Singapore GE2020: Economy a top issue on voters' minds, say analysts

Amid the worst global recession in recent memory, it could be a defining issue

Will the pandemic, both a health and economic crisis, focus voters' minds on the challenges ahead, as the PAP would like? Or will the pain that is being felt turn the mood sour and be reflected in the outcome on Polling Day? Analysts say the reservoi
Will the pandemic, both a health and economic crisis, focus voters' minds on the challenges ahead, as the PAP would like? Or will the pain that is being felt turn the mood sour and be reflected in the outcome on Polling Day? Analysts say the reservoir of public goodwill is still full as the country heads to the polls. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

"It's the economy, stupid." Election guru James Carville had the phrase pasted on his campaign office walls in 1992. It powered his client Bill Clinton to the White House as a recession derailed incumbent George Bush's re-election bid.

What was true then - that most people of voting age care deeply about their finances - could be even more salient now, amid the worst global recession in recent memory due to Covid-19.

When Singaporeans cast their votes on July 10, jobs and the economy can be expected to be a defining issue.

It can be a deeply partisan one, too. Studies in the United States have shown that when the rate of unemployment is high, political challengers talk a lot about the state of the economy and blame incumbents for it.

It is often said that an economic downturn often signals the downfall of a sitting president in the US. Studies there also show that people are more likely to be influenced by blame-the-incumbent messages when they themselves are unemployed. The level of blame goes up the longer their duration of unemployment.

This raises questions about how much of such voter psychology applies here in Singapore, where times of crisis have tended to see a flight to safety instead, with voters preferring to stick with the tried and tested ruling People's Action Party, as happened after the 2001 downturn caused by the bursting of the bubble and the Sept 11 terrorist attacks.

Acknowledging this on Tuesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also cited the other side of the equation. A downturn is hardly the "happiest of times" to hold an election, he said.

"People are feeling the pain and the uncertainty because of the crisis, some acutely. The opposition is making the most of that," said PM Lee, adding that this was why the PAP was expecting a "tough election".

He explained that he had chosen to go to the polls sooner rather than later, as doing so now - when things are relatively stable - will clear the decks and give the new government a fresh five-year mandate.

Yesterday, in an address to Singaporeans, PM Lee warned that the worst of the economic downturn is yet to come, there will be more retrenchments, and some of the jobs lost may never come back.

So will the pandemic, both a health and economic crisis, focus voters' minds on the challenges ahead, as the PAP would like?

Or will the pain that is being felt turn the mood sour and be reflected in the outcome on Polling Day?

Analysts said the reservoir of public goodwill is still full as the country heads to the polls.

Maybank Kim Eng senior economist Chua Hak Bin said: "The PAP is riding on the positive sentiments from the reopening of the economy and generous fiscal handouts."

The election is also taking place before the worst of the economic downturn bites and deep retrenchments kick in, with some jobs never to come back. The Singapore economy is expected to shrink by up to 7 per cent this year.

The Government has mounted unprecedented fiscal firepower over four Budgets, devoting almost $93 billion to Covid-19 support measures and drawing up to $52 billion from past reserves.

Key measures include the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), which subsidises wages so that firms can retain their workers, as well as foreign worker levy waivers and tax rebates. Many of the schemes are due to taper off before the end of this year.

And in the matter of election messaging, the PAP has chosen a pragmatic yet forward-looking manifesto: Our Lives, Our Jobs, Our Future, which speaks directly to Singaporeans' concerns.

DBS Bank senior economist Irvin Seah said: "The economy is in its worst recession since independence. With livelihoods at stake, the state of the economy is definitely a key consideration in this GE."

Dr Felix Tan, associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said voters are naturally concerned about job security, as the pandemic has effectively culled jobs that had been deemed relatively "safe", such as in the tourism and food and beverage sectors.

