Singapore’s fourteenth General Election was practically one of a kind and will be remembered for many things.
There was the one-year-old People’s Voice (PV) Party’s campaign slogan that appeared to be plagiarised from Donald Trump’s 2016 rallying cry, former People’s Action Party member of parliament Dr Tan Cheng Bock coming out of retirement to lead a team in his old constituency under the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) banner at the advanced age of 80 and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) secretary-general Chee Soon Juan crossing swords with cabinet minister Vivian Balakrishnan over Singapore’s population policy. What the citizenry was not prepared for was the shock defeat of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) by a relatively youthful Workers’Party (WP) team in the newly-created Sengkang Group Representation Constituency.
Group representation constituencies (GRCs) were introduced in 1988, ostensibly as a form of affirmative action to ensure minority representation in parliament. Originally conceived as three-member wards helmed by a cabinet minister, the number was increased to four in 1991 and a maximum of six in subsequent elections. In 2020, six-member GRCs were abolished and the maximum number of members capped at five. There would be at least one minority candidate from a specific ethnic group in each GRC. Critics said this was a ploy to make it impossible for opposition parties to contest as it was not easy for them to recruit good candidates to run for public office. Also, former WP leader Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, an ethnic Indian, had won over the largely Chinese-educated voters of Anson constituency in 1981, becoming the first opposition MP in a long time. Thetefore the affirmative action argument was flawed.
For years, the GRCs remained PAP fortresses. The WP came within a whisker of claiming Eunos GRC on two occasions and Cheng San GRC on one. Those two seats, along with most marginal seats, disappeared during subsequent elections thanks to gerrymandering. The PAP retained near-absolute monopoly on power until 2011 when Jeyaretnam’s successor Low Thia Khiang, the long-time MP for Hougang, led a team to victory over the PAP team in the five-member Aljunied GRC led by foreign minister George Yeo. The WP also successfully defended the Hougang seat that had been Low’s since 1991, giving them six elected members, a historic breakthrough for an opposition party.
Low handed over the leadership of the WP to Pritam Singh in 2018. As his party was the only opposition party with members elected to Parliament, Singh was informally the opposition leader. Following their success in defending their existing seats and capturing the four-member Sengkang GRC at the general election on 10 July 2020, the WP will now have 10 MPs, almost double that of the previous parliament. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong thus decided to give Singh official designation as Leader of the Opposition and provide him with the resources to carry out his duties as one. In most countries that follow the Westminster system, the Leader of the Opposition is almost equal in rank to a cabinet minister. This is because they are often seen as Prime Ministers in waiting.
The timing of the general election drew much flak because Singapore was in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic. Opposition parties voiced concern that holding an election during this time would pose a potential risk to public health and safety. PM Lee was adamant about going ahead with the election, as his team needed a fresh mandate to press forward with policies designed to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 on the nation’s economy. Under the Constitution, he had until April 2021 to call for elections. Rumours had been circulating since 2018 that snap polls may be called in 2019 to capitalise on the bicentennary of Singapore’s founding but this was not to be. Approval for the Singapore government had fallen due to a number of controversial and unpopular moves implemented since 2015, including the reserved presidential election in 2017 open only to Malays (or those identifying as one). Former speaker of parliament Halimah Yacob won by a walkover as her two opponents were disqualified at the last minute. The funniest thing was neither of the three contenders were pure-blooded Malays. In fact, one of them, Farid Khan was of Pakistani descent and most likely a Pashtun. His daughter Raeesah happens to be one of the newly-minted MPs for Sengkang GRC, where it is stipulated that a Malay candidate is required.
As a result of Covid-19, no physical rallies could be held. All rallies were streamed live on the Zoom app. Under normal circumstances, the WP could attract enough people to fill Old Trafford on derby day if they held an outdoor rally where Nicole Seah or Raeesah Khan was the keynote speaker. Ditto for the PSP if Dr Tan Cheng Bock was giving a speech. That man still commanded much respect from long-time residents of the Ayer Rajah ward of West Coast GRC where he served for 26 years.
