GE SPECIAL: Thinking Aloud

Singapore GE2020: ‘Life and death’ for PAP and opposition

Mother of all crises and a new normal for the ruling and other parties, candidates and voters

Under normal circumstances, GE2020 would count as one of the more interesting general elections.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become an extraordinary one for the record books.

There is plenty to look out for.

On the ruling party's side, it is probably Mr Lee Hsien Loong's last electoral battle as prime minister as he is expected to hand over the baton to his successor some time in the next term.

That would be to Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, the anointed heir apparent.

But this isn't completely cast in stone.

Mr Heng has made a calculated decision to contest in East Coast GRC against the Workers' Party (WP), which has eyed the seats there the last three elections.

For a would-be prime minister who is said to lack political experience, this was the right move though not without risk.

If he wins big, it should burnish his credentials and strengthen his claim to the top job.

If he falters, Singapore's leadership transition would be set back, but only temporarily as there are others waiting in the wings should the unthinkable happen.

I cannot recall a previous GE that has tested a PAP leader to this extent.

Then there is the record number of new candidates fielded by the People's Action Party (PAP), 27 in all.

Usually, such a bumper crop is a sign of confidence from a party willing to take its chances with so many rookies unfamiliar to most voters.


Is the PAP so sure of the ground?

In normal times, voters tend to seek safety when a crisis is brewing, which was the case in 2001 after the Sept 11 terror attack on the United States.

The PAP won an overwhelming 75 per cent of the popular vote, one of its best showing.

So, can a repeat performance be expected?

I am not sure because this is not just any crisis but the mother of all crises that has affected all of us in unprecedented ways.

It is not just about health and economics but about a new normal that has changed how people think about life, their future and the sort of society they want.


Almost everything is still in flux - when the pandemic will be over, how serious will the economic fallout be, when will overseas travel resume, to name a few - and these uncertainties will affect everyone differently.

There is no one uniform, homogeneous impact.

It would be a mistake hence to believe voters will think alike and take flight to the safety of the ruling party.

I don't think anyone knows how they will react because we've not been here before.

Over in the opposition camp, the stakes are just as high.

There is a brand new party, Progress Singapore Party (PSP), led by former PAP stalwart Tan Cheng Bock, contesting 24 seats, the most among opposition parties.

It might be the last chance for 80-year-old Dr Tan to renew his political career and do what no one else has done in Singapore.

Ex-PAP men who fall out from the party usually keep their disagreements to themselves and fade away quietly. By challenging it so openly, he has opened a new front against the PAP.

As for the WP, it faces its moment of reckoning in this GE without the man who was the face of the party for so long and who engineered its biggest triumph in 2011 by capturing Aljunied GRC.

Mr Low Thia Khiang's decision not to contest after he had relinquished the leadership to Mr Pritam Singh speaks much of a veteran politician doing what he believes is right for the party.

Mr Low has done all he could to bring the WP to where it is today but it has to renew itself and appeal to a younger generation of Singaporeans not averse to voting opposition provided they can identify with the causes and the men and women leading them.

Going by the quality of the 21 candidates the WP is fielding, it is heading in the right direction.

Will Mr Low's retirement attract sympathy votes from neutrals concerned the WP might be completely wiped out?

Don't rule it out.

New faces, new parties, improbable fighters and never-say-die characters - GE2020 has its fair share of them all.

But none of these have changed the one unyielding truth in Singapore which looms large in every GE: It is always about whether the ruling party will sweep all the seats and obliterate the opposition or whether the latter will achieve a breakthrough victory.

Both sides see the possibility of either scenario in the starkest terms: For the PAP, an opposition upset (which might mean just one more GRC) means heading down the slippery slope, ending its dominance, while the opposition fears a wipeout will end the struggle for alternative voices in Singapore and return absolute control to the ruling party.

How did Singapore end up with this political life-and-death drama that voters have to decide every five years?


GE2020 is no different despite the subplots and the looming pandemic threat.

If there is any consolation it is that this do-or-die attitude on both sides is what keeps them on their toes.

The PAP, despite its dominance, fights every GE as if its life depended on it, and Mr Heng's move to East Coast GRC is part of its DNA.

For the opposition, the possibility of its complete demise has motivated and attracted better able younger men and women to join the fight to ensure survival.

It has not resulted in their deserting the parties because they are a lost cause, and that is a good thing for Singapore.

As for the electorate, I think the majority do not want to rock the boat in either direction, and so are quite happy to have both sides constantly living on the edge.

This is political equilibrium, Singapore-style.

That this state of affairs has lasted so long is due mainly to all those who have kept the contest going: Candidates, sponsors and supporters.

Looking at the 192 on both sides of the divide, I think all parties are getting better at recruiting new blood, give or take a few exceptions.

I salute all of them for their effort and commitment in keeping alive the democratic hope for representation and accountability.

If I could, I would vote for all of them.

• The writer is also senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2020, with the headline 'GE2020: 'Life and death' for PAP and opposition'. Subscribe