GE Special

Singapore GE: Elections will turn on jobs, Covid-19 and other issues

Residents at S11 Dormitory in April. Observers agree that the high numbers of infection among workers in dormitories could be an area of criticism on how the Covid-19 outbreak was handled by the Government. People waiting their turn to submit their a
Observers and voters say Covid-19 has also led to soul-searching about societal issues, and some - especially younger voters - may vote based on issues of social justice and political participation.ST FILE PHOTO
Residents at S11 Dormitory in April. Observers agree that the high numbers of infection among workers in dormitories could be an area of criticism on how the Covid-19 outbreak was handled by the Government. People waiting their turn to submit their a
People waiting their turn to submit their applications for the Temporary Relief Fund at Nee Soon East Community Club in April. ST FILE PHOTO
Residents at S11 Dormitory in April. Observers agree that the high numbers of infection among workers in dormitories could be an area of criticism on how the Covid-19 outbreak was handled by the Government. People waiting their turn to submit their a
Residents at S11 Dormitory in April.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Residents at S11 Dormitory in April. Observers agree that the high numbers of infection among workers in dormitories could be an area of criticism on how the Covid-19 outbreak was handled by the Government. People waiting their turn to submit their a
Apart from jobs, voters say other aspects of the Government's performance in handling Covid-19 would also guide their choice at the polls. ST FILE PHOTO

A crisis like never before weighs on voters' minds. Danson Cheong and Tee Zhuo report on how Covid-19 will cast a long shadow over issues, new and old, for voters when they head to the polls.

For the past several months, Mr Ivan Yeo, 53, has had no income from the interior design business he has run since 2009.

His family's main breadwinner, he was doing fine before, bringing home up to $5,000 a month. He now delivers parcels for about $100 daily, while his wife continues her job as a secretary, earning about $2,000 a month.

No prizes for guessing why: the Covid-19 pandemic.

Says the father of three: "Do you know how hard the impact is? I still have to pay rental, my housing loan and living expenses."

He and his wife earn enough to get by and the family has some savings. He has also applied for the $9,000 Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme.

As Mr Yeo's situation indicates, jobs and the economy will be at the forefront of the coming general election as never before, owing to the vast disruption caused by Covid-19.

How the pandemic has been handled by the Government, including the fourth generation (4G) political leaders, will also be in the spotlight.

The coronavirus crisis has been described by political analysts as the 4G team's baptism of fire, and some see the general election as a referendum on its performance.

The next general election has to be held by April 14 next year, and speculation on the timing has been rife since last year.

But sightings of potential candidates and last Thursday's release of new campaign guidelines - which will see no physical rallies should an election be held during phase two - have fuelled talk the polls could be held as soon as next month.

Experts agree that jobs and the handling of the pandemic will be the main issues on voters' minds.

 

But other longer-term issues related to Singapore's society and economy - some brought into sharp relief by Covid-19 - will also feature, especially with younger voters. These include migrant workers, climate change and social inequality.

Insight looks at the broad issues that will dominate the coming general election.

JOBS AND LIVELIHOODS

The circuit breaker to contain the outbreak brought an unprecedented halt to businesses, with a knock-on effect on jobs.

MAKING A SAFE CHOICE

Voters are pragmatic and look at a range of issues. Because the election is going to take place during an uncertain period, that actually favours the incumbent. People would rather have continuity than uncertainty.

DR MUSTAFA IZZUDDIN, a senior international affairs analyst with political consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore.

WINNING THE GROUND

The longer they stay at home, the more insecure they're going to feel. In that sense, phase two paves the way for the election and also helps to win the ground.

MR VISWA SADASIVAN , a former Nominated MP, on why the phase two reopening is a good move.

WANTING TO BE HEARD

We don't really expect the PAP to be out of power any time soon. What we want is for our voices to be heard, and we are willing to use our vote to send a signal.

MR PETER OOI, a private sector analyst who will vote in the new Kebun Baru SMC.

Things are on the move now with the Government's decision to enter phase two of reopening Singapore's economy on Friday, less than three weeks after the circuit breaker ended.

This means most businesses have resumed, shops and eateries have reopened, and gatherings of five or fewer people are now allowed.

Former Nominated MP (NMP) Viswa Sadasivan says this is a good move, as many have been worried about losing their jobs.

