GE2020: Younger voters make their mark in polls

Analysts say results show that such people want more than just the emphasis on jobs

Dr Felix Tan, associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said the opposition's message about sending more checks and balances, and more diversity of views in Parliament, resonated with voters. He noted that a crop of younger and more educated voters
Analysts say the results show that younger people want more than just the emphasis on jobs. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

The ruling party emphasised jobs and economic security in this general election, but the results showed that voters, particularly younger voters, wanted more, said political observers.

Their unexpected swing against the People's Action Party (PAP) caused its overall vote share to shrink to 61.24 per cent, down from 69.9 per cent in the 2015 General Election.

In contrast, the Workers' Party (WP) not only retained its Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC with higher margins than in 2015, it also claimed the opposition's second GRC - the new Sengkang GRC introduced in this election.

The WP's stronger performance proves that the looming economic downturn due to an ongoing Covid-19 pandemic does not necessarily lead to a flight to safety and votes for the incumbent, said political observers.

As National University of Singapore's political science don Bilveer Singh put it: "It is a night to be remembered...This is almost a repeat of 2011, when there is a national issue and there is an across the board shift against the ruling party."

Dr Elvin Ong, post-doctoral fellow at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, said that many people were basing the PAP's performance on the way its fourth-generation leaders managed the Covid-19 pandemic.

"The results show that many people were not satisfied with the way they managed the crisis," said Dr Ong, who is also overseas postdoctoral fellow with the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.

"They might have (also) thought that the leaders dropped the ball in how they managed the situation in migrant worker dormitories."

The vast majority of the 43,000 infections in Singapore have been among workers living in dormitories. During campaigning, a few opposition candidates criticised some policy decisions, saying they were driven more by concerns over shortages and constraints rather than medical advice.

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In a message to voters last week, WP secretary-general Pritam Singh pointed to the need for a "constructive opposition".

Voters heeded the call.

In one of the largest upsets of this election, a fresh-faced WP team claimed Sengkang GRC.

Associate Professor Alan Chong of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said that the WP managed to appeal to younger voters in Sengkang GRC.

"They might have thought, 'The Government has promised a whole load of things to take us out of the Covid-19 storm, why not vote in the WP to ensure that they deliver?' " said Prof Chong.

Dr Felix Tan, associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said that the opposition's message about sending more checks and balances, and more diversity of views in Parliament, resonated with voters.

He noted that a crop of younger, more educated and discerning voters are looking beyond bread and butter issues.

Dr Tan also said that this new crop of voters also resented one-sided policy making, citing examples such as the imminent goods and services tax (GST) increase and the 2016 amendment to the Singapore Constitution so that the 2017 presidential election was reserved for members of the Malay community.

"The WP's messages of 'no blank cheque as well as the possibility of an opposition wipeout probably resonated with voters in Aljunied and Sengkang. They were therefore convinced of voting for a credible, responsible opposition in Parliament," he added.

The University of British Columbia's Dr Ong added: "A significant proportion are looking for more than just jobs, they are also looking for other factors such as a more inclusive style of politics."

At the 2011 polls, the PAP had its worst electoral showing, with 60.1 per cent of the overall vote.

Many declared the event a watershed moment or the "new normal" in Singapore politics - with the rising WP providing an alternative to the PAP in what could be a two-party system.

But at the 2015 General Election, the pendulum swung back in favour of the PAP, which won a vote share of 69.9 per cent. The result served as a reminder that there is no sure thing in politics, said analysts.

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies' Dr Chong said that the results of GE 2020, however, will be "a significant shot in the arm for the WP going into the next GE".

That being said, pragmatic Singaporean voters are still concerned about dollars and cents, and jobs.

"The opposition will still continue to face an uphill climb," he said.

Former Nominated MP and political observer Zulkifli Baharudin agreed. "For the opposition to create something, they have to establish themselves on the ground for the next five years and prove themselves," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2020, with the headline GE2020: Younger voters make their mark in polls. Subscribe