Two weeks after Singapore's People's Action Party won its 15th straight general election on July 10, taking 83 of the parliament's 93 seats, a closer analysis of the polls has unsettling implications for the party now that the Lee family is slowly drifting away from power.
It is clear that future elections, which must be held every five years under Singapore's hybrid Westminster parliamentary system, are going to be tougher for the PAP. Reform requires dampening down on perceived arrogance, bringing in more diversity of views, allowing robust debate within parliament and in the media and using moral persuasion rather than harassment and/or legal measures against the opposition to mollify an increasingly distrustful millennial generation.
The PAP will have to be much more careful in political office candidate selection to avoid embarrassment like the withdrawal of Keppel executive Ivan Lim, dubbed by some the "future of the party," who was forced out after allegations emerged about past work and national service conduct.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, vowing to retire "as soon as that is possible" after the end of the coronavirus crisis, which has infected more than 50,000 people although it has killed only 27, named a new steady-as-you-go cabinet on July 25, changing the heads of six ministries, pushing three elders into retirement, and giving additional duties to his expected successor, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat who also becomes Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies.
In previous elections opposition votes were perceived as pure protest votes, but this time, according to those on the ground, with the coronavirus raging and with a recession clearly on the way, there was much deeper concern regarding the future. How the opposition performs in the next election depends partly on those concerns but also on what happens in parliament, how opposition unity is perceived, on opposition grassroot organization, and very specific targeted campaigning.
To show just how close the election really was, with 2.65 million 33voters going to the polls, had 11,451 voters changed their intentions across five key constituencies, the opposition would have won 26 seats. If a further 66,251 voters changed their intentions in four group constituencies, there would have been a hung parliament. The opposition could win government on the above scenario with just above 40 percent of the total votes.
(GRCs, as they are called, were implemented in the 1980s ostensibly to enshrine minority representation in the parliament, with at least one minority running in a four-person team. In fact, given the fragmented nature of the opposition, they were designed at the hands of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to make sure opposition parties couldn't get enough candidates together to contest in them.)
The Workers Party held onto Aljunied group representation constituency and Hougang Single Member Constituency and unexpectedly won a second GRC, Sengkang, giving the party 10 seats in Parliament. The newly formed Progress Singapore Party under the stewardship of ex-PAP veteran Tan Cheng Bock, aided with the appearance on the stump of Lee Hsien Yang, the premier's estranged brother, cut deeply into a number of PAP strongholds, and the Singapore Democratic Party made strong inroads in two single constituencies.
The opposition's campaign was hamstrung through a number of issues. First, the Covid-19 restrictions eliminated election rallies, which have historically bolstered opposition support before elections. The short 10-day campaign severely restricted the opposition's ability to get their message across as well. Opposition communication channels were severely restricted, with little access to the government-controlled mainstream media, leaving the opposition to rely almost solely on social media to get their message across to voters.
There was also conjecture about the role of 15,000 ex-Indian nationals believed loyal to the PAP who have been granted Singapore citizenship over the past five years, residing in the East Coast group constituency in which the PAP polled 61,009 to the Worker Party's 53,225. The Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's team could only muster a majority of 7,779, with critics in the area claiming this new citizen cluster had provided the bulge. Heng's weakness has generally been seen as a major setback in the succession plan to replace Hsien Loong, Lee, over the weekend when announcing his new cabinet line-up, has signaled a delay in his retirement.
In addition, critics say the Online Falsehoods and Manipulations Act (POFMA) was used by the government during the election campaign to silence the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman and opposition heavyweight, Paul Tambyah, whose comments concerning the government mishandling of foreign worker dormitories during the coronavirus outbreaks.
Although critics charge that electoral boundaries are heavily gerrymandered and malapportioned to favor the PAP, results show this time that wasn't the case. Hundreds of thousands of PAP votes went to waste in PAP candidates' supermajorities across a number of constituencies, with current constituency delineations laying to waste around 300,000 PAP votes. This is a great advantage to the opposition if they can target their future campaigns in the more marginal constituencies, where hypothetically the opposition could win a majority of constituencies without necessarily winning the popular aggregate vote.