Singapore General Election: PAP Super-Win or Opposition Super-Wave?

Singapore general election (SGelection Twitter)

Wearing facemasks, voters patiently brave the heat and wait for their turn to cast their ballots in Singapore general election (SGelection Twitter)

By Ivan Lim
Former AJA President, Contributor to AsiaN

SINGAPORE: A sweeping PAP victory or the Opposition hacking away the ruling monolith’s super-majority? On the eve of polling day, political pundits are busy sketching out both the outcomes in Singapore’s General Election (GE) on July 10.

Those who foresee signs of continuity: the long-standing PAP will win with a whopping two-thirds majority – it had captured 83 of the 89 seats in the 2015 elections. Those predicting change: the opposition, defying the odds, will clinch a slate of 32 of the 93 seats contested to severely embarrass the PAP.

A worst-case scenario for the Opposition: the PAP capturing all the seats. This eclipse warning has been sounded by Workers’ Party secretary general Pritam Singh himself, given the odds stacked against the alternative parties.

Ahead of the polls announcement, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and key ministers went on national TV to tell citizens in the grip of the pandemic to say “Fear not, you are in safe hands”. The message was backed by various well-funded budgets and relief packages reported in the state media and newspapers.

And during the nine days of electioneering, the paternalistic PAP kept up its campaign to seek a strong mandate to take Singaporeans out of the Covid-19 woods. This was a code for giving it a landslide victory as the party strategists appeared to have reckoned that in a crisis like the potentially crippling Covid pandemic, voters would flee into the arms of the government for safety.

In a tactical move, the government has amended the law to give voting rights in Parliament to non-constituency MPs (NCMP). In this GE up to 12 defeated candidates with the highest vote score can take NCMPs role in Parliament. The revised NCMP scheme was seen as a lame ploy to undercut the Opposition’s appeal to voters to put their candidates into Parliament.

The call for check and balance in the House has been gaining currency among young and educated Singaporeans in response to the Opposition’s call of not handing the PAP a “blank cheque” in policy-making. In their campaigns, the WP, Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) have repeatedly panned the PAP as authoritarian and lacking in accountability and transparency.

They have sought to dent the PAP’s narrative that the government has done a wonderful job in taming the raging Coronavirus. The Opposition has also challenged the government on key issues from a proposed hike the goods and service tax and Central Provident Fund withdrawals to public housing lease, and a spurt in population with an influx of foreign workers and professionals impacting local employment opportunities and depressing wages.

The incumbent PAP is standing pat by its track record against the combined Opposition onslaught.

The party founded by the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has held the reins for an unbroken 55 years. While the Opposition parties are contesting all 93 seats this round, the prevailing consensus among analyst is for the PAP being re-elected easily.

Today, as the 2.65 million voters go to cast their ballots, the key point of contention is whether the PAP would concede any seats to the Opposition. According to earlier forecast by some analysts, the fear factor generated by the Covid-19 would result in a clean sweep by the governing party.

The PAP would also be reaping the dividends of its claimed success thus far in stabilising the pandemic situation plus the monetary hand-outs to pandemic-hit businesses, workers and households.

Nevertheless, the cyber-style campaigning this time has change voters’ perceptions. The Opposition candidates, especially from WP, PSP and SDP, did well enough during the political debates, not only to be seen as holding their own against their PAP counterparts but even to out-talk some of them. Their  performance, described as excellent by some viewers, has won over a section of netizen voters, as indicated by favourable online comments.

Another factor that apparently helped to bring a noticeable tilt towards the alternative parties is the combined force of former PAP stalwart-turned-rival, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, and PM Lee’s estranged younger brother Lee Hsien Yang. While not a candidate himself, the younger Lee has joined the PSP and campaigned with Dr Tan and his team in a hot seat of West Coast group representative constituency.

Playing a catalyst role, Mr Lee said he sensed the souring of the ground against the PAP, which has “lost its way’’.

“Today it (PAP) seems to be blind and deaf to anger and frustrations of people…especially among the those with lower incomes. The PAP government seems unduly focused on looking after the interest of elites.’’ It’s time for change, he stressed in a Bloomberg interview on July 8.

The tide of voter sentiment is viewed as flowing in favour of the Dr Tan and his team in a tight race against the PAP rival held by two ministers.

The WP, which feared a wipe-out, might now see the odds are for its team led by Mr Pritam Singh to hold on to its Aljunied group representative constituency (GRC)and the Hougang single-member constituency against the PAP’s strong challenge.

The SDP has also seen rising hopes of its chairman Dr Paul Tambyah and secretary general Dr Chee Soon Juan overcoming their PAP rivals in the single-member constituencies of Pasir Panjang and Bukit Batok, respectively. This was despite Dr Tambyah’s low prognosis of opposition chances of causing any dent in the PAP juggernaut to deny it a new supermajority of two-thirds of the seats.

Another exciting contest to watch ire the East Coast GRC where the PAP team is helmed by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Kiat. They are being challenged by a new WP team, distinguished by   crowd- puller Nicole Seah. She made her debut contesting in 2011 against former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in the Marine Parade GRC with an impressive 43.4percent of the votes.

A close fight in the new Sengkang GRC will pit the WP’s star debater, economist Dr Jamus Lim, and his team against their PAP contestants led by Mr Ng Chee Meng, secretary general of the National Trades Union Congress.

In this 13th general election, the Opposition’s constant refrain has been” check and balance in Parliament” vs PAP’s “self-checking”. Going by the online chatter, Singapore’s younger set of netizens are all game for the “check”, with the older conservative “heartlanders” (in public housing estates) ironically counter-balancing their exuberance.

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