Singapore's GE2020: A post-mortem

By Dhevarajan Devadas
Tutor at the National University of Singapore, former research assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies

Singapore's ruling PAP won yet again in the 2020 election. But it wasn't the “strong mandate” that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had hoped for.

Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has secured another five years to continue its unbroken administration of the city state since self-government began in 1959. However, the PAP did not get the “strong mandate” that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had hoped for from the July 10 poll.

The party secured 83 out of 93 parliamentary seats, an envious outcome for any party in an electoral democracy. But it also suffered a drop in the popular vote from 69.86% in 2015 to 61.24% in 2020. The election also saw the opposition achieving its best performance since independence, with the Workers’ Party (WP) retaining its six seats and winning another four. The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) clinched two Non-Constituency seats reserved for the best losers after a respectable debut.

PM Lee termed the results a “clear mandate” in a post-election press conference but admitted it fell below his expectations for the popular vote share. He had called the election amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and political observers predicted a landslide PAP victory. After all, the government had announced an unprecedented four budgets with measures to soften the economic blow and protect jobs.

The PAP had previously attained its third highest share of the popular vote (75.3%) in 2001 when voters flocked to safety in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks. This time, opposition parties warned that voters risked wiping them out if the PAP won every seat in a landslide. Multi-seat Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), incumbent-friendly media and grassroots networks, and a traditionally apathetic population have usually disadvantaged the resource-lean opposition in previous elections.

Voting in the time of Covid-19

While elections had been widely expected to be held in the first half of 2020, the explosion of coronavirus cases among migrant workers in packed dormitories forced the government to implement a two-month “circuit breaker” in April and May, effectively shutting down much of the economy while it focused on isolating and testing tens of thousands of workers. The government’s election talk in March was later blamed by some critics for allegedly distracting it from the brewing infections in the dormitories.

A few weeks before Parliament was finally dissolved on June 23, the Elections Department, which is under the Prime Minister’s Office, announced a slew of special measures to protect voters and prevent coronavirus clusters. The elderly and those with fever or on stay-home notices were allocated specific time slots to vote. Extra polling stations were set up to reduce crowd densities and temperature screening and hand sanitising were enforced.

But long queues did build up at several stations on polling day, prompting the Returning Officer to extend voting hours from 8pm to 10pm, the first time it has done so. To speed up the voting process, it also did away with the requirement for voters to wear disposable gloves before receiving their ballot papers, stating that the other safety measures were adequate. The Elections Department later promised a thorough review of the long queues and voter confusion on polling day.

Key takeaways from GE2020

According to political watchers, GE2020’s unexpected results highlighted three key trends that have become more pronounced in Singapore’s electorate.

Firstly, voters are largely disapproving of gutter politics and hard-line tactics that were utilised effectively by the PAP in the past. PAP candidate Tan Wu Meng’s questioning of WP chief Pritam Singh’s motivations for allegedly supporting poet Alfian Sa’at’s critical comments about Singapore before the election was called, was criticised as an unwarranted personal attack. Another PAP statement that used a domestic violence analogy to criticise Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan was condemned by women’s rights group AWARE as “regrettable” and “insensitive”.

The WP, on the other hand, won praise for its aspirational messages and slick use of social media in a campaign that was largely conducted online due to the pandemic. WP candidate Jamus Lim acquired a band of “stan accounts” run by obsessive fans and appeared in “fan cam” video mashups popular in K-pop, while 80-year-old PSP leader Tan Cheng Bock endeared himself to younger fans with Instagram stories and memes.

Secondly, younger voters backed the opposition’s call for more checks and balances against the PAP’s Parliamentary supermajority as well as greater political diversity, considering them to be as important as traditional “bread and butter” issues. Surveys by Blackbox Research found that three in four Gen Zs (aged 21-24) agreed that greater choice was good for the country.

Younger voters also demonstrated greater willingness to tolerate uncomfortable public discussions on sensitive issues such as race and religion. When police reports were filed against WP candidate Raeesah Khan for past online posts claiming that the authorities had allegedly racist double standards in enforcing laws, her supporters rallied within hours around the hashtag #IStandWithRaeesah on social media. They welcomed the frankness of Raeesah’s comments on minority grievances and responded positively to her stance on speaking up for the marginalised.

Finally, the 4th Generation (4G) political leadership, which is slated to take over from PM Lee’s team in the next few years, did not perform to expectations. Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh observed in a Facebook post that “the general image of the 4G leaders is perceived to be one of arrogance, an elitist, natural aristocracy who project a ‘we know best’ attitude”.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, regarded as the heir apparent to PM Lee, fumbled in his nomination day speech, sparking derisory jokes and memes. He later won his constituency of East Coast GRC with just 53.41% of votes, the second worst result of any victorious PAP team.

PM Lee himself appeared to shift the focus of the PAP’s campaign from the 4G to his own team, promising voters in an online rally that he would remain as PM until the pandemic was resolved. Notably, he mentioned working closely with his colleagues and former DPMs Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, without referring to DPM Heng or other 4G leaders by name.

Looking ahead, GE2020 has ushered in a new normal. For the first time, WP Chief Pritam Singh has been formally recognised as “Leader of the Opposition” along with additional privileges and responsibilities. The PAP has acknowledged younger voters’ desire for greater political diversity and relooking how issues such as race are discussed. Heng remains as DPM in the new Cabinet, though his elevation to PM may not be as assured as before.

As we await the opening of the 14th Parliament on August 24, it will be interesting to see how Singapore navigates changing voter expectations and political dynamics.


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