GE Special

Singapore GE: Many will miss rally atmosphere but people see need to adjust

Insight looks at how people, parties and politics will be affected by new campaign guidelines

Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin (far left) visiting his Kembangan-Chai Chee ward in Marine Parade GRC, while Singapore People's Party secretary-general Steve Chia calls on a Bishan resident with party members Melvyn Chiu and vice-chairman Williiamson Lee. PHOTO: TAN CHUAN-JIN/ FACEBOOK, ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

While a socially distanced election cannot be avoided in a time of Covid-19, many voters say the new rules should be a one-time exception.

Two-thirds of voters whom Insight spoke to while following candidates from various parties pounding the ground on Friday said they will miss the atmosphere and intimate nature of physical rallies, even as there was broad agreement that the measures are necessary to prevent virus transmission during the hustings.

The Elections Department said last week that there will be no physical rallies at the coming election should it take place in phase two of the Covid-19 reopening. Parties can hold virtual rallies and other campaigning activities online, and there will be additional free airtime for candidates in the form of new constituency political broadcasts.

Each candidate contesting in a single-member constituency (SMC) will get three minutes of airtime, while each group of candidates contesting in a group representation constituency (GRC) will get 12 minutes or 15 minutes of airtime in a four-or five-member constituency respectively.

Campaigning mainstays such as door-to-door and market visits and walkabouts will still be allowed, provided safe distancing measures - such as keeping to groups of five or less and minimising physical contact - are adhered to.

Traditional banners, posters, and campaign vehicles will continue to be allowed.

On Friday, prospective candidates decked out in different party colours were seen chatting with residents and stallholders at various coffee shops and neighbourhood centres, all the while mindful of keeping at arm's length.

One Bishan resident, self-employed educator Jeron Liu, 38, says he used to criss-cross the island to attend rallies in past elections, as the candidates were usually more articulate on the podium.

It remains to be seen if the planned live streams will be an adequate substitute, he says.

Mr Mohamad Fasli Md Yunus, 37, feels that virtual rallies will inherently lack the excitement of physical ones, while the three minutes each candidate gets instead in the constituency political broadcast may not be enough to make up the difference. "It may not be so effective for candidates to spread their political beliefs and manifestos within such a short time," says the assistant manager at a shipyard.

Web writer W. J. Lim notes that television and online broadcasts lack the element of belonging to a larger movement, even though the additional airtime for candidates through the special constituency political broadcasts could be an effective way to reach out to more voters than in a traditional rally.

"At a rally, you have a sense of who are the supporters and you identify yourself as part of the group, but if you watch it on screen it's very passive. You don't feel like you're part of anything and you can feel more disengaged," says Ms Lim, 33.

Older and less tech-savvy voters, in particular, say they are afraid they will be left out of election proceedings under the new rules.

One such voter is a retiree who gave his name as Mr Tan.

"I don't go online so it's hard for me to keep up with the parties if everything is going to be on the Internet," says the 68-year-old.

"But you can't blame the Government, because the timeframe to hold elections is very tight now."

Another retiree, Mr Chua Kok Keng, 73, feels rules such as requiring candidates to wear masks and keep at a distance will disadvantage older voters like himself, who may have trouble understanding the candidates, while also obscuring their expressions during any interactions.

Some, like logistics worker Serene Ang, 37, say they hope the older generation who may not know how to tune in to virtual rallies are not excluded. "There are also a lot of elderly who live alone, and they may not even have a smartphone," she says. "For them, it will be a problem (to be engaged in this election)."

But some voters tell Insight that they recognise the need to adjust, given the threat posed by Covid-19.

Seafarer Sapparuan Wandy says the virtual rallies are a good compromise, allowing political parties to reach out to voters across the island without "people amassing around".

While rallies may be a crowd favourite, they have a limited effect in shaping how a person votes, he adds.

"As an old-school guy, I have already pretty much set my mind on my vote, based on what I expect of the individual candidates," says the 58-year-old, who is voting in Kebun Baru SMC.

"The rules may help (reach more voters), because there are some people who like to watch the rallies at home (and) more people who wouldn't go down to rallies."

First-time voter Matthew Thong, 25, agrees, and says he does not mind the new campaigning format as information on most candidates can easily be found online.

Virtual also beats real-world for Mr Larry Tan, a trainer in the transport industry, who emphasises the need for safe distancing during this period, in order to prevent election campaigning from causing a new wave of infections.

He is one of a handful who hope the new campaigning rules would become the norm for future elections.

"I don't think the measures affect how I get to know my candidates," says the 50-year-old, who is voting in West Coast GRC. "During virtual rallies we can get more information, rather than at rallies where it is too noisy."


Mr Tan says whether the rules even the playing field between the People's Action Party and opposition parties depends on each constituency's demographics, and he hopes neighbourhoods with more elderly people will get assistance so they can participate in the election.

"In future, the rallies should remain virtual, as it is less burdensome than heading down to a physical rally."

Human resources director Pamela Ng is another who wants the rules to become permanent, as "you never know what the future's going to hold because of the virus".

"We're living in a very different time and we have to be socially responsible," says Ms Ng, who is in her 40s.

• Additional reporting by Cara Wong, Charmaine Ng and Fabian Koh

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2020, with the headline Many will miss rally atmosphere but people see need to adjust. Subscribe