Candidates and party volunteers were also not allowed to move in groups more than five persons to comply with safe distancing measures put in place due to Covid-19. In Hong Kah North, PSP candidate Gigene Wong and several members of her entourage had their details taken down by enforcement officers for breach of social distancing guidelines as their group was too large. Earlier, Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Chia Shi Lu had been roundly criticised for going on what appeared to be a walkabout at Alexandra Food Centre while the country was in lockdown. Opposition parties had suspended all outreach activities and advised their supporters to stay at home when the lockdown was announced.
The country’s electoral boundaries were announced in March just before lockdown was declared. This sparked speculation that elections would be held soon, much to the chagrin of the opposition parties and their candidates. The PSP’s Dr Tan and the SDP’s Dr Paul Tambyah were the most vocal with their concerns. As medical professionals, their concerns were quite valid. Other opposition figures like Lim Tean from the PV also weighed in. In his rally speech for Jalan Besar GRC, Lim mentioned the possibility that Covid-19 could be a bioweapon and the fact that Singapore was so badly hit despite having 17 years to prepare since the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome pandemic in 2003 reflected badly on the PAP government.
After much suspense, parliament was officially dissolved on 23 June 2020 and elections would be called on 10 July. Nomination Day was on 30 June. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat was a surprise package in East Coast GRC, where WP had polled strongly in previous elections despite finishing second. WP veteran Low Thia Khiang, who had suffered a head injury from a fall at home two months ago, bowed out of the political scene after three decades as he focused on his rehabilitation. However, he would still be supporting the WP team from behind the scenes and was later spotted on the campaign trail with the candidates from Aljunied GRC. The SDP’s Dr Chee Soon Juan returned to Bukit Batok where he had unsuccessfully contested against Murali Pillai in the 2016 by-election. Reform party (RP) chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam (son of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam) was in quarantine as he and his wife had recently returned from the United Kingdom. Jeyaretnam and his old team from West Coast GRC would be running against the team led by PM Lee in Ang Mo Kio GRC. It would be Dr Tan’s team from the PSP who would face S Iswaran’s PAP team in West Coast GRC. The PV set its sights on Jalan Besar GRC, led by Manpower Minister Josephine Teo (notorious for her remarks about “sex in small spaces“) and Pasir-Ris Punggol GRC, helmed by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean. The latter constituency was also contested by the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) led by Desmond Lim. In Jurong GRC, prospective candidate Ivan Lim pulled out of the race after copping a heavy barrage of online criticism over alleged professional misconduct in the past. He was immediately replaced by Xie Yao Quan, a cousin of Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.
The Ivan Lim affair dominated headlines briefly. Some opposition supporters were calling his withdrawal from the election a coup. Things later took a sinister turn when police reports were filed against WP candidate Raeesah Khan over two-year-old social media posts critical of the lenient sentence given to a megachurch pastor for defrauding his congregation. She had also claimed that rich Chinese and white people were treated differently by law enforcement officers for committing infringements against lockdown measures. As we speak, the case is still being investigated and it remains to be seen if any action would be taken against her in future. Many Chinese Singaporeans understood her to be referring to Mainland China-born new citizens. Along with non-resident Indians, Mainland Chinese were among the most despised groups in Singapore as its population grew too quickly for its infrastructure to sustain. In fact, too much immigration was one key reason for the PAP’s dismal performance in 2011.
This election also saw a televised debate between Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Khan’s Sengkang GRC team mate Jamus Lim, Dr Chee of the SDP and PSP candidate Francis Yuen. Dr Lim, an economist who had previously worked at the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, impressed even Dr Balakrishnan himself. Following that, the WP team in Sengkang GRC became known as “PAP-lite”. It is quite possible that the PAP were feeling sore that they had missed out on a talented individual like Dr Lim. He was part of a team that included Khan and fellow rookie Louis Chua. Former Marine Parade GRC candidate He Tingru was their leader. Her husband Terence Tan was also contesting, but in East Coast GRC with Nicole Seah. All four of them were relatively young, and had young children of their own. This meant many residents of Sengkang GRC easily identified with them as they were in the same situation.