"For Singaporeans, the economy is what drives politics. Voters' selection of a political party or candidate to represent them is predicated on how they can revitalise or even stabilise the economy, and generate jobs for Singaporeans," Dr Tan said.

In the 2001 General Election, held during a period when Singapore was in a recession triggered by the crash, the PAP won with a landslide 75.3 per cent share of the votes. This was more than 10 percentage points higher than in the 1997 polls.

Likewise, in the 1997 polls, which took place in the early phase of the Asian financial crisis, the PAP won 65 per cent of the votes, a 4 percentage point increase from the 1991 General Election.

Voters such as Mr Jim Lim said economic considerations will indeed determine how they vote. The 54-year-old managing director of a small and medium-sized enterprise welcomes relief measures such as the JSS.

"To me, the Government has performed well and we need a really strong government to help us during this period, instead of just some opposition voices here and there," he told The Straits Times.

Opposition leaders reject this, saying in recent days that it is precisely in a time of crisis that more checks are needed on the ruling party.

Analysts added that the strength of the Government's fiscal response to the Covid-19 crisis could also limit the policy space that opposition parties have to manoeuvre in.

The Government has not only marshalled a historic four Budgets to provide wage subsidies, income relief for self-employed persons and rebates for companies in the short term, but it also has promised to reskill and retrain Singaporeans over the long term for jobs of the future.

The plans are detailed. In the party's manifesto, entire sections are devoted to workers of every stripe, from young job seekers to workers with disabilities. In the works are re-employment grants and job redesign, structured traineeships, enhanced Workfare support and an extended Progressive Wage Model. Special attention will be paid to those aged 40 to 60, through heavily subsidised reskilling programmes as well as hiring incentives.

Pointing to this, National University of Singapore Business School associate professor Lawrence Loh said: "This election will see a great flight to a trusted government and Parliament."

DBS Bank's Mr Seah said "robust fiscal power does not necessarily translate into effective policies", and short of simply calling for more money to be spent, opposition parties must offer better alternatives to government policies or suggestions for improvement.

Former Nominated MP and political observer Zulkifli Baharudin said that even if the opposition can come up with alternatives, these are difficult to turn into actual votes during a crisis election, especially when many Singaporeans are grateful for the Government's financial help.

He added that this is why the various opposition parties, in their public communications, have not gone into too much detail about their economic policies.

There is the added constraint that only one opposition party, the Workers' Party (WP), has been elected into Parliament to date.

"The idea that Singapore needs a strong opposition is an ideological one that has not been translated into conviction. Opposition politics have not been successfully entrenched yet," said Mr Zulkifli.

The net result of all of this, said CIMB Private Banking economist Song Seng Wun, is that opposition parties often end up focusing on short-term issues where they can make quick electoral gains, such as Central Provident Fund withdrawal limits, the cost of living and Housing Board flat leases, and curbs on foreign workers.

"That's why for all opposition parties, issues like the goods and services tax (GST) hike suddenly go to the top of the list (during the election)," he added.

Calls for the GST to be suspended or scrapped are being made by several opposition parties, as are proposals for restrictions on immigration and free trade agreements.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has said there will be no GST hike to 9 per cent next year, and while the increase still has to take place by 2025 to fund the country's growing healthcare needs, there will be a $6 billion Assurance Package and an enhanced GST permanent voucher scheme to help Singaporeans cope when the tax is introduced.

Mr Song noted that the PAP has emphasised long-term issues despite the pressure to focus only on the immediate needs of protecting jobs and helping businesses. "The digitalisation drive for businesses, for example, is a game changer which has been accelerated due to Covid-19."

But the outcome of GE2020 depends on whether Singaporeans choose to take the long view and see the bigger picture, he added.

"The key thing for voters is whether short-term issues such as the cost of living matter more and whether they view current issues as something they can take in their stride, bearing in mind that there are longer-term issues which are more important to the overall survival of Singapore."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2020, with the headline Economy a top issue on voters' minds, say analysts. Subscribe