GE2020: Why Singapore may lose, whatever the final score

Academic Views, GE2020 / Tuesday, July 7th, 2020

Cherian George and Donald Low reflect on a negative campaign that could leave many Singaporeans disaffected and the country less prepared for the post-pandemic challenges ahead.

Election results are measured not only by the numbers but also by intangibles. When Singaporeans go to the polls on Friday, the final tally is likely to preserve the People’s Action Party’s Parliamentary dominance. But how the subjective quality of its victory will be perceived is less certain. 

The 2020 General Election may leave many Singaporeans, including some who end up voting for the PAP, disaffected and doubtful — even as the country enters a post-pandemic era that will require greater solidarity and sacrifice by citizens. The likely victors, meanwhile, are displaying an insecurity and defensiveness that will militate against the openness to new ideas needed for Singapore to remake itself. 

The opposition won’t be to blame — after all, Singapore must be the only country where the challengers and most of their well-wishers pay the government the ultimate compliment of not wanting to oust it. Instead, the taint on the PAP’s impending victory is largely self-inflicted, with the party acting more petty and punitive than what people expect from leaders focused on the historic challenges facing Singapore.

Of course, it is the numerical results that will engross voters and observers between now and Friday night. Nobody knows how GE2020 will finish. But this unpredictability is, in fact, quite bounded.

Winning more than seven out of ten votes, and more than 90 seats, would be treated as a PAP landslide. A slightly different outcome — six out of ten votes, and about 80 seats — would rate as a major triumph for the opposition. Yet, these differences are constitutionally insignificant. For better and worse, even the low end of the range would leave the PAP in complete control of Parliament and the post-election agenda, fully in charge of all instruments of power, and able to govern decisively.

But, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong observed in a Nomination Day press conference, election outcomes must also be “measured qualitatively, and not just by numbers”.

“If you have an election at the end of which you have, let’s say, even a very overwhelming majority, but the minority who voted against you are extremely, intensely unhappy with the outcome, the country is divided, there is a lack of trust, mutual lack of respect… I think that’s a bad outcome,” he said.

Sadly, such insight has not translated into action. In the run-up to GE2020 as well as during the campaign period, the PAP has sometimes conducted itself in ways likely to alienate many Singaporeans – including middle-ground voters, most of whom may still pick the PAP from Friday’s menu, but do so holding their noses.

Instead of exuding the calm, confidence and magnanimity that one expects from a ruling party headed for a very comfortable majority (if not a clean sweep), the PAP has displayed a misplaced insecurity about its electoral prospects, as well as impatience about not getting the last word in every controversy. It seems unwilling to adapt to an electorate that includes many who came of (voting) age at ease with the back-and-forth of social media. A few examples help to illustrate this.

Hardball electioneering 

First, just before Parliament was dissolved, the PAP published an attack by a government office holder on a well-regarded playwright and poet, Alfian Sa’at, thus triggering a campaign of online hate against him. The real target was Workers’ Party leader Pritam Singh, who had earlier spoken up for Alfian in Parliament. The affair indicated that the PAP treats private citizens as acceptable collateral damage in its partisan battles. The article also raised eyebrows by implying that Alfian should show more gratitude as a minority, since Singapore provided him “an education and a living that is denied to many minorities in the region”. 

Second, when PAP newbie Ivan Lim’s proposed candidature was derailed by stories about his alleged arrogance and elitism, PM Lee depicted the episode as a “trial by internet”. This was a curious characterisation of the chain of events. Lim himself had not put up a stout defence. Nor had the party made much effort to justify its choice with supportive character references to counter the naysayers. The PAP seemed peeved mainly because some citizens did not treat its judgment as unquestionable, rather than because it was convinced it was right. The PM’s remarks smacked of a resentment towards a more participatory political culture.

Third, the PAP reacted too late — and then too tetchily — to questions about whether Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had expressed receptiveness to a former chief planner’s notion that Singapore could hold 10 million people. The government passed up opportunities to clarify Heng’s comments long before the GE and thus pre-empt a distracting debate. When it finally decided to correct Chee Soon Juan and his Singapore Democratic Party, its response was ham-fisted. It even earned a ticking off from non-partisan feminist organisation, AWARE, for making a crude and insensitive analogy between Chee’s rhetoric and allegations of spousal violence. Heng was right when he said about the 10-million red herring, “let’s not get distracted, let’s focus on the key issues at hand”—making it hard to understand why the PAP took the SDP’s bait and prolonged the debate.

Fourth, the government issued a string of online correction orders against the opposition. This is the first election featuring the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). Even if objective voters conclude that every one of the POFMA directives was a justified move against false statements of fact that harmed the public interest — and that’s a big if — they would still recognise POFMA as a one-sided law, since it can be triggered only by senior officials appointed by PAP ministers. Opposition candidates could also be targets of false statements of fact harmful to the public interest. Yet, they cannot rely on POFMA to set the record straight. With mainstream media already biased in favour of the ruling party, POFMA compounds doubts about the fairness of this exceptionally media-reliant electoral contest.