"The longer they stay at home, the more insecure they're going to feel. In that sense, phase two paves the way for the election and also helps to win the ground," he says.

The Government has, over the last six months, been both fighting the spread of the virus and dealing with its severe impact on the economy.

Most notably it has weighed in with four Budget packages worth $93 billion. But whatever measures the Government takes at home, the country remains buffeted by global headwinds and factors outside its control.

These external factors are of little consolation to Mr Yeo. Asked what he will be looking for as a voter, the Aljunied GRC resident says: "It's important to have fresh ideas and perspectives to save the economy and help businesses."

 

Labour figures released last Monday recorded the largest quarterly drop in the total number of employed people, with 25,600 fewer people with jobs in the three months to March 31.

Retrenchments spiked at the same time, while the seasonally adjusted number of job vacancies fell to its lowest since September 2010.

And the worst is yet to come, with Manpower Minister Josephine Teo saying the virus' full effects on these figures have not yet been felt.

Former NMP Zulkifli Baharudin says there are "a large number of people who are dislocated", having lost, or who fear losing, their jobs.

MPs from the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) are well aware of the widespread anxiety.

Mr Zainal Sapari, MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, says ground uncertainty on jobs is the reason for interim measures like the SGUnited traineeships. These are among the 100,000 jobs and opportunities the Government has set aside $2 billion to create.

There are also municipal-level initiatives.

Labour MP Patrick Tay, who says lives and livelihoods are the crucial issue at this period, launched a community jobs initiative with fellow West Coast GRC MPs last Wednesday. There are over 500 immediate positions on offer under the programme. Self-service kiosks will be installed at community centres next month, and around 100 volunteers will provide basic career advice.

Ms Rachel Ng, 23, a first-time voter and a resident of West Coast GRC, says her peers will definitely be thinking about jobs and finances when they vote.

"Although there are many traineeships, the pay is not so good. Many of us are looking for proper jobs as the pay (for traineeships) is about 75 per cent of normal jobs," she says.

Mr Viswa tells Insight that many young voters are "very, very nervous" about landing jobs. Indeed, Ms Ng has sent out applications for about 20 jobs since last month, with little luck so far.

Many of her peers have not found jobs either, the fresh psychology graduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS) adds. "If it drags on and I still don't find a job, I'll be very worried," she says.

HANDLING THE OUTBREAK

Apart from jobs, voters say other aspects of the Government's performance in handling Covid-19 would also guide their choice at the polls.

Mr Yeo says instructions at different stages of the outbreak about wearing masks and other decisions are an issue for him.

"They should've acted swiftly to ban visitors. If we had stopped people coming into Singapore early on, then perhaps the spread would be kept to a minimum," he says.

Mr Viswa says some decisions, such as the apparent flip-flopping on masks, could be cited by the opposition as an example of mismanagement.

 
 

Retiree Fok Fook Kong, 69, believes there is a perception that other decisions were "clouded by political considerations".

"For example, some people might think they went into phase two despite community cases because they want to show the situation has normalised so a GE can be held," says the Jalan Besar GRC resident.

In the past week, cases in the community - which excludes migrant workers staying in dormitories - have stayed at five or below.

Politicians have also commented recently on the low community spread, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who in the first of a series of nationally televised addresses on June 7, cited it as an example of "good progress".

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan says many small and medium-sized enterprises feel the circuit breaker had been damaging, though they understood its necessity. "There may be the view that the Government could have handled the outbreak better, and that the Budget measures, while generous, may not be as targeted as they should be."

He points out that measures could have been more precisely aimed at sectors that cannot reopen quickly, and specific strategies could have been laid out to boost overall economic resilience.

 

Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst with political consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore, says the Covid-19 situation will be a "political appraisal" of the PAP's leadership in a time of crisis.

Mr Zulkifli similarly calls it a "baptism of fire" for the 4G team. Although he thinks leadership transition should be the main issue, the election will more likely be viewed as a referendum on the 4G team's handling of the pandemic, he says.

Observers agree that high numbers of infection among workers in dormitories, now over 90 per cent of the nation's total Covid-19 cases, could be an area of criticism on how the outbreak was handled.

