On 10 July, Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) suffered one of its worst electoral results: 61 per cent of the popular vote. The opposition Workers’ Party (WP) now holds 10 of 93 parliamentary seats. Bridget Welsh specially for the East Asia Forum.
This would be a landslide victory in most democracies. But the numerical majority in actuality suggests a rather humiliating defeat, especially in a ‘crisis’ election called early amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Swings of over 20 per cent occurred, with the WP collecting an average of over 50 per cent in contested seats. The electoral system is so stacked with systemic controls and electoral engineering after 55 years of PAP rule that the outcome does not show the scope of discontent.
Many Singaporeans, however, understand the vote’s significance. Even the PAP was low-key, calling the results ‘respectable’. The election results echo those of the 2011 election, when the WP secured its first group representative constituency. These latest polls suggest the PAP’s stronger 2015 election results, which capitalised on the nationalist sentiments of the country’s 50th anniversary and death of Lee Kuan Yew, may have been more aberration than norm.
Narratives have so far focussed on first, the WP’s campaign success as it achieved fresh and credible leadership (what the PAP claimed to have); second, the backfiring of negative PAP campaigning that did not sit well with large parts of the public; third, the importance of young and minority voters who were galvanised over campaign issues and showed that disgruntlement; and fourth, failures in PAP’s governance of not only the economy, but also in scheduling the hastily-convened election in a pandemic and policies responses in the run-up.
A headline election issue that emerged was inequality — not along class lines but rather over political inequality. The campaign began with netizens effectively knocking out candidate Ivan Lim, a PAP-selected protege, over alleged bullying and lack of empathy. This tapped deep-seated anger about systemic elitism in which those chosen reap the benefits of a manipulated system, including a perceived free pass into parliament riding on senior politicians’ coattails.
Entrenched political inequalities are ethnicised too as PAP leaders state openly that Singapore is ‘not ready’ for a ‘non-Chinese’ leader. The PAP showed insensitivity, even seeming disdain, toward concerns raised by ethnic minorities, such as the 2019 controversy over a ‘brownface’ advertisement in the government-linked media. This same approach was evident this campaign when they unfairly criticised and misconstrued WP MP Raeesah Khan for her remarks on racial inequality. This provoked a strong backlash movement, #IStandwithRaeesah, as well as police reports against PAP candidates for their remarks on the country’s readiness for non-Chinese leadership.
The charges against Raeesah Khan have yet to be dropped, but the cases against PAP candidates were settled within hours. The government’s use of the controversial Protection of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) legislation against opposition candidate Paul Tambyah and independent media — whose remarks about the treatment of foreign workers were characterised as ‘false’ — were also seen as misuse of power. The advantages of political office are clear and were deeply resented.
They also fed into a growing political polarisation — a hardening of both support for and opposition to the PAP. Surveys show that Singaporeans are divided on issues of inequality, diversity and government accountability. Those benefitting from PAP rule embrace the ideological foundations of this model — elitism, exclusion and illiberal values. But many Singaporeans desire more inclusion and alternative voices. This has especially been the case among the young and more educated.
The PAP is contributing to this hardening of political poles. Recent attacks on academics and activists including PJ Thum and Jovalan Wham have been seen as unwarranted. The PAP has traditionally believed it can shut down a few activists and ride the chilling effect to victory. This was a miscalculation, as the cacophony for change was too loud.
Ironically, the pandemic has revealed the costs of excluding civil society. Advocates have long called for better treatment of foreign workers, who ended up suffering the brunt of COVID-19 in Singapore. From the onset, the PAP never had their campaign footing and were further thrown when Lee Hsien Yang, the prime minister’s brother, joined the opposition. The PAP’s calling a pandemic election revealed weakness, not strength.
Resistance to reform is entrenched and the PAP’s internal checks have seemingly disappeared as boundaries between party and state blur. The party remains in the ‘PAP knows best’ controlling mould of Lee Kuan Yew. Its corporate structure has encouraged ‘cabal think.’ To enter, you have to defend it. Well-meaning insiders who raise concerns are regularly sidelined. The eroding party base has become a cheerleader squad as opposed to a feedback system. The entrepot model for economic growth dependent on immigration and favouring foreign talent has never fundamentally changed. Structural inequalities have been seen to be embedded and social mobility for Singaporeans has contracted. The PAP’s 2020 manifesto offered little new by way of resolving the crises the country is facing as its competitiveness shrinks in a de-globalising world. The hollow campaign slogan of ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ rang as an insincere approach ironically undercutting government trust.
The results show that Singaporeans are willing to vote for a different system. The PAP might now be better served by recognising the different aspirations that Singaporean society has long been calling for — in its electoral system, economic approach and treatment of residents across backgrounds.
But signs show they’re not ready. Having the dropped candidate Ivan Lim speak on election morning showcases the PAP’s gilded cocoon. In this election the Workers’ Party emerged the butterfly. The PAP’s dulling shine has been self-inflicted.
Bridget Welsh is an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Nottingham Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute. She is also Senior Research Associate of the Hu Feng Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University, a Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Center and a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University.