Singapore GE: What will sway voters in the coming polls?

Ruling party likely to ask for strong mandate; opposition will seek checks and balances

This being the first virtually contested general election will have an impact on whether parties can get their message across to voters effectively.
This being the first virtually contested general election will have an impact on whether parties can get their message across to voters effectively. ST FILE PHOTO

Every general election has its defining issues and the stance the parties in power and opposition take on them.

The last one in 2015 took place months after founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died, and voters went to the polls thinking about his legacy and gave the People's Action Party (PAP) he founded a strong mandate to build on this.

In the watershed 2011 poll, angst over immigration and the cost of living propelled the Workers' Party (WP) to its first GRC win, signalling the emergence of a more assertive opposition.

The question now is: What is the defining issue of 2020 and the message the parties will be pitching to voters?

This time around, the defining issue has been a rapidly changing one beyond anything anyone could have expected.

Before Jan 23, all eyes were on the transition to the 4G leadership. But, on that day, Singapore had its first positive Covid-19 infection, and what became a global pandemic has turned the impending general election, and what it would be fought on, into an entirely different game.

Experts agree that the Covid-19 crisis, the economic emergency that it spawned, and how the Government has tackled it - and, within this point, how the transitioning leadership has shown its mettle - are uppermost on voters' minds.

This, in turn, affects how the PAP and opposition will approach the election; what issues will they raise; what will be their narrative and message to the electorate.

On how the PAP will frame its approach to the next election, observers point to the six ministerial broadcasts this month, where third-and fourth-generation leaders set out a vision for how Singapore can emerge from Covid-19.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan says the PAP has "framed the issues as the need for Singapore to rally behind the government of the day to ensure that Singapore continues to thrive in a post-Covid-19 world".

Before Covid-19 emerged, the PAP had been saying it needed a new mandate for a new generation of leaders, led by Mr Heng Swee Keat, who is expected to take over from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the next term of government.

But with dark clouds on the horizon, the party leadership, including PM Lee, who is party secretary-general, has been prompted to make public comments that the party is seeking a fresh, clear and strong mandate to take Singapore through the storm.

The call for a "strong mandate" has been a consistent part of the PAP's election campaigns, when it seeks to refresh and take stock of voters' support for its policies.

Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst with political consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore, says the PAP will be betting that Singaporeans will want continuity, rather than risk instability during these uncertain times.

It will go into the election pointing to how it has been able to "display good and clear leadership" during this crisis, and to its track record of delivering on economic growth.

"This is straight out of the PAP's playbook. Essentially, they will tell voters to look around at what is happening both globally and in the region, and remind them how the party has been able to look after Singaporeans," he says.

With mounting concern that a tidal wave of unemployment could soon hit Singapore, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said in his televised broadcast last Sunday that the Government "will take care of every Singaporean".

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam also said on Wednesday that the Government's foremost priority is to save jobs.

The underlying message is clear. Says Associate Professor Tan: "The PAP will seek to impress on voters that it is crucial to strongly back the ruling party, given its track record and its ability to get Singapore through the crisis."


On the other hand, opposition parties would likely make the case for greater accountability, and more checks and balances to keep the Government on its toes.

WP chief Pritam Singh said this month in Parliament that his party has refrained from publicly criticising the Government's handling of Covid-19 so the country can present a united front against the virus.

But observers say the gloves would surely come off once campaigning begins in earnest.

They and PAP activists expect opposition parties to zoom in on how the Government allowed infections to explode in workers' dormitories, as well as U-turns such as on the wearing of masks.

"The opposition may make the argument that as a result of the Government dropping the ball, we were caught in the eight-week circuit breaker, which has taken an economic toll," says Prof Tan, a former Nominated MP.

If that message does not gain traction, however, opposition parties could call on voters to deny the PAP "a clean sweep", says Dr Gillian Koh, deputy director for research at the Institute of Policy Studies.

"If opposition parties sense that voters are generally satisfied with how the Government has handled Covid-19, or would rather give their votes to the trusted pair of hands at the national and municipal level, then that 'checks and balances' approach rather than 'alternative government' will probably be more appropriate," she says.

Opposition parties could still attack any decision to go to the polls in the middle of a pandemic, and make the argument that the Government's decision to move to the second phase of reopening was politically calculated.

The Singapore Democratic Party tells Insight in an e-mailed response that pushing ahead with an election would "benefit the ruling party because the opposition cannot hold our traditional rallies which are crucial opportunities to communicate directly with voters".

The fact that this will be the first virtually contested general election will also have an impact on whether parties can get their message across to voters effectively.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin says that without the large rambunctious rallies and coffee-shop gatherings that have been a staple of past elections, political parties might find it more difficult to focus voters' attention on the issues they think matter.

However, People's Power Party chief Goh Meng Seng had a different view. He said the new constituency political broadcasts would shift the focus to the quality of each candidate, instead of being distracted by party branding during rallies.

Mr Zulkifli adds that it would be in the Government's best interests to call elections now, noting that it could be concerned about another spike in infections further down the road.

"The Government has done these fiscal and economic injections, so why not call for elections? They are saying, 'I've done this, it seems to have worked. Let's go and decide if you think I'm good enough for you,' " he says.

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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 Singapore GE: What will sway voters in the coming polls?. Subscribe