cheng Bock, with Lee Hsien Loong’s disaffected brother at his side adding star power, didn’t win any of the seats it contested, but according to one political analyst did well for a party less than two years old, winning roughly 40 percent or more in most of the wards in which it contested. The party was rewarded with two “non-constituency” seats provided under the constitution to produce a minimum number of opposition representatives in Parliament to ensure the expression of views other than the government's, an odd construction that doesn’t confer any real power on the seats.
The Singapore Democratic Party was likewise blanked yet again along with a handful of splinter parties.
The PAP was hoping to repeat the experience of the 2001 recession when it took 75 percent of the vote, but a growing number of Singaporeans see the PAP as hidebound and smug despite its enviable record of management and relative lack of localized corruption. But the volte-face from the party was surprising against even pessimistic analysts’ predictions of 65 to 68 percent of the vote.
With the election now completed, the government faces an unenviable task. As one of the world’s premier trading nations, with foreign trade representing more than 325 percent of GDP, the knock-on effects of the coronavirus are expected to be severe. The Ministry of Trade and Industry revised growth downward in May 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 portion of the economy at sea.
In March, the government unveiled an unprecedented stimulus plan worth around S$48 billion (US$33.7 billion) to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic including an unprecedented national reserves drawdown of S$17 billion.
It expects a whopping increase in information and communications technology spending by 30 percent, focusing its budget on the development of new digital tools to respond to the coronavirus as well as digital services to support businesses and individuals. ICT spending will include the development of cloud systems, data, artificial intelligence and modernization of government ICT infrastructure.
The city could well benefit from Hong Kong’s troubles as the Chinese government increasingly cracks down under the just-implemented national security act. The international business and legal fraternities are starting to discover they may be blind-sided by some of the restrictions on information technology aimed at the press and protesters.
One intriguing report came out during the election that the government plans billions in infrastructure expenditure to go underground for utility, transport, storage and industrial facilities to free up surface land for housing and offices.
The government has spent years expanding the size of the island by barging in millions of tonnes of sand from Indonesia, Malaysia and as far as Cambodia. With governments in those countries objecting to the removal of land from their islands and deltas, that has now come to a stop. Under an Underground Master Plan developed over the past several years, data centers, bus depots, a sewage system, warehousing and water reservoirs are to be put underground, freeing up surface space. Of 180 km of urban rail, nearly half are located below ground, as is about 10 percent of Singapore’s expressway network, according to a 2018 government report.
The next challenge is for the leadership, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong saying he was likely to step down once the coronavirus crisis is defeated. He is likely to become a “minister mentor” as was his father, Lee Kuan Yew, leaving the government without a member of the Lee family for the first time since independence. Although Goh Chok Tong, who also stepped away from politics this year, led the government, Lee Hsien Loong was defense minister during his tenure and Kuan Yew exerted a heavy influence.
The new leadership is expected to include Heng Swee Keat, 58, as prime minister. Despite 30 years of grooming by the Lee families, the PAP leadership is regarded as still relatively untested. Under Heng, the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general and the head of the Covid-19 task force, the task force stumbled badly in April, neglecting to test hundreds of thousands of migrant workers living in barracks on the island, with the result that the virus, thought to be fully under control, broke loose with the number of infected zooming from a few hundred to more than 45,000.
To show just how Singaporeans and not just Heng Swee Kiat view this bifurcation of society, the state-controlled media Channel News Asia reported without a hint of irony on July 11 that "Singapore reports 191 new Covid-19 infections, 16 cases ‘in the community, 174 work permit holders in dorms.’”
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.