Singapore GE: Questions remain over campaigning amid virus

It has been almost 20 years since Singaporeans went to the polls in an economic downturn.

The last time they did, on Nov 3, 2001, the People's Action Party (PAP) was returned to power with 75.3 per cent of the vote.

Parliament was dissolved a day after the electoral boundaries report came out on Oct 17.

That election was called amid global security concerns as a result of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Today, some political watchers see the coronavirus outbreak as a reason for the ruling party to seek to renew its mandate.

The Government has a year left on its five-year term. The next general election must be held in April 2021 at the latest. But the process has already been set in motion. The Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC), convened by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong more than seven months ago, released its report yesterday.

Observers note that the PAP's chances of getting strong support from the electorate are always higher in times of crisis, like in the present circumstances.

Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic poses a challenge of a different magnitude.

In his address to the nation on Thursday, PM Lee cautioned that the Covid-19 outbreak will continue for a year, maybe longer - and more stringent measures may be needed. The Government is also working on a second stimulus package and may have to tap the reserves.

 
 
 
 

The Government's view seems to be that an election win will give it the mandate to do more to tackle the impact of the crisis - especially as the challenges are likely to be greater.

Not everyone takes this view.

Yesterday, several opposition parties criticised the move towards a GE. The Singapore Democratic Party hoped the PAP would not "capitalise on the crisis", saying a GE would take away resources needed to combat the outbreak, and jeopardise the public's health and well-being.

But it is not a certainty that an election in a crisis always favours the incumbent. It may lose some votes just by going to the ballot box at a time like this.

Much has also changed since GE 2001, when the PAP was returned to power on Nomination Day as only 29 of the 84 seats were contested.

The electoral boundaries were significantly revised ahead of that election. Except for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC and three single seats, all constituencies had changes.

The electoral divisions then: nine single-member constituencies (SMCs), nine five-member GRCs and five six-member GRCs.

Since then, the playing field has been levelled to some extent, and the expectation is that all seats will be contested this round, as was the case in 2015.

The latest boundary changes also see smaller constituencies - 14 SMCs, six four-member GRCs and 11 five-member GRCs. In addition, just over 13 per cent of voters will find themselves in a new constituency in the next GE, if they are at the same address as in 2015. This compares with 19 per cent of voters who were in a new constituency in 2015, and 30 per cent in 2011.

Some would no doubt see the latest round of changes as carefully calibrated - especially for areas set to see close contests.

The Workers' Party (WP) said in its response yesterday that as has been the custom, the committee has not disclosed how it came to make its decisions: "For instance, while the number of SMCs has increased from 13 to 14, the EBRC has not explained why it chose to carve out some new SMCs while dissolving Sengkang West, Fengshan and Punggol East SMCs, areas where WP has been active for many years."

The committee said it took into account current configurations, and changes in the number of electors due to population shifts and housing developments.

But it did not go unnoticed that two of the upsized five-member GRCs - East Coast and West Coast - are those expected to be contested by teams led by opposition figures Low Thia Khiang and Tan Cheng Bock.

Now that the report is out, candidates on all sides will step up their outreach to voters. But questions remain over what approaches they will adopt, in the light of the evolving Covid-19 situation.

With shaking hands, handing out leaflets and meeting voters - activities essential to a campaign - now a concern for fear of infection, some plan to step up their presence on social media.

But what of rallies, which remain a mainstay? Or precautions at the polling station?

As the boundaries report comes on the heels of advice to step up social distancing and minimise social contact, voters will need to know how the coming election will be carried out, and what precautions are being taken to ensure that no new clusters crop up as a result of the campaign.

It is also apt for the Government to get a clean mandate and focus on decisions - popular or otherwise - that need to be taken to steer the nation out of the coronavirus storm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2020, with the headline 'Questions remain over campaigning amid virus'. Print Edition | Subscribe