Singapore’s version of a political shock upends old playbook

The youngsters are prepared to vote against the govt in times of a crisis

By PHILIP J HEIJMANS, MICHELLE JAMRISKO & FARIS MOKHTAR / Pic BLOOMBERG

MOST political parties around the world would be thrilled to win 89% of seats in an election. Not in Singapore.

The worst showing for the ruling People’s Action Party, or PAP, since independence in 1965 prompted analysts to declare a “vote for change” that will trigger “soul searching” among the country’s leaders. Supporters for the main Opposition Workers’ Party — which took 10 of 93 seats up for grabs — waved flags, blew whistles and beat drums like they were about to take office.

Much of that reaction reflects just how tightly the PAP has clenched the levers of power over the decades. It’s a very high bar for it to continue winning so many seats in every election even with an electoral system that has built-in advantages for the ruling party, and this vote was held when a global pandemic is leading to the city-state’s worst-ever economic slump.

Potentially more concerning for Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong, however, was that the result upended the conventional wisdom that traditionally risk-averse Singaporeans would strongly back the PAP in an emergency. That alone could have a big impact on policy, raising questions about how leaders positioned to succeed Lee handled the virus and why more young voters are said to have embraced Opposition calls for both a stronger social safety net and a more open democracy.

“Look at this population — the youngsters — they are prepared to vote against the government in times of a crisis, which is very unprecedented,” said Bilveer Singh, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s department of political science. “It has never happened.”

In the early hours of Saturday, Lee said the PAP had won a “clear mandate” even though its 61.2% share of the popular vote — slightly more than its all-time low in 2011 — was less than he had hoped. He vowed to take Singapore “safely through the crisis and beyond” before handing over power to the so-called fourth generation of leaders.

“The results show also a clear desire for a diversity of voices in the Parliament,” Lee said, while adding that the outcome reflected the “pain and uncertainty” caused by a loss of income, anxiety over jobs and virus-related disruptions.

Lee hinted at some changes ahead, saying government policies must reflect the younger generation’s “significantly different life aspirations and priorities” compared to older Singaporeans. Still, he implored the youth to heed lessons “hard-won by their parents and grandparents, so that they don’t have to learn them all over again and pay a high price.”

Post the 2011 elections, Singapore tightened curbs on foreign workers after a backlash over the cost of living led to then-record Opposition gains. Lee had pledged to be more responsive to criticism of government policies and unveiled measures to widen the social safety net for elderly and lower-income Singaporeans. The PAP also carried out a post-mortem to identify where it had fallen short and set out on what Lee described as a “fresh course” after an introspection.

The “PAP was always expected to win — international investors always knew that to be the case,” said Justin Tang, head of Asian research at United First Partners. “It would, however, need to rethink its longer-term strategy playbook not just politically but also economically.”

As one of the most trade-reliant economies in the world, Singapore has taken a severe knock during the pandemic. Officials are predict- ing that GDP will contract as much as 7% this year. Data on tomorrow will probably show the economy already entered a recession in the second quarter.

“There may be a greater need to think out of the box for economic strategies in a post-Covid-19 world,” said Selena Ling, head of treasury research and strategy at Oversea- Chinese Banking Corp, citing debates over fiscal sustainability and accountability, minimum wages, foreign worker policy and reliance on multinational corporations.

The Workers’ Party had campaigned on a slew of policies aimed at helping lower-income Singaporeans, including unemployment insurance, a minimum wage and incentives to hire locals over foreigners. Party chief Pritam Singh, who will become Singapore’s first official Opposition leader, said he was humbled by the gains even though “it’s still not exactly a quantum leap”.

At a press conference on Sunday, Singh said his party’s focus is on “good outcomes for Singapore and Singaporeans” as the country navigates through the impact of the virus.

“The situation is not positive in certain industries and we have people that are starting to get retrenched in certain jobs and they need help and assistance,” he said. “We should be very focused on what is at stake here, rather than think about the political position that the party should take” on certain issues.

The election results will likely spur the government to enact measures to strengthen the social safety net and recalibrate its foreign worker policy even while it stresses to the business community that it’s not turning insular, according to Leon- ard Lim, Singapore country director for regional consultancy firm Vriens & Partners Pte Ltd. The government had already tightened restrictions on foreign labour in industries such as retail, while allowing imported talent for higher-skilled roles.

On the campaign trail, Lee had emphasised the government’s moves to stabilise the economy and limit job losses through massive wage subsidies, pledges to create 100,000 fresh work and training opportunities, and reskilling workers toward next-generation industries. His government allocated S$93 billion (RM288.1 billion) in special budget support to cushion the economic blow and dipped into its reserves for only the second time to finance the spending.

In addition, the government is investing for research and development in areas such as artificial intelligence and biomedical sciences, supplementing ongoing digitisation efforts that include building Singa- pore into a fintech hub and getting the island’s food stalls and wet markets to adopt e-payments.

Still, Lee has repeatedly said Singapore needs to attract investments from multinationals to generate sustainable economic growth over the long haul. He blasted Opposition proposals for a minimum wage and universal basic income as “fashionable peacetime slogans, not serious wartime plans”.

For Lee, who has run Singapore since 2004, the election was personal. He has signalled he intends to step down by the time he turns 70 in 2022, with Deputy PM and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat set to take over.

Yet, the election saw the PM being attacked by his own brother, Lee Hsien Yang, who criticised the government’s handling of the pandemic and the capabilities of the next generation of the PAP’s leaders. Singa- pore has been one of the hardest-hit places in Asia, with cases topping 45,000 — mostly migrant workers residing in dormitories — even though the fatality rate remains low.

Lee Hsien Yang also called for an overhaul of the political system, a view shared by the Workers’ Party. It has sought a range of political reforms, such as abolishing the group-representative constituency system that it says has helped the PAP maintain its lock on the Parliament. It advocates single-member constituencies, an independent Elections Department and court reviews of government directives under a so-called fake news law passed last year. — Bloomberg