The PAP team in Sengkang GRC was led by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Ng Chee Meng, who had been elected to represent neighbouring Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC in 2015. His team mates included fellow one-term MP Amrin Amin (originally from Sembawang GRC), long-time Sengkang West MP Dr Lam Pin Min and newcomer Raymond Lye (replacing Charles Chong). Dr Lam had been around for 14 years and was the only face residents knew. Ng and Amrin drew blank stares from many locals when their team walked the ground, which was an ominous sign for the PAP.
The PAP sought a strong mandate at this election. The country was going through some really difficult times, the party said. This sparked some fear that they were going to win each and every seat with comfortable margins. The words of Dr Lim from the WP echoed in people’s minds. He had said in the debate with Dr Balakrishnan that having the WP around was not going to undermine the PAP’s strong mandate, but to deny the PAP from having blank cheques.
In the end, it appears that most voters on the whole took Dr Lim’s word. While they returned the PAP to power with their supermajority, they also elected four more opposition MPs. The WP successfully defended their existing seats of Aljunied GRC and Hougang, while also grabbing Sengkang GRC. PAP men Ng and Amrin were unseated after just one term, a rare occurrence for the ruling party. Some residents at the former Sengkang West constituency were bitter about losing Dr Lam. This was reminiscent of 2011 when George Yeo got scalped. Back then, disaffection with the PAP had reached a high. This time round, the results appeared to suggest people had begun to warm up to alternative parties.
Certainly, the results did not lie. The traditional strongholds of the PAP in Singapore’s western suburbs saw quite a huge swing in favour of alternative parties. In S Iswaran’s West Coast GRC, Dr Tan’s attempt at pulling a Mahathir act may not have succeeded. However, the PSP team garnered at least 48% of the votes, the best performance for a losing candidate. They were rewarded with two non-constituency MP seats, which Hazel Poa and Leong Mun Wai were appointed to fill. The PAP team experienced a 27% swing against them, one of the largest on record.
The PSP fielded the youngest-ever candidate, 23-year-old Choo Shaun Ming in Chua Chu Kang GRC helmed by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong. Gan’s department was perceived as having made a mess of Singapore’s Covid-19 situation and cost his team 18% of the votes.
In Tanjong Pagar GRC, once helmed by inaugural Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Song’s team held out against the PSP team with 63% of the votes. A leaked audio of Chan saying that the PAP had to milk every crisis to win votes had made its rounds previously. This had given the public a bad impression of him.
In Bukit Panjang, SDP candidate Dr Thambyah polled 46% against Liang Eng Hwa, whose predecessor Dr Teo Ho Pin had garnered over 60% vote share in previous elections. Dr Thambyah’s performance narrowly eclipsed that of his boss Dr Chee, who managed a credible 45% in Bukit Batok despite having his character subjected to constant smears by the country’s mainstream media. No surprise Singapore was ranked 158th globally for press freedom.
The PV had a bad outing in this election, its Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC team losing their deposit after finishing third behind the PAP and the SDA with only 12% of the votes. The SDA had a previous history of getting entangled in three-corner fights and had been soundly trounced on those occasions. The best result for the PV was in Jalan Best GRC which was contested by party leader Lim Tean.
On the whole, the much-feared wipeout of alternative parties failed to materialise as the WP picked up four more seats while retaining their existing six. The PAP also got the strong mandate they hoped for as they returned to power in 83 out of 93 seats. The only concern was PM Lee’s preferred successor Heng Sweet Keat and his team could only manage to garner 53% of the votes in East Coast GRC. Meanwhile, Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s Jurong GRC team were victorious with 75% despite the ugly Ivan Lim debacle hanging over their heads. Heng had previously claimed that Singaporean boomers were not ready to accept a non-Chinese Prime Minister. Many opposition supporters had a soft spot for Tharman and hoped he would succeed PM Lee, but Tharman had stated that he was not interested in the job.
With the opposition now controlling 10 seats, parliamentary debates are not going to be the same again. Singapore is certainly in for some interesting, and hopefully better times. Both the PAP and the WP should work together to improve the lives of their fellow citizens.