"There is a sense that as the PAP dealt with the crisis, the foreign worker population may have blindsided them," says Dr Mustafa.

He adds that the issue would be couched in the broader framework of immigration, especially by the opposition parties.

The Workers' Party declined to comment for this article. But during the Budget debates, party chief Pritam Singh had, on different occasions, said that living conditions of some foreign workers were a "stain" on Singapore. He also highlighted calls to temper the country's reliance on foreign labour.

When contacted, the Singapore Democratic Party referred to its campaign manifesto, which, among other things, says there has been an overdependence on foreign workers, who are displacing local PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians). It also criticises the PAP for the "dire living conditions" at the dorms.

On immigration - a perennial hot-button issue - Associate Professor Tan says: "(It will be) about whether our economic policy is sustainable with a very high dependence on very large transient labour forces."

This will in turn be linked to PMETs' concerns about whether the "Singaporean core" of workers is being compromised by immigration, says the former NMP.

The issue of immigration on its own will not be a "winning message", notes Dr Mustafa.

"Voters are pragmatic and look at a range of issues. Because the election is going to take place during an uncertain period, that actually favours the incumbent. People would rather have continuity than uncertainty," he says.

RESHAPING SINGAPORE

Covid-19 has also led to soul-searching about societal issues, and some - especially younger voters - may vote based on issues of social justice and political participation, say observers and voters.

NMP Anthea Ong says vulnerabilities in Singapore's "weakest links", including how it treats low-wage workers, have become "more than glaring".

"We want to see these issues fixed so Singapore can be better prepared when the next crisis hits," she says.

Prof Tan says that while material concerns will remain dominant, the "whole tenor" of the election will be about how Singapore can thrive in a post-Covid-19 world.

Questions such as how to remake society, if it should be fairer, and the "sacred cows that need to be slain" in order to achieve that will need to be considered, he adds.

Similarly, Dr Ng Kok Hoe, a senior research fellow at NUS' Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, says Covid-19 has laid bare pre-existing inequality and insecurity in society.

These include educational and housing inequality, which was evident during the circuit breaker measures, in how it applied to home-based learning and working from home; as well as in situations such as food insecurity and homelessness.

"This group will be looking out for bold policy changes to address what they know are systemic problems with the way our society and economy are organised," he says.

Ms Ong says that while a significant group remain concerned with "retail politics" or local constituency issues, a growing number, including young and first-time voters, will be focused on national issues like mental health, social inequality and climate change. Reports estimate that there are 229,900 first-time voters, based on the number of people aged 20-24 as of June last year. This works out to 8.6 per cent of the estimated 2,653,942 eligible voters.

Dr Ng, who notes that many young people have become involved in community projects, says: "Having experienced what it is like to contribute to larger causes, they will expect their concerns to be taken seriously and will want to see policy action in these areas."

Indeed, Singapore's first climate rally last Septemberwas organised by young people and had about 2,000 attendees. Participants also wrote to their MPs and demanded systemic changes in policy.

Other local groups like the Community for Advocacy and Political Education, which promotes political literacy and awareness, are run by undergraduates.

Private sector analyst Peter Ooi, 27, says issues like civil society and the protection of vulnerable groups have become much more politically salient for a millennial like himself.

"Our exposure to various media allows us to see issues older generations are less tuned in to," he says.

Similarly, first-time voter Krishan Sanjay, 25, says his grandparents tend to focus on what his MP in Bukit Panjang SMC - Dr Teo Ho Pin - has done for the estate.

"For them, it's not so much about what he does in Parliament, or the Bills he supported or helped to introduce," says Mr Krishan, a fresh graduate entering the civil service.

He, however, is interested in the treatment of migrant workers and ways to protect their rights.

Mr Ooi, who will vote in the new Kebun Baru SMC, says exposure to other countries means young voters realise such issues are "political problems with political solutions".

"We don't really expect the PAP to be out of power any time soon. What we want is for our voices to be heard, and we are willing to use our vote to send a signal," he says.

While agreeing that larger issues like climate change concern young people, Mr Viswa reckons the centre of gravity would shift to practical issues, given the pandemic. These include getting a job, having a family and buying a flat. "Because it's when your stomach is filled that you can actually start dreaming," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2020, with the headline 'Elections will turn on jobs, Covid-19 and other issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe