Singapore’s Election During a Pandemic Means Social Distancing Becomes Political Too

Unorthodox campaigns spell uncertainty for opposition parties, which "have traditionally commanded greater participation and excitement during their live rallies.”
June 26, 2020, 10:14am
singapore, general election 2020, opposition parties, social distancing, pap, coroanvirus
Photo: Koh Ewe

Election season is coming up in Singapore. Starting from next Tuesday, June 30, political parties will have nine days to campaign before citizens cast their votes on July 10.

Just what form that campaigning will take, however, remains to be seen.

On Wednesday, opposition leader Dr. Chee Soon Juan posted on Facebook an update that a solitary walk around the city he had planned as a fundraising event was denied by the police, citing coronavirus concerns.

Chee is a prominent opposition figure who has over the years faced multiple arrests for demonstrating without permits. In 2006, he was forced into bankruptcy after a defamation lawsuit was filed against him by former prime ministers Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew.

According to the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, the police feared his walk would “cause crowds to gather,” and risked spreading the coronavirus.

The government’s choice to call for an election at a time when the country is still battling a pandemic has left medical experts concerned, and caused some to question the choice of timing. But the election is happening anyway, which means both the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and opposition parties will be gearing up for campaigning—whatever that may ultimately look like—over the next two weeks.

Holding an election in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic means that the election, in the words of Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, “will be like no other that we have experienced.”

It will, however, be familiar in one key respect: opposition parties will face a major uphill struggle.

“While elections in Singapore look like elections in many other liberal democracies around the world, opposition parties in Singapore are severely disadvantaged,” Dr. Kenneth Paul Tan, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, told VICE News.

Having dominated the parliament since 1959, the ruling PAP has woven itself into many aspects of society, including trade unions, the mainstream media, and national education. It has constructed a system disadvantageous towards political opposition that perpetuates one-party dominance.

This lopsided political playing field intensifies during elections, where the PAP has been accused of gerrymandering.

With the odds already stacked against opposition parties, the rejection of Chee’s fundraising walk raises the question of how, or if, parties like his will be able to drum up support amid social distancing regulations.

A press release from the Elections Department has urged politicians to “plan for modes of campaigning that do not involve physical group gatherings.” This means no rallies or mass events, which are typically the opposition’s bread and butter.

“Opposition parties have traditionally commanded greater participation and excitement during their live rallies, in contrast with the rather limp rallies that the PAP has been able to muster,” said Tan.

The absence of mass rallies would deny opposition candidates of the chance to draw “viscerally powerful and embodied expressions of support,” said Tan, who also noted that it’s “difficult to ascertain” if the boisterous rallies actually make a difference come Polling Day.

As for physical campaigning activities that are allowed to take place—such as door-to-door visits—social distancing measures will have to be observed.

There could be a silver lining for opposition parties, though.

For one, the shift away from traditional campaigning methods would change how parties allocate campaign budgets. In the previous general election in 2015, the PAP spent S$5.3 million ($3.8 million), while opposition parties spent a combined total of just S$1.8 million ($1.3 million) to contest the same number of seats in parliament.

But as cyberspace takes center stage this election season, opposition campaigns’ financial constraints may not matter as much as it used to.

"The restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic will likely lead to increased campaigning online ahead of the election, particularly on social media platforms such as Facebook,” Teddy Baguilat, Jr., executive director of the group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a former Philippine congressman, told VICE News.

“Given the PAP's monopoly of mainstream media in Singapore, such a move should open some space for the opposition parties to increase their messages.”

But “the dynamics may not necessarily change that much,” Baguilat noted, since the PAP also has a much stronger social media presence compared to its political opponents. During the 2015 general election, the PAP was found to be the most active on social media, compared to the other eight opposition parties.

In an unprecedented move, the Election Department announced last week that airtime on national TV will be accorded to “all political parties and candidates to put their messages out to voters” in place of physical political rallies. Airtime will range from 3 to 15 minutes, depending on the number of candidates running in the constituency.

Tan thinks that given the shift, opposition candidates with “impressive credentials and charisma” could be able to “reach a wider audience.”

“Party messages and images can be better managed and finessed, and they can be more widely circulated,” he said.

But how, if at all, might these changes affect the outcome of this year’s election?

"[COVID-19] or not, the PAP will still be at a significant advantage,” Baguilat told VICE News.

“Such unfairness is part of a system that entrenches structural barriers that limits any genuine competition and unless urgent reforms are taken, the upcoming vote will not be free or fair.”

Given the institutionalized dominance of the PAP in local politics, Singaporeans generally take for granted that the party will continue to govern the country. And many have learned to be strategic with their votes, using them as carrots and sticks to send signals to a government they generally support in the one-party dominant state

Tan suggested that Singaporeans want opposition candidates in parliament, but only to provide “credible alternative voices” to the PAP, instead of actually taking over the government.

Singaporeans are more likely to support opposition candidates when they feel like the PAP is “going to win big,” he said, adding that this just might be the case in the upcoming election.