Opposition Victories Force a Crack in Singapore’s Carefully Managed Democracy
The election may push the ruling People’s Action Party to rethink its approach.
When Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, decided to call a snap election in the middle of the pandemic, he had almost everything going for him. His People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965, was forewarned about the impending nine-day campaign sprint. COVID-19 regulations also meant that physical rallies, a major avenue for outreach and fundraising for opposition political parties, were banned from this year’s general election. Walkabouts and house visits were allowed as long as safe distancing guidelines were observed, but much of the campaigning was moved online. With the local traditional media known to take a pro-PAP slant—Singapore doesn’t rank 158th on the World Press Freedom Index for nothing—the asymmetry of resources, and concern about a “flight to safety” mentality among voters, opposition parties worried that the PAP would win every single seat in Parliament.
When Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, decided to call a snap election in the middle of the pandemic, he had almost everything going for him. His People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965, was forewarned about the impending nine-day campaign sprint. COVID-19 regulations also meant that physical rallies, a major avenue for outreach and fundraising for opposition political parties, were banned from this year’s general election. Walkabouts and house visits were allowed as long as safe distancing guidelines were observed, but much of the campaigning was moved online. With the local traditional media known to take a pro-PAP slant—Singapore doesn’t rank 158th on the World Press Freedom Index for nothing—the asymmetry of resources, and concern about a “flight to safety” mentality among voters, opposition parties worried that the PAP would win every single seat in Parliament.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, the party’s vote-share slipped from the 70 percent it received in the 2015 election to 61 percent, and the Workers’ Party captured 10 out of 93 seats. This is the largest opposition presence Singapore has seen since 1966; the Workers’ Party leader Pritam Singh will be officially recognised as leader of the opposition and given staff and resources. That’s a major concession by the government, since the role has previously been only an unofficial and unsupported one.
Most other political parties in democratic countries would see a 61 percent vote-share as pretty respectable, particularly since it translated into 83 seats, allowing the PAP to continue its supermajority in Parliament. But Lee admitted his disappointment: “We have a clear mandate, but the percentage of the popular vote is not as high as I had hoped for,” Channel News Asia reported him saying in a press conference.
The PAP wants a managed, compliant democracy in which the opposition acts as Parliamentary window dressing. Singaporeans seeking a more competitive political scene than the PAP favors are happier than Lee. While the PAP still overwhelmingly dominates their lives, this general election has marked shifts that bode well for the possibility of a more robust democracy in the city-state.
It’s commonly observed that Singaporean elections are fought on “bread-and-butter issues”: matters such as the cost of living, property prices, and the management of the Central Provident Fund, a forced savings retirement scheme. While these issues were still relevant in this election, they were supplemented by talk of diversity and plurality in politics—instead of fearing the boogeyman of gridlock, more Singaporeans were talking about the need for a greater range of voices in Parliament this time than I’d ever seen in previous elections.
This is especially true of younger voters. The usual chatter is that young Singaporeans are less concerned than their parents and grandparents about bread-and-butter issues, and choose to look instead to less “tangible” concerns such as racial inequalities and political rights. That’s true, but it also fails to make the real connection: Young Singaporeans, myself included, care about issues such as racism, inequality, and civil liberties because they recognise that these are inextricably linked to people’s well-being and ability to make ends meet. It’s harder to impress them with one-off transfers and handouts; they want to see deeper discussions of structural issues and the dismantling of institutionalized injustice.
The site of the Workers’ Party’s most exciting triumph was Sengkang Group Representation Constituency, a newly carved out megaconstituency where their team of four knocked out a PAP team that included a minister, senior minister of state, and a senior parliamentary secretary. Sengkang is home to many young families, and more than 60 percent of residents are below the age of 45, higher than the national average.
The government responded fiercely to the challenge it faced in Sengkang. In the middle of the campaigning period, the Singapore police announced that, following reports and advice from the Attorney-General’s Chambers that an offense had been disclosed, they had opened an investigation into Raeesah Khan, one of the Workers’ Party candidates in Sengkang GRC, for old Facebook comments that allegedly promoted enmity between racial and religious groups. Raeesah, an activist who, unlike any previous candidate, identifies as an intersectional feminist, had questioned the sharp differences in treatment between different class, racial, and religious groups in Singapore. Following the police statement, the PAP jumped on her case, portraying her as a racist and asking, “Why does the WP still consider her worthy of consideration as an MP? This is a serious matter, which goes to the fundamental principles on which our country has been built.”
This comes straight out of the old PAP playbook of demonizing political opponents. Raeesah wasn’t its only target this election, either; the party also accused the Singapore Democratic Party’s leader Chee Soon Juan for spreading falsehoods, and slammed the same party’s chairman and infectious diseases expert Paul Tambyah for making “baseless” claims in his critique of the PAP government’s handling of COVID-19.
Yet the attack against Raeesah, and by extension her party, didn’t work on the voters of Sengkang GRC. Some have argued that the Workers’ Party’s triumph in that constituency demonstrated that the PAP’s negative campaigning backfired.
The swipes at Chee and Tambyah—which were accompanied by use of the “fake news” law passed by the PAP in 2019—also had limited effect. Although neither won a seat in Parliament, they received decent shares of the vote. Chee’s 45 percent was a marked improvement from the 39 percent he received from the same constituency during a 2016 by-election, while Tambyah’s 46 percent of the vote was impressive considering he’d only revealed that he was contesting the constituency on Nomination Day itself.
I’ve painted a very optimistic picture of the situation so far. If I were to push that optimism a little further, I’d hope that this election has taught the ruling party that its old hard-line tactics aren’t as effective in today’s Singapore as they might have been in the past. But I know that this trajectory towards a more open democracy is still only a possibility, not a promise.
When asked about his party’s performance, Singh was extremely circumspect, despite his victories. “I’m not feeling euphoric at all. In fact, I think there’s a lot of work to do,” he said, reminding those assembled that while winning four more seats than they did in 2015 is progress, it’s “still not exactly a quantum leap.”
The PAP’s power is still entrenched in Singapore, and there are many ways it can continue to make things difficult for the opposition and civil society. Being elected a member of Parliament doesn’t erase the fact that Raeesah Khan is still under police investigation. Singh himself, alongside his party chairman Sylvia Lim and former secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, are also still awaiting appeals in a civil case brought against them in relation to their management of town councils. There is no guarantee that the PAP will be open to the lessons many Singaporeans hope they’ll learn.
It’s far too soon for Singaporeans, young or old, to be patting themselves on the back for improving their country’s political climate. But in the immediate aftermath of an intense pandemic election, it’s forgivable to take a moment to sit back and feel hopeful.
Kirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist and activist, covering politics, human rights, and social justice. Her work has been published in the Guardian, Asia Times, Southeast Asia Globe, and the Diplomat, among others. Twitter: @kixes
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