As we get closer to GE2020, we spoke to NUS Department of Political Science, Deputy Head of Department Professor Bilveer Singh. Notably, he has authored ‘Is the People’s Action Party Here to Stay?’ (2019), ‘Understanding Singapore’s Politics’ (2017) and ‘Politics and Governance in Singapore: An Introduction’ (2007). Here’s how he sees the upcoming elections.
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has created waves of paranoia and fear worldwide, forcing some countries to go under lockdown and others scrambling to bolster their healthcare systems. More importantly, the unpredictable and protracted nature of this pandemic has proved to be an effective litmus test to measure the efficacy and resilience of governments all over the world. There are a myriad of issues for them to tackle, from unemployment to the shortage of personal protection equipment, and even getting the timing right on when to finally lift social restrictions. All these can and will directly affect the amount of political support they get in the next elections, as taxpayers look towards their government to do what they pay them to do: protect the public.
For Singapore, political support too hinges on the government’s performance in managing the Covid-19 outbreak. While other countries such as the United States are expecting upcoming watershed elections, NUS professor and long-time watcher of Singapore politics Bilveer Singh thinks that,
“It is without a doubt that GE2020 will be a landslide victory for the PAP. In fact, the opposition may be entirely annihilated this election. Singaporean voters will run back to papa.”
The main reasons are that firstly, the traditional advantage of the opposition, its physical rallies, has vanished in light of safe distancing measures. Instead, most campaigning with the exception of walkabouts will have to be done online this year. So far, the outreach of social media looks promising as shown by recent events: the unexpected defence by Pritam Singh and Alfian Sa’at against Tan Wu Meng, and the online outrage by netizens of all ages against PAP Ivan Lim who has been accused of being an elitist.
In contrast, Singh warns not to overestimate the power of social media. He explains that in times of crisis such as now Singaporean-style pragmatism will ensue. “We would rather forgo time for check and balance, accountability and transparency if it means securing our bread and butter as quickly as possible.” He elaborated that this was especially so in the climate of fear and unemployment which Covid-19 has created, also noting that many have been living on government handouts during the Circuit Breaker.
“Indeed, the PAP has done a good job at handling the Covid-19 crisis relative to other countries. But does this mean that they have gotten stronger? Not necessarily.”
The history of the PAP is one that is difficult to disentangle from the history of Singapore itself. It has proved itself time and time again to the electorate that it has the technocratic genius to craft strong policies to sustain the lifeblood of the economy. In fact, this has helped many of its political leaders gain recognition throughout the years: Lee Kuan Yew after independence, Lee Hsien Loong during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and more recently, Heng Swee Keat during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.
However, it may have created its own demons in the process. The PAP has been known for it’s ‘helicopter-in’ culture, wherein its candidates are literally ‘flown in from high places’. While this appears to have enhanced the quality of policymaking by allowing persons with more knowledge and expertise of their industries to enter politics, it also begets the issue of the lack of exposure in the public eye.
Singh notes that while Lee Kuan Yew had over three decades to train Lee Hsien Loong, the latter has had barely half the amount of time to train his presumed successor, Heng Swee Keat. Let alone the 4G leaders, who have just recently been thrust into the spotlight. He is of the opinion that they have barely had time to plant their seeds in the grassroots to earn genuine affection and adoration from the public. As a result, Singaporeans were uninterested in these unfamiliar faces only until recently.
The point that Singh makes here is that the PAP has been engaged in a dangerous tradeoff between technocratic geniuses and the hearts and minds of the citizenry. He reasons that,
“There is no love, only transaction, between the PAP government and the Singaporean electorate now. Lightning cannot strike three times at the same place… thus the PAP cannot afford to be complacent. It must work harder and harder from now on.”
What he is referring to, Lee Kuan Yew himself has called it the “freak” electorate of Singapore. Taking away both pro-PAP and anti-PAP voters, there is actually a silent 30% of floating voters who could swing either way — and their might is best shown in these ‘freak elections’. First in 2015, when there was an outpouring of public sympathy for the late Minister Mentor. Now in 2020, where it is still likely that the PAP will win by a generous margin because of its track record of handling crises, despite the slip-ups with Tan Wu Meng and Ivan Lim.
However, Singh warns that it is best that our political leaders do not underestimate the sophistication of the electorate which they serve as we are “very rational”. This is especially true of younger voters, who are “more educated and are increasingly interested in political participation”. As a result, Singh notes that they are likely to be more “brutal and unforgiving” towards political failures too. Without the charismatic appeal of the first-generation leaders, the PAP is now “only good for its economic track record” to them, but even this will not come easy for the party from now on.
“There are reasons behind why Heng Swee Keat wants a quick General Election so he can get on with running the country. The health of our economy and our society is gravely at stake here.”
On top of the new problems which it has created, Singh thinks that the lasting impact of Covid-19 will, and has already started acting as a catalyst in dragging some of Singapore’s pressure points back into the spotlight. One of the most prominent issues is income inequality. Although it has been at its lowest in almost two decades, research on past pandemics may suggest that the progress made could be undone since the top 10% are relatively unaffected and may have even profited in contrast to the lower and middle-income classes. This ties in heavily with the issue of elitism, another issue brought back into the spotlight by the recent Ivan Lim scandal. Singh also weighed in that “the public sector is relatively safe, but the private sector is in grave danger because of the lack of demand from businesses overseas”. This, compounded with the global economic recession, has only made it increasingly more difficult for the PAP to sustain their votes in the ballot box.
And what if the PAP fails to uphold their economic performance? What if its leaders have not gained public adoration by GE2025? Lee Kuan Yew himself had forewarned this as one of the Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going:
“There will come a time when eventually the public will say, look, let’s try the other side, either because the PAP has declined in quality or the opposition has put up a team which is equal to the PAP and they say, let’s try the other side.”
To Singh, there is no doubt that Singaporeans will vote for the PAP this coming election. But it does not mean that they are not watching the party carefully. The Workers’ Party (WP) and the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) have proven, or are continuously working to prove themselves to be a legitimate opposition party tough enough to contend against the incumbent PAP in the public eye. In fact, “the contrast between the PAP and the opposition is becoming clearer”.
Singh observed that the diversity of fielded candidates from the opposition is especially robust this year, taking into account age and race. Furthermore, the full-bodied credentials of these new candidates compared to previous candidates the opposition fielded in the past could be a signal that the PAP has lost its monopoly in attracting the best potential political talents. To make matters worse, the controversy surrounding Ivan Lim has put the screening process of the PAP candidates in the spotlight.
Most strikingly, the very black swan which could “give the PAP nightmares” has appeared: Lee Hsien Yang. Putting speculations aside, Singh comments that it is not a necessity for him to be fielded as a candidate and elaborates that his presence is enough to remind people of the ugly Oxley Road saga. However, whether this will cause people to take a second look before they cross off the ballot paper remains to be seen. Singh is of the opinion that Singaporeans, keeping in mind our Asian Values, would prefer family feuds to be separated from national politics. This is especially so since it concerns the legacy of the much-loved, late founding father of Singapore LKY. He nevertheless welcomes the entrance of the Lee younger brother into politics as he notes that it is good for the democracy and political vibrancy of Singapore.
His final thoughts for citizens: to watch how the 4G leaders perform over the next 5 years as the remaining 3G leaders such as Lee Hsien Loong, Khaw Boon Wan and Charles Chong are poised to or have already stepped down.
“GE2020 will be like 2015, it will be another ‘freak election’, because of Covid-19. But what is more exciting to come is GE2025. It will be a referendum on the 4G leaders and not the 3G leaders… the PAP will have to prove themselves.”