News analysis

GE2020: A result that could please voters from both sides

General Election 2020 will go down as the election with a result that pleased voters on both sides of the political spectrum.

Supporters of the People's Action Party (PAP) can take comfort that the party chalked up a respectable 61.2 per cent of valid votes cast, which is not bad for an election it was criticised for holding in the middle of a pandemic as anxieties rose over health and a looming recession.

It held on to 83 of 93 seats in Parliament - a landslide by any global measure. Optimists among PAP supporters can claim this result as a win for its core policies and as strong support for its political renewal process, with a fourth-generation or 4G group of leaders in charge of both pandemic response and the election.

Opposition supporters will be elated at the Workers' Party's (WP) breakthrough win in Sengkang GRC, adding to Aljunied GRC and Hougang, bringing from six to 10 the number of WP MPs in Parliament. The WP's share of votes among the seats it contested also went up - from 39.8 per cent to 50.5 per cent, cementing its position as the leading opposition party.

The WP win in Sengkang GRC this election is the most significant development in Singapore politics since 1991, when the opposition broke the PAP monopoly to win four single seats; and 2011, when the WP won its first group representation constituency, Aljunied.

Sengkang GRC is the bellwether of the future, and a WP win now suggests it is onto a winning formula to woo voters. It has taken nearly 30 years - since 1991 when Mr Low Thia Khiang won Hougang and entered Parliament on the WP ticket - but finally Singapore has the outline of a two-party system in place.

The WP win in 2020 actually has its roots in 2013, when a fresh-faced unknown, Ms Lee Li Lian, won the seat for the WP in a by-election after the PAP incumbent resigned over a personal indiscretion.

In an analysis after Ms Lee won the election, I wrote: "Is Punggol East an aberration or the harbinger of things to come?

"I think it is the latter. Punggol East has a demographic profile of the future: Voters are younger and better off than the national average. It is solidly middle class. Future elections will be full of people who think and vote like those at Punggol East."

The PAP later sent its seasoned warhorse Charles Chong to win back the seat in the 2015 General Election with 51.8 per cent. Punggol East was then absorbed into the new Sengkang GRC this election.

The WP's win in Sengkang GRC and its stronger showing in Aljunied GRC (from about 51 per cent to 59.9 per cent) show clearly that voters are rewarding it for fielding a slate of better qualified, more eloquent candidates under new chief Pritam Singh.

Mr Singh is running his first election campaign as party chief, having taken over from the Chinese-educated Mr Low only in 2018. Mr Low retired this election, together with two other Chinese-speaking MPs, Mr Png Eng Huat and Mr Chen Show Mao. Mr Singh has now successfully broadened the party's appeal beyond its traditional Mandarin-speaking heartland voters, to younger, middle class, English-speaking voters.

The Sengkang GRC team from WP includes Dr Jamus Lim, an economics professor who can out-debate PAP ministers; Ms He Ting Ru, a Cambridge graduate and laywer; and Ms Raeesah Khan, an activist with "woke" views on race and privilege that unsettle some older Singaporeans but resonate with other millennials. Mr Louis Chua, an equity research analyst, rounds up the quartet. Voters were prepared to give this new team a chance, even if it meant throwing out an all-male PAP team consisting of former education minister-turned-labour chief Ng Chee Meng, a senior minister of state, a senior parliamentary secretary and a lawyer.

Has Mr Singh come up with a winning formula to win over younger voters, offering candidates with more diverse backgrounds and views?

If so, the PAP has to watch its eastern flank carefully, as East Coast GRC managed just 53.4 per cent of the votes, even after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat was moved there to buttress the team. Marine Parade GRC, adjacent to it, remained in PAP hands but with a reduced margin - from 64.1 per cent to 57.8 per cent.

The WP under Mr Singh is bringing Singapore into the era of truly contested politics and policies.

While past opposition MPs like Mr Low and Mr Chiam See Tong were tenacious individuals who never gave up the fight to keep the opposition flame alive, using the art of the combative rebuttal to good effect, and pointing out loopholes in thinking, they did not offer a serious, comprehensive policy alternative to the PAP's.

In contrast, the WP under Mr Singh does not seek to "needle the PAP". Instead, the WP campaigned on its policy proposals that offer more social safety nets. The PAP even dignified the WP manifesto by calling its proposals "PAP-lite".

As the active diet of televised debates, e-rallies, talk shows and webinars throughout the campaign showed, Singaporeans are ready, even hungry, to see policy ideas scrutinised and contested.

While few Singaporeans today will think the WP is ready to form an alternative government, its showing in GE2020 indicates it is well on its way to fulfil its goal to deny the PAP a super majority (two-thirds of seats). Success begets success: It took four elections for the WP to go from one single seat to a GRC; and just two more elections to win a second GRC. If it gets more good candidates, it can well win over two marginal GRCs at the next election.

The other opposition parties' performance paled in comparison although the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) nearly caused an upset in West Coast GRC. Its team there, led by former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock, knocked the PAP's vote share there down by nearly 27 percentage points, from 78.6 per cent to 51.7 per cent. The PSP won 40.9 per cent of votes in constituencies it contested, making it the second top-performing opposition party after the WP. In West Coast GRC, it got 48.3 per cent of the votes, making the team the "best losers" in the election, which means two candidates can take up two seats as Non-Constituency MPs in Parliament.

What does GE2020 mean for politics in Singapore?

First, it shows that a two-party system in its infancy is taking shape, as the WP now has the clout to attract good candidates, run a good campaign and put up alternative policy proposals. It will be tested in town council and constituency management next.

Second, the results show that work on the ground is essential for the PAP to keep voter support. Hard-working and visible MPs in single seats, like MacPherson's Ms Tin Pei Ling, Radin Mas' Mr Melvin Yong and Mountbatten's Mr Lim Biow Chuan, all managed over 70 per cent of votes.

In fact, the strong showing by established PAP MPs in single seats and the risk of losing ministerial candidates in a GRC may lead to a rethink or scaling down of the number of GRCs and the return of more single seats which guarantee a more equal fight. This would please many voters who are upset at the way new, unknown PAP candidates get into Parliament on the "coat-tails" of senior, established PAP ministers and are then given highly paid office-holder positions.

Third, the success of the WP team in Sengkang GRC will put pressure on the PAP to change in certain directions.

If 2011 forced the PAP to move left towards more income redistribution, I think GE2020 will be a wake-up call for the PAP to refresh its appeal to younger voters.

The PAP does not take any loss sitting down and the slip of 8.7 percentage points in support from 69.9 per cent in 2015, plus the loss of four more seats in a GRC, will certainly cause it much soul-searching.

In particular, the PAP may realise it needs to be more attentive to millennial voters and their interests, and be more willing to have difficult dialogues such as on inequality and low-wage workers; and on race and discrimination.

This has been an unusual election - held in a pandemic and recession, full of virtual e-rallies that appeal to voters rationally, devoid of emotional rallies said to favour the opposition. The campaign has been a battle for the mind and heart of the middle-ground voter: the voter who wants a PAP government, but also wants a stronger opposition.

The parties have got exactly what they wanted: a strong mandate for the PAP in this crisis period, and a stronger opposition in Parliament to broaden policy choices to gird Singapore for the future.

What's next? Voters will hold both to their promise: They want to see the WP advocate for its policies; but more importantly, they will want to see the PAP Government uphold its pledge of building a Singapore Together movement that is inclusive, that listens to citizens, and wants them as co-creators of the future.

This article has been edited for clarity.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2020, with the headline A result that could please voters from both sides. Subscribe