Singapore Is Still Recovering From COVID-19. But That Won’t Stop It From Holding an Election.

Here’s why experts are concerned about the decision to hold polls in more ways than one.
June 24, 2020, 7:58am
singapore, election, ge2020, lee hsien loong
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong making a speech to announce the dissolution of parliament ahead of general elections in Singapore, 23 June 2020. Singapore is expected to call an election within the next three months amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Photo Credit: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATION & INFORMATION HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Singaporeans will head to the polls on July 10 in a historic election, one that will be fought against the backdrop of the global coronavirus pandemic.

The widely-anticipated news was confirmed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday after announcing the dissolution of parliament. "We are approaching the end of the five year term and elections must be held by April 2021," he said in a speech live-streamed on his official Facebook page.

"This election will be one like no other that we have experienced. A general election now, when things are relatively stable, will clear the decks and give the government a fresh five-year mandate. We can then focus on the agenda of recovery and the difficult decisions that will have to be made."

In accordance with guidelines set out by the Elections Department, voting will be done safely with social distancing measures firmly in place. Shaking hands, political party walkabouts and mass rallies will not be allowed during the nine-day campaign period. Candidates will instead turn to cyberspace and social media to get their messages across.

"Elections are such massive communal activities but this time we've lost the rallies and it will be more isolated," activist and political commentator Kirsten Han told VICE News. "Some opposition parties have seriously questioned the need to hold an election now when it isn’t due until next April. They argue that they could have had more time to prepare and clarity about COVID-19."

Medical experts too are concerned, and hope that Singapore will follow the successful example set by South Korea in April, which saw responsible voters donning face masks and adhering to temperature screenings and safe distancing voting queues.

"The election had to happen eventually but I'm not sure if it was the right time," infectious disease expert Dr. Leong Hoe Nam said. He also raised concerns about the physical voting process set to take place at nine nomination centres around the city-state.

"We can't and should not risk the rate of infection with voters going out and queueing up for long periods of time. It will be ideal if people brought their own sanitisers and sprays but will officials and volunteers be vigilant enough to clean the cubicles in between votes?"

The pandemic still weighs heavily on Singapore. News of the election comes at an especially sensitive time for the country which is bracing for its worst recession since the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. "A long struggle lies ahead," warned Lee. "Singapore has not yet felt the full economic fallout from COVID-19 but it is coming."

Analysts note the significance of holding a monumental election during an ongoing pandemic. "No one can tell when or whether the situation will get better. In fact, things may get worse," Eugene Tan, a law professor at the Singapore Management University, told VICE News. "With public health much under control, it is apt for the government to look for a suitable window of opportunity to conduct an election, so it clearly sees it as conferring a strategic advantage, timing-wise."

Singapore recently emerged from a two-month lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the virus. But travel restrictions and circuit breaker measures - which were essential for public health and safety but damaging to businesses - battered the economy.

The government drew on national reserves but the full impact of the fallout has yet to manifest. With retrenchment and hiring freezes, salaries cut and thousands of livelihoods at stake, issues like job security are expected to dominate the electoral debate. Political observers like Woo Jun Jie predict a contest colored by fear and instability.

"It is highly likely that the usual ideologically-driven rallies will be overshadowed by voter focus on pandemic-related issues like job security and public health," he said.

Community cases and daily infection rates among Singapore's vulnerable migrant worker community once soared to highs of thousands but have since plunged. At the time of writing, there have been 42,432 cases with 26 deaths. But the government's handling of the COVID-19 crisis may not necessarily lend itself to easy election victory.

"Voters will seriously consider the [People’s Action Party] PAP's performance in handling migrant worker infections that caused a second wave," said Tan. "Some may feel that the party did not measure up because the societal gaps have been shown."

Fresh graduate Michelle Woo Bei Li will be among the 2.6 million Singaporeans heading to the polls in July. It will also be her first time voting. But enduring an endless cycle of job rejections has taken a toll on the 22-year-old, who will be graduating from university without any offers.

"I am anxious, stressed out and afraid," she said. "So I am sorry if I feel frustrated and not informed or engaged enough about the upcoming election. Coming to terms with my future, which feels hopeless, is quite overwhelming. It will affect my vote as a young person starting out in life."