Singapore GE2020: A watershed election and new normal?

Analysts break down the hows and whys, and the underlying message from voters

The Workers' Party snared the newly-formed Sengkang GRC. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Singaporeans woke up on Saturday morning to a familiar headline - that the People's Action Party (PAP) was back in government - but also to a new normal, of an entrenched opposition party in Parliament and a clear shift in what voters expect of politics in Singapore.

The PAP returned to power with 83 of 93 seats in the July 10 polls, a general election held amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic mayhem it has caused.

The flight to safety by voters, seen clearly in the 2001 General Election held soon after the Sept 11 attacks in the United States, did not materialise despite the predictions of pundits.

Voters instead sent a different signal. Despite the challenges, or because of them, they want more alternative voices in Parliament. For many voters, one alternative voice they want belongs to the Workers' Party (WP).

Even with the retirement of long-time opposition MP Low Thia Khiang ahead of the election, the party retained Aljunied GRC and Hougang with bigger margins of victory. But it also snared the newly-formed Sengkang GRC.

Voters picked fresh faces over the labour chief, a senior minister of state, and a senior parliamentary secretary.

Former Nominated MP and political observer Zulkifli Baharudin says the results demonstrate that the WP has entrenched itself as Singaporeans' preferred opposition party.

He adds that the move by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to recognise WP chief Pritam Singh as the Leader of the Opposition, and provide him with the appropriate staff and resources, is significant as it marks a new phase in Singapore politics.

The Leader of the Opposition is the leader of the largest minority party which is able and prepared to assume office, in the event the Government resigns.

WP did not just win two GRCs and an SMC, it was also the cause of jangled nerves in Marine Parade and East Coast GRCs, losing narrowly with 42.24 per cent and 46.59 per cent of the votes respectively.


Dr Elvin Ong, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia's School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, says the party's proposals resonated with voters.

Speaking at a post-GE webinar organised by yesterday, Dr Ong said the ruling party, for instance, has consistently maintained that the Progressive Wage Model, which is currently mandatory in a few sectors, works for Singapore. is a site maintained by a group of Singaporean academics.

But the WP is advocating a national minimum wage, saying it ensures a baseline level of income for all.

"A lot of people saw that as an important thing because that is a signal of the inherent dignity of labour in Singapore," says Dr Ong.

Mr Singh's argument that the Government is more responsive to people's concerns when it loses elected seats appears to have struck a chord with voters as well, as did the party's message of constructive politics and the plea to voters not to hand the ruling party a "blank cheque" to shape policy at will.

Maybank Kim Eng senior economist Chua Hak Bin says the voters may have also seen candidates from WP and the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) - which lost narrowly in West Coast GRC - as credible alternatives, on account of their previous careers and academic credentials.

Economist Jamus Lim, for example, holds multiple degrees from the likes of Harvard University and the London School of Economics. Dr Lim is a member of the WP's Sengkang GRC team.

But there was also a shift in priorities for voters, from basic needs towards broader social aspirations, says National University of Singapore Business School Associate Professor Lawrence Loh.

"The voter response across the board seems to point to cumulative concerns that have been factored into individual decisions," he adds, citing public perception - rightly or wrongly - of the reserved Presidential election in 2017 and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) as examples of moves by the PAP to secure a political advantage.

This response, he notes, translated into a desire to see diversity in Parliament as an important part of good governance - a "sophisticated and calibrated" outcome that increases opposition representation, while placing power squarely in the PAP's hands.


With its overall vote share of 61.24 per cent, the PAP has seen an almost 9 percentage point drop from the 2015 General Election. The result is closer to its performance in 2011, when the mood on the ground was made sour by housing shortages and transport disruptions.

Former PAP MP Hong Hai, a Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Adjunct Professor, says the 8.7-point swing is "in the natural order of things" as Singapore society evolves, with millennials and Generation Z voters wanting a greater contest of ideas and less paternalism. He adds that the party will have to change its governing paradigm to cope with "credible and well-meaning" alternative parties like the WP.

SIM Global Education associate lecturer Felix Tan says there may have been a rise in voter dissatisfaction as well, with the PAP's strategies and tactics in this election.

Analysts cite the opinion piece by PAP's Dr Tan Wu Meng, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Trade and Industry and Foreign Affairs and member of the winning Jurong GRC team. The article, published on the PAP's website on June 19, had questioned Mr Singh's support of poet and playwright Alfian Sa'at.

There was also the matter of police reports against WP's Ms Raeesah Khan, a member of the Sengkang GRC team, over remarks made in two Facebook posts in which the 26-year-old allegedly promoted "enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race".

Following the police reports, the PAP issued a statement questioning why the WP still sees her as being worthy of consideration as an MP.

Associate Professor Terence Lee, who researches Singapore media and politics at Murdoch University, says the ruling party overplayed its hand with the incident, describing Ms Raeesah's comments as "unpleasant, perhaps rude or insensitive, but they were not clear-cut discriminatory".

The social activist was quick to apologise, with Mr Singh explaining that she comes from a generation that has "completely grown up on social media".

At the webinar yesterday, NUS adjunct law professor Kevin Tan separately highlighted the use of Pofma against remarks made by Singapore Democratic Party chairman, Professor Paul Tambyah.

He described it as belonging to a set of tactics from the "old PAP playbook", a strategy that no longer goes down well with current voters.

The Government had on July 5 flagged falsehoods in Prof Tambyah's claims over Covid-19 testing for foreign workers.


Analysts are divided on whether the election was a referendum on the 4G leaders, pointing out that there were larger factors at play.

While Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's team won East Coast GRC with just 53.41 per cent of the votes cast, Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan notes that had the PAP not fielded Mr Heng there, the constituency may well have fallen to the WP.

"In an election where there was a distinct shift from the status quo, even a PAP slate anchored by the PM-in-waiting was not spared," he says. But the results suggest the 4G leaders have to win over the ground, as they take over from the 3G in the next 18 to 24 months, adds Associate Professor Tan.

"They will need to inspire confidence, renew trust and build bonds with the people after a bruising GE."

Dr Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, assistant professor at NTU's School of Social Sciences, says the election results are a signal to the 4G leaders "that voters are not exactly comfortable with what the PAP is doing - maybe rushing the elections, the use of Pofma against its opponents, or even going hard on the opposition during hustings".

The underlying message from voters is that the PAP should focus on how it governs, says SMU's Prof Tan. "It's not merely about governing well, which is expected, but how to govern in a manner that takes in Singaporeans' concerns in both substance and form," he adds.

Voters, he explains, now place a premium on a government that is empathetic to people's concerns, which include pushing for a more fair and equitable society.

Speaking to the media yesterday at Block 107 Yishun Ring Road before he and his Nee Soon GRC team headed out to thank residents for their support, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said there are "clearly messages that voters are sending us", and it will be wrong if the PAP does not understand these messages."I think it requires a lot of soul searching and reflection," he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2020, with the headline A watershed election and new normal?. Subscribe