Singapore GE 2020: Some Closing Thoughts

And so, GE 2020 has concluded. Unsurprisingly (and thankfully), the PAP returned to power, though the “strong mandate” it was hoping for didn’t seem to materialise.

It probably goes without saying that GE 2020 was the most unique in Singapore’s post-independence history (then again, what about 2020 isn’t?). With no public rallies allowed, the various political parties took to both traditional media (in the form of debates and the constituency broadcasts) and new media (online rallies and various Instagram/ Facebook posts) to canvass support from the electorate.

Heading into the elections, Singapore was in the midst of its worst crisis since independence. The impact of COVID-19 had already forced the government to wipe out the entire budget surplus from the current term of government, plus an additional $52 billion from the country’s reserves. With COVID-19 showing no signs of slowing down and with no vaccine in sight, the worst could still be ahead of us.

On hindsight, PAP is probably kicking themselves for not calling the elections last year. The economy, though slowing, was still growing coming into 2019, with the government giving out an SG Bonus in 2018 and the Merdeka Generation Package and Bicentennial Bonus last year, all while maintaining GST at the current rate of 7%. Then again, the ground in 2020 was supposed to be sweeter. By 2020, the 4G leadership would have sufficient lead time to convince Singaporeans that they were ready to take over from the likes of PM Lee and SM Tharman. And the recent safety and cybersecurity lapses at the SAF and SingHealth would be all but forgotten by then.

And then as 2020 came around, COVID-19 took the world, and Singapore, by surprise. As it became clear that the virus was not going to disappear in the near future, the PAP had a choice to make–call the elections now, or wait and see. Rather than being opportunists, I think the reason why PAP eventually decided to call the elections now rather than to push the can down the road was because it just wanted to get it over and done with, and then they wouldn’t need to worry about the election issue for another five years. After all, the PAP had obtained its best showing in years in the 2015 elections, and consciously or subconsciously, perhaps the party leaders assumed that it was just some due process they had to do, and the outcome was never in question.

On the other hand, waiting and see would entail uncertainty as well as the danger of them not being able to hold the elections by the constitutional deadline of April 2021. Of course, nothing could stop them from amending the constitution to push back the deadline, but that would most certainly open up another can of worms altogether–some of the opposition parties would surely then claim that the PAP is making use of the virus to entrench themselves in power. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

In the end, calling for the elections now turned out to be disadvantageous for the PAP. More than anything, I think the lack of public rallies actually worked in favour for the opposition parties. Previously, you had to be active in going for the rallies, or in keeping up with their social media posts, to get a sense of what the opposition parties purport to represent. This time, the parties could gain exposure through the mainstream media, by way of the constituency political broadcast and the political debate. The latter is not something new–there was a similar political debate in 2015–but because everyone was pretty much stuck at home, with no rallies to attend, more people paid attention to the televised debate this time round, and the Workers’ Party took the opportunity to shine.

Then there were certain missteps. The Ivan Lim situation raised some eyebrows as to the vetting process of PAP members, and whether PAP was “out-of-touch” with the general public. The “humble family” narrative was overused and came through as somewhat forced. The use of POFMA during this election was probably also seen by many as a high-handed, petty move, especially against a person whose stature had been considerably elevated by virtue of his role as an infectious disease expert. And the attacks on Raeesah Khan probably backfired on the whole, with attention now drawn on comments made by a certain DPM two years ago about Singapore not being ready for a non-Chinese PM. And through no fault of its own, the fiasco on Polling Day (the long queues, the gloves-no-gloves U-turn, and the unpredecented extension of voting hours) further reinforced the belief (at least for voters later in the day) that PAP shouldn’t have held the election during this period of time.

