world politics

Singapore Ruling Party Keeps Supermajority, but Support Is Slipping

While the People's Action Party won most seats in parliament as expected, opposition parties also took a record number of seats in PAP's weakest showing in history.
13 July 2020, 12:06am
Singapore's Prime Minister and secretary-general of the ruling People's Action Party Lee Hsien Loong (C) and his wife Ho Ching (R) leave the party's office after delivering a speech to citizens during the counting of votes of the general election in Singapore, in the early hours of July 11, 2020. Photo by Roslan Rahman/AFP.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Singapore's ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has once again claimed election victory – winning 83 seats in parliament – but in possibly one of its worst political showings in electoral history. The opposition won 10. The results highlighted changing voter dynamics, and increasing support towards the main opposition parties.

Despite the pandemic, voter turnout on Friday was the highest ever recorded in the country's electoral history. A total count of 2,565,000 votes (96 percent) were cast.

The government's decision to hold an election during the pandemic seemed to have backfired.

“This year’s race was the most keenly contested one Singapore had seen in a long time,” said Eugene Tan, a law professor from the Singapore Management University. “What was clear this time round was that the opposition had given the PAP a run for its money by introducing stronger, diverse candidates, more coordinated approaches, and coherent alternative policies and plans.”

The Workers' Party made heavy gains, winning three voter districts from the PAP – among them the new northeastern town of Sengkang where young Singaporeans flexed their voting power by voting in the team of Jamus Lim, Raeesah Khan, Louis Chua and He Ting Ru. The WP team beat the PAP with 60,136 votes (52.13%). PAP garnered 55,214 votes (47.87%).

Other WP wins were in Hougang and the party stronghold of Aljunied, where it claimed its largest-ever winning margin of 59.93 percent.

The two keenly-contested battles in the East and West Coasts of Singapore resulted in PAP wins but only by narrow margins. The veteran-led teams on the ground only had 3-7 percent advantage of voter share over the popular Workers' Party and newly-formed Progress Singapore Party.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in PAP's post-results press conference, acknowledged the decline in popular vote for the party, which saw a plunge from 69.9 percent during the 2015 election to 61.24 percent. "We have a clear mandate, but the percentage of the popular vote is not as high as I had hoped for,” he said.

Many Singaporeans, who stayed up into the early hours of Saturday after voting was extended which led to a delay in results, were encouraged by the election outcome.

Personal trainer Daphne Maia said on Twitter that she stayed up past 4:30am to await results and is "revelling in the teeny bit of good news for democracy and equality in Singapore."

A Twitter user who goes by the name Audi Khalid, tweeted, "So far quite encouraged by the results, not because of party allegiance, but I sincerely believe there are MANY strong signals being sent right now. Politics in Singapore MUST change. It's time to usher in a better style of politics. We CAN do better."

With their masks, face shields and voter slips in tow, Singaporeans cast their votes on Friday in the country’s 18th general election, held amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 2.65 million people were registered to vote, and a total of 1,100 polling stations, bumped up from 880, were set up at schools, designated housing blocks, and neighborhood community clubs across the island state.

Voters were assigned two-hour time slots in which to visit the polls in order to prevent crowding, and vulnerable elderly citizens were given priority. Singapore is currently banning gatherings of more than five people.

But the measures to reduce crowding and ensure a safe vote appeared to have fallen flat as reports of snaking queues of eager voters began to emerge on Friday morning.

Even Prime Minister Lee himself needed a reminder about social distancing. A video showing his wife tapping him on the shoulder when he got too close to another voter in the queue made the rounds on social media.

In a statement, the Elections Department (ELD) attributed the issue to people ignoring their time slots, as well as other safety measures like requiring voters to wear gloves.

“More voters than expected turned up outside their assigned voting time-bands. This, together with measures that had been put in place to ensure safe voting led to long queues,” the ELD said.

The long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, was widely expected to return to power. Their share of votes in past elections has never fallen below 60 percent, and they have always managed to retain their super majority in parliament.

With the absence of physical rallies, the internet undisputedly played a huge role in this year’s election. Voters tuned in to lively e-debates, supporting their favorite candidates from the safety of their homes, but questions remained as to whether online passion would translate to votes.

Resident Samuel Wee, a third-time voter in his thirties, queued up for over an hour to cast his vote.

“I’d honestly rather be home but this year’s vote is especially important given how much the world has changed since the last election in 2015,” Wee told VICE News.

He lost his job after the pandemic hit and remains on the fence about the government.

“Jobless Singaporeans like me obviously welcome the extra help from the PAP. We expect them to do their job in looking after our interests,” he said. “But the spikes in the number of daily virus infections made me lose faith in their ability to keep the crisis under control. I want them to do better.”

Lee Hsien Yang, the prime minister’s estranged younger brother and now a member of the opposition Progress Singapore Party, also questioned PAP's timing on the elections.

“The PAP calculus was that no one would want to rock the boat in the middle of a pandemic,” he told VICE News. “Their specious argument was that they needed ‘a strong mandate’ to fight COVID-19. But governments in New Zealand and Taiwan operated under very narrow majorities and executed their respective fights against the virus far better than Singapore did.”

According to Tan, the law professor, the PAP will now have their work cut out for them.

“Lee Hsien Loong and his government will have to ensure that Singapore and Singaporans are cared for and emerge stronger from this crisis long after the elections are over,” he said.

Correction, July 11: An earlier version said Twitter user Audi Khalid was a retired pensioner. He is in the marketing industry. We regret the error.