22 Jul What’s next after GE2020? Post-Election Directions for Singapore
The 2020 General Election has been described as a breakthrough moment for politics in Singapore. On 17 July 2020, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) invited three former Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) to discuss the ramifications of GE2020 – Mr. Zulkifli Baharudin, Managing Director, Global Business Integrators, Associate Professor Eugene Tan, Associate Professor of Law, Singapore Management University, and Ms. Kuik Shiao-Yin, Founding Director, The Thought Collective. The session was moderated by Mr. Nicholas Fang, Director of Security and Global Affairs, SIIA, who also served as an NMP from 2012 to 2014.
A video of highlights from the webinar is available on YouTube, with the full recording available as premium content for SIIA members.
No flight to safety
Ahead of the election, some argued that voters might have a “flight to safety” attitude due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the outcome favouring the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). While some swing voters may have voted for the PAP due to this, Prof Tan observed that other voters may have felt dissatisfaction with the PAP, thinking that Singapore could have done better in its pandemic response.
However, elections in Singapore are not about choosing a new government, unlike other democracies. Even opposition politicians expect the PAP to win a solid majority. Elections in Singapore are therefore more like referendums on the PAP’s policies or an approval rating poll. In that respect, while the PAP won the election with a comfortable margin by global standards, the GE2020 result is still seen as one that is sending a message to the ruling party.
Mr. Zulkifli stressed that the outcome was not solely due to young voters. “At the end of the day, Singapore is an aging society, there could not be a shift unless older voters also moved.”
All three panellists agreed that many Singaporeans are no longer satisfied with leaders that simply govern competently and reliably. Voters want leaders who are also caring and sincere. Going forward, the 4G leadership will need to find ways to connect with the electorate.
Ms. Kuik argued that GE2020 saw a great deal of citizen-generated political commentary, including social media posts that went viral. Significantly, netizens are increasingly willing to speak out under their own names, rather than hiding behind anonymity or an alias – for instance the citizen who criticised a prospective PAP candidate over his behaviour during their reservist training.
This is important, as some politicians still prefer to hold themselves aloof from online conversations, preferring to be judged by their actions rather than their public image. But it is increasingly difficult for politicians to ignore the importance of online discourse.
A breakthrough for the opposition?
In GE2020, the opposition parties recognised that public perception is becoming more important. The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) did exceptionally well for a new party, but it was the Workers’ Party (WP) that truly made major gains in establishing their brand name. The panel noted that many people were impressed by how elegantly the WP handled themselves during the campaigning period. The WP also managed their public relations well, for instance in swiftly responding to the controversy over Ms. Raeesah Khan’s comments on social media.
But Prof Tan observed that, historically speaking, the opposition has never been able to make lasting gains in Singapore. In the past, every time opposition parties have managed to increase their representation in parliament, the PAP has been able to claw back those seats in subsequent elections. The question is whether it will be different this time.
The fact that WP Secretary-General Pritam Singh has been officially recognised as the Leader of the Opposition is widely regarded as a “poisoned chalice”, a status that could backfire on the WP. But Prof Tan said if the WP is able to use this new platform to propose sound alternative policies and even a shadow budget for Singapore, the party could grow and create further breakthroughs in the years ahead.
“Prior to 2011, the general consensus was that politics in Singapore was quite boring, exceedingly predictable. That, since, has changed quite significantly,” said Mr. Fang.
The results of any upcoming post-election cabinet reshuffle will bear watching, as this will give some indication of how the PAP has read the signals the electorate has sent, and how the ruling party will govern going forward.
Economic considerations will be front and centre as Singapore moves beyond GE2020. Although the PAP campaigned on the basis of seeking a mandate to lead Singapore out of the COVID-19 pandemic, public debate during the election period ended up being focused on different matters. “The election was hijacked by domestic issues,” Mr. Zulkifli said. “[We] still need to address [our] economic survival.”