In this election, I think WP emerged as the biggest winner, with it taking control of the new Sengkang GRC plus extending its lead in Hougang SMC and Aljunied GRC, all without the help of Low Thia Khiang. The fight in East Coast was far closer than I expected–perhaps voters in East Coast felt that they were essentially being ‘blackmailed’ into voting for the PAP by placing DPM Heng there–and PAP will probably think twice before doing such a thing again. In recent years, perhaps in part due to their electoral success, WP seems to be able to attract a quality slate of candidates, especially from the younger generation. Just nine years ago, Chen Show Mao was heralded as a breakthrough in terms of the quality of opposition candidates. Today, the CVs of many opposition candidates (from WP and other opposition parties) are similarly as impressive. Through the years, WP has caught flak on both sides for not being aggressive enough. But by staying out of trouble and playing within the rules (mostly, except the unfortunate AHTC saga), all while figuring out the GRC system, the WP finally seems to have established itself as a credible party. Now that WP has the resources to field a slate of quality candidates in GRCs, it almost seems as though the GRC system now plays towards its advantage more so than the PAP.

As for PSP, it was a story of “so close, yet so far”, especially in West Coast GRC. Based on what I had been reading on Facebook and Instagram leading up to the election, it seemed that Dr Tan Cheng Bock had broad support even from people who I wouldn’t normally consider opposition supporters. With his personal reputation, he also seemed to be able to attract quite a number of interesting personalities (think Lee Hsien Yang) and quality candidates to his side for this election, though he eventually failed in his attempt to unite the opposition. Moving forward, it remains to be seen how PSP will turn out. Will it become like a one-hit wonder, suffering a similar fate as the Singapore People’s Party after Dr Tan Cheng Bock becomes too old, or will it manage to build on its results in this election and go forth and blossom? Right now, my impression of the PSP is somewhat of an “old men’s party”–and the fact that TCB often refers to his team as “my men” notwithstanding the presence of female candidates within his team and party doesn’t help things. Hopefully they will be able to shed this reputation and offer a more diverse slate of candidates in the next election.

Meanwhile, SDP played its cards right this time round, fielding both Dr Chee Soon Juan and Dr Paul Tambyah into SMCs. They nearly succeeded, and I think they would have succeeded if not for Dr Chee’s dismal performance in the political debate (to be honest, he felt more out-of-touch than the ruling party and sounded more like a broken record at times) and some statements made with regard to the ten million population. Unfortunately, I think this might have been their best shot at success. In 2025, Dr Tambyah’s reputation as a leading infectious disease expert may not be as relevant to the electorate. I’ve been wrong before, though.

As for the Reform Party, I watched bits of Charles Yeo’s interview with Zaobao, and I think he would be much better served in another party. Meanwhile, the quality of the party itself seems to be going downhill with each passing election.

Overall, I think that the outcome of the GE is good for Singapore. The PAP still has the mandate, albeit slightly reduced, to govern Singapore, and the core 4G leadership (i.e. Heng Swee Keat and Chan Chun Sing) is still intact, though somewhat shakened. The outcome of the election also served as a wake-up call for the PAP–that Singapore desire more opposing voices and perhaps a more participative style of governance rather than being ‘talked down’ to.

A very notable gesture which PM Lee made after the elections was to give WP chief Pritam Singh a call, formally appointing him as the Leader of the Opposition, complete with the appropriate manpower support and resources. Perhaps this is merely paying lip service, or perhaps it comes as an epiphany to him that it is better for Singapore to build up a strong opposition, so that in the event of a “freak election result” where the PAP loses power, Singapore will still be in good hands.

Lee Kuan Yew was once quoted as saying “I think there will come a time when eventually the public will say, look, let’s try the other side, either because the PAP has declined in quality or the opposition has put up a team which is equal to the PAP and they say, let’s try the other side.” Perhaps PM Lee is now coming to the realisation that it may very well happen one day, and if it so happens, better to hand over the reins to a party that is well poised to take over, and one that is most likely to carry on the legacy and policies of the PAP.

But more so than the PAP, WP has its work cut out over the next four years. Provided that they are indeed granted the ‘appropriate resources’ (whatever they may be), it’s one less thing to use against the PAP in the next election. They are no longer an “inexperienced opposition” and the expectations on their performance will only increase here on out. Pritam Singh probably realises this as much. Most importantly, they’d better do a good job running the Sengkang Town Council–the last thing anybody wants is another town council saga.

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