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The continuing contest for Singapore’s future

Posted By on July 24, 2020 @ 13:18

As the dust settles after the city-state’s 10 July general election [1], Singaporeans are facing a new parliamentary term that promises to be challenging. Tensions will play out between persistent constitutional constraints and new expectations in the context of a pandemic-ridden world. Voters are anticipating substantive change following the unexpectedly strong showing [2] by alternative political parties. The Workers’ Party (WP) won a record 10 seats, consolidating its position [3] as Singapore’s largest and most important opposition party.

Beneath the excitement remains the fact that the long-dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) retains its parliamentary supermajority and close relationship with key state agencies [4], such as the People’s Association. This raises questions about how the nation will reconcile a popular desire for greater oversight and more diversity with a political system that remains dominated by a single party.

One theme common among the opposition parties was the need to have a parliament that is more representative [5] of the different voices that make up the country and better able to watch over a PAP administration. The larger and more electorally successful parties—the WP, the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)—were particularly clear in articulating this aspiration, emphasising a need to avoid giving the PAP ‘a blank cheque’ [6].

Singaporean voters also seemed to support a more systematically redistributive approach to public policy. The WP, SDP and, to some degree, the PSP all took on positions to the left [7] of the PAP, putting forward proposals for a national minimum wage, redundancy insurance, and support for unpaid caregivers to apply across the board. The PAP, on the other hand, kept to its traditional emphasis [8] on the efforts of individuals and families, with minimalist state support supplemented by one-off transfers.

Acceptance of, even enthusiasm for, more left-leaning proposals suggests that Singaporeans are willing to consider different social and economic policy settings. This shift in popular sentiment is perhaps unsurprising, given the widespread concern [9] about the impacts of a prolonged global economic slowdown in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another takeaway from this election is Singaporeans’ apparent readiness to have more open discussions about race, discrimination and bullying. Half-way through the election campaign, news broke that one of the WP’s candidates, Raeesah Khan, had posted strongly worded statements [10] about discrimination and supposed special treatment.

Those revelations sparked a police investigation [11] and drew sharp criticism from the PAP, which claimed that Khan was trying to undermine social stability by stirring racial and religious differences. Strong public support [12] for Khan and against public bullying followed, accompanied by police reports alleging past discriminatory statements by PAP candidates and others associated with the party. These efforts appear to have neutralised the PAP’s attempts to cast Khan and, by extension, the WP as threats to society.

Notwithstanding their newfound tolerance for a departure from familiar PAP approaches, Singaporeans continued to give the party a strong mandate [13]. The party won 83 out the 93 seats in parliament, which puts it in a position to pass any law it wishes, including constitutional amendments.

Voters demanded more questioning of and deliberation over PAP policies by parties that appeared credible [6] in their eyes—those with experienced or well-credentialed candidates, organised party structures and clear, coherent platforms. The limited support for the other parties suggests that Singaporeans are not ready to give a free pass to anyone simply based on reservations about the PAP, its politics and its policies. The PAP’s leadership is acceptable so long as the party keeps looking over its shoulder.

The election results and the voter sentiments they reveal indicate a tension in Singaporean politics. Even if voters had extended a qualified rebuke of the PAP, the party’s continued parliamentary supremacy [14] means that there is technically nothing to prevent it from resisting voters’ demands and even changing laws to limit or roll back oversight. Suspicions that the PAP engages in such behaviour persist, most recently surrounding constitutional amendments [15] that seemingly limited eligible candidates for the country’s presidency to a former PAP stalwart and speaker of parliament. The party claims [16] it was seeking to ensure minority representation and the experience necessary to safeguard the country’s reserves. Unless the PAP can credibly commit to restraint and adherence to voter preferences, questions will remain about whether the 2020 elections will usher in meaningful shifts.

Some observers see these elections as a watershed [17]. Yet, the coalescence of support around stronger non-PAP political parties championing oversight and to the left of the PAP in their policy positions seems to be a continuation of a slow-moving trend that appeared as early as 2001. Though somewhat chastened, the PAP remains all-powerful given not only its continued popular support, extensive resources and parliamentary presence, but also its deep roots in state and society.

The PAP’s Central Executive Committee will continue to appoint the party’s next secretary-general and Singapore’s prime minister, even if the election results imply reservations [18] about the so-called fourth-generation leadership. Where there may be more visible adjustments is partisan consolidation around the WP and the two next best performing political parties, the PSP and SDP.

Beyond the excitement and euphoria, Singapore’s 2020 general elections are likely set the stage for a contest between some version of politics as usual and the start of a new trajectory for the city-state.



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URLs in this post:

[1] general election: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/why-singapores-election-will-be-like-no-other/

[2] strong showing: https://www.onlinecitizenasia.com/2020/07/11/ge2020-final-count-results/

[3] consolidating its position: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/14/singapore-election-opposition-victories-democracy-covid-19/

[4] close relationship with key state agencies: https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/07/12/why-so-many-singaporeans-voted-for-the-opposition

[5] more representative: https://www.ricemedia.co/current-affairs-commentary-ge2020-protecting-singapore-democracy-bigger-than-election-results/

[6] ‘a blank cheque’: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3092762/singapore-election-5-key-takeaways-voters-deny-ruling-pap-blank

[7] positions to the left: https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/singapore-general-elections-new-dawn-for-the-opposition/

[8] traditional emphasis: https://dollarsandsense.sg/is-the-progressive-wage-model-an-alternate-and-better-form-of-minimum-wage/

[9] concern: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/11/singapore-election-ruling-party-pap-cedes-ground-to-opposition-in-pandemic-poll.html

[10] strongly worded statements: http://theindependent.sg/a-tale-of-2-candidates-netizens-compare-wps-raeesah-khans-apology-with-paps-ivan-lims-statement/

[11] police investigation: https://www.onlinecitizenasia.com/2020/07/07/citizen-files-police-report-on-paps-statement-about-wp-sengkang-grc-candidate-raeesah-khan/

[12] Strong public support: https://www.onlinecitizenasia.com/2020/07/06/netizens-flood-wp-candidate-raeesah-khan-with-support-as-she-apologises-for-past-facebook-posts/

[13] strong mandate: https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/11/asia/singapore-election-intl-hnk/index.html

[14] parliamentary supremacy: https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Singapore-election/Singapore-election-results-give-PAP-supermajority-as-rivals-rise

[15] constitutional amendments: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41237318

[16] party claims: https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/reserved-presidency-a-political-minus-but-right-thing-to-do-pm-lee

[17] watershed: https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/a-watershed-election-and-new-normal

[18] reservations: https://asiatimes.com/2020/07/pap-scores-pyrrhic-victory-at-singapores-polls/

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