SINGAPORE - Singaporeans returned the People's Action Party (PAP) to government, handing it 83 of the 93 seats, but there was a major upset in Sengkang GRC, which fell to the Workers' Party (WP), amid a stronger showing for the opposition.
In what was dubbed a crisis election, or the Covid-19 polls, the PAP won 61.24 per cent of the votes, an 8.7-point swing from its 69.9 per cent share in the 2015 polls. This was slightly above the 60.1 per cent it garnered in 2011, which was the party's worst showing.
The election, billed as the most significant since Singapore's independence given the backdrop of the pandemic, will see the opposition presence almost doubled to 10 elected MPs in the next Parliament, Singapore's 14th, since 1965.
Speaking at a 4.30am press conference, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the PAP had been given a "clear mandate" and a "good result". Although the share of the popular vote was not as high as he would have liked, it still reflected broad based support for the PAP, he said.
"I will use this mandate responsibly to deal with Covid-19 and the economic downturn and to take us safely through the crisis and beyond," he said. "At the same time, the results reflect the pain and anxiety that Singaporeans feel in this crisis," he added, noting that this was not a feel-good election.
He described the loss of NTUC chief Ng Chee Meng, as well as Dr Lam Pin Min and Mr Amrin Amin, from the Sengkang GRC slate as a "significant loss" for the country's fourth-generation leadership.
Flanked by several members of his Cabinet from the party's 3G and 4G leadership, he repeated his pledge that he and his senior Cabinet colleagues would stay to see Singapore through the Covid-19 crisis.
He noted that the election also showed that there was a "desire for more diversity" of views in Parliament, which would have 10 elected opposition MPs and two Non-Constituency MPs.
He added that he had called WP chief Pritam Singh to congratulate him on his party's good showing, and offered him the official designation as Leader of the Opposition. Mr Singh thanked him for this. The fears of a wipeout of the opposition, which the WP and others had warned about, proved unfounded, he added.
Instead, the opposition turned in a strong showing, with the WP snagging its second GRC, as well as enjoying a near 10-point swing in its Aljunied GRC base, taking 59.93 per cent of the vote there, and holding on to its Hougang seat. The WP's plea to voters not to hand the ruling party a "blank cheque" to shape policy at will appeared to have swayed voters.
But the other opposition parties, including the fledgling Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which forced close fights in several seats, ended the night empty-handed.
PSP chief Tan Cheng Bock and SDP's Dr Chee Soon Juan both looked dejected early this morning, declaring that they were "disappointed" with the results.
The PAP had urged the 2.65 million voters registered for the polls to give its tried and trusted team a "strong mandate" to take the country through the crisis, securing their lives, jobs and future.
In the end, the widely expected "flight to safety" in a crisis, given the PAP's track record leading Singapore for over six decades, did not materialise. Instead, the PAP's share of the vote was down from its high score in 2015, which was a Jubilee Year for Singapore, and which also saw the passing of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, which moved Singaporeans deeply, and contributed to the PAP securing a better result than most had anticipated then.
The WP pulled off the biggest upset, with its slate of mostly fresh faces in the newly carved out Sengkang GRC securing 52.13 per cent of the vote. Speaking at a press conference at close to 4am, Mr Singh thanked voters for supporting the party and said it will not let the results "get over our heads, as there was much work to do".
The key battleground seats in the east and the west proved to be close calls.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, whose last-minute tactical switch to East Coast GRC caught most by surprise, pulled in 53.4 per cent of the votes, down from the 60.7 per cent the party managed in 2015. This was a tad down from the 54.8 per cent the PAP secured in 2011.
Over in the west, the keenly watched contest for West Coast GRC proved to be a nail biter, with the PAP holding on to it, but narrowly, with 51.7 per cent of the votes.
Amid the ongoing outbreak, voters had to cast their ballots wearing masks, after sanitising their hands, and while keeping a safe distance from others. This caused some delays which led to long queues forming at several polling stations, prompting an extension of voting hours to 10pm and drawing protests from the opposition camp.
The PAP had sought a strong mandate to tackle the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. But in the end, in the face of the worst crisis to hit Singapore in many decades, most voters plumped for the party which has pulled Singapore through many a difficult moment in the past to take decisive charge, but without a blank cheque, as it shapes the country's response to the challenges to come.