Fifth, the attacks on the Workers’ Party’s Raeesah Khan by some PAP supporters — subsequently intensified by PAP headquarters — run the risk of alienating younger voters who feel strongly about social and economic injustice, and are attuned to the global discourse on race. They are used to language and frames that older Singaporeans are less familiar with, and may even find shocking. They may admire Khan’s fearless passion, assess her choice of words in that context, and treat her apology as the end of the matter. If so, they may view the PAP’s conflict escalation not only as partisan, but also as another case of boomers trying to suppress the inconvenient idealism of millennials and zoomers. As for older Singaporeans following the case, some are disturbed by how the PAP has put words in Raeesah’s mouth, raising the temperature higher than the facts warrant.

Finally, the PAP’s insistence on a strong mandate strikes a discordant note. Yes, it should call for collective fortitude in the face of a debilitating crisis. But loyal citizens in a democracy have a right to support different parties. To equate national unity with voting PAP is precisely the kind of partisanship that can sow unnecessary division.

Furthermore, making good government conditional on a strong mandate prompts the question, how would PAP act if it did not get its way? In the unlikely event that another GRC falls, and the popular vote goes back down to 60 percent, the PAP would still emerge from 2020 with the strongest mandate of any party in any pandemic-stricken country in the world. That should be enough. One expects leaders to have the courage of their convictions. Lee Kuan Yew famously said that, even as he’s lowered into his grave, he would get up if Singapore needed him. In that spirit, his successors should be telling us that, even if given a one-seat majority, they will press on with their plans to save the nation from disaster – for that’s how much they believe in their cause.

Instead, voters have been dealt a kind of emotional blackmail: it is as if we need to prove our love for PAP leaders before they can do what’s required. This is not unlike the 1990s votes-for-upgrading tactic; but that old inducement was merely the icing on the cake of good government. In this case, the cake itself is at stake: the PAP implies that it will only put its heart and soul into fixing this crisis of our generation if we show how much we appreciate them.

All said and done, the massive support packages doled out by the government, as well as its above-average handling of the pandemic, are likely to be rewarded handsomely at the polls. To many loyal PAP supporters, a big win is all they are looking for. Others, including neutrals, may be turned off by the PAP’s negative campaigning, but still vote for stability and reliability. 

Consequently, the PAP may still hit the upper end of expectations — more than 70 percent of the popular vote and a near wipeout of the opposition, for example. The PAP would thus get the resounding support it seeks for its pandemic and post-pandemic policies, as well as for its leadership succession plans. 

Bigger challenges to come

But, as PM Lee warned, any lingering negativity would remain a problem. The Resilience, Solidarity and Fortitude Budgets were unprecedented, but politically uncontroversial. The path ahead will be far more complex and contentious. 

First, the policy choices Singapore faces after the pandemic are likely to be stark and difficult ones. They may require sacrifices from citizens – sacrifices that will be accepted only if there is a high degree of solidarity and social trust among Singaporeans. The post-pandemic world of de-globalisation, diversification of supply chains, and de-carbonisation – not to mention the strategic rivalry between the United States and China – may well be one that is not conducive for city-states highly reliant on trade and investment flows, and an open, liberal global order. 

Adapting our growth model to such a world requires a lot more than one-off fiscal giveaways. They require new capital-labour-community coalitions to augment and complement a strong government. In short, we need a strong society – not just one that trusts the ruling party, but also one that is able to work with the state to forge a consensus on new directions, and to mobilise citizens and businesses to make the necessary sacrifices. 

Second, current and future disruptions generated by the pandemic will demand solutions that do not come naturally or easily to an incumbent that’s been in power for more than 60 years. The meta-argument for more credible and active opposition — as well as more non-partisan dissenters — is precisely that in a highly unpredictable world, decisions must tap on a much wider diversity of ideas than ever before. 

Singapore’s highly educated society is ready for such a transformation in the way we govern ourselves. But excessive partisanship will cheat Singapore of this possibility. Even if the government reaches out post-GE, able Singaporeans may choose not to work with leaders who have turned them off with their petty politicking during this campaign

The PAP’s standard response to such doubts is that, like all political parties, it plays to win. It does not have an obligation to be magnanimous to its opponents. But precisely because the PAP brands itself as a national movement intricately tied to the history and destiny of the country, it should expect — or rather, demand — to be judged by a higher standard. The day most Singaporeans believe the PAP is just like any other collection of politicians is the day the PAP as we know it is over.

Voters may be powerless to change the PAP’s approach. The party will of course treat a landslide as vindication and legitimisation of its hardball tactics, and continue to use them after the elections. It is also possible that the opposite numerical result — an electoral slap in the face — produces the same effect. Bruised egos may be less conciliatory, not more, and thus less able to inspire and mobilise Singaporeans in the necessary post-pandemic adaptation efforts. The party may blame liberals and anti-PAP elements, deciding they are impossible to please, so it won’t try. This is an uncompromising attitude that seeped in after the GE2011 disappointment, which may be why it is so ingrained even among the PAP’s younger leaders. 

Unless there is a strong determination within the party to engage in a cultural shift, a more mean-spirited society led by a more irritable and irascible PAP may become a long-term feature of politics in Singapore. 

Cherian George is professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University and the author of Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited: Essays on Singapore Politics (Ethos Books, 2020).

Donald Low is professor of practice in public policy at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and author of Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus (NUS Press, 2014).

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