Singapore Elections: Pushing for political change that is supportive of stability is always welcome

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July 18, 2020 5:20 AM

Pushing for political change that is supportive of stability while expanding inclusiveness is always welcome for pluralistic societies and countries.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (File image: Reuters)

Singapore held its latest general election for electing members to the National Parliament on July 10. This election, the 13th since Singapore’s independence in 1965, was organised with the country still on high alert in its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. The incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) led by prime minister Lee Hsien Loong won the election handsomely by capturing 83 out of 93 seats. The election, and its results, are significant in several ways, both for the region, and Singapore as a country.

After South Korea, Singapore became the 2nd country in the Asia-Pacific to hold Parliamentary elections, notwithstanding the persistence of the Covid-19 pandemic. The task was daunting. However, the conduct of elections without disruptions underscored the abilities of the electoral systems to keep functioning efficiently notwithstanding functional restrictions from Covid-19. Voting in Singapore is compulsory for citizens. It was essential therefore to ensure physical presence of voters in polling booths for casting votes. This had to be done under orderly conditions of social distancing and in as contactless a fashion as possible. The success in pulling off the initiative is a testimony to the fact that large electoral exercises can be performed even within Covid-19 contexts. Several countries, which have postponed and rescheduled various elections, would be looking to pick up lessons from Singapore, and South Korea, for their own administrative benefit.

For Singapore, the election results were significant. Though the PAP won convincingly, the Opposition put up its best-ever performance by winning ten seats in the Parliament. Commenting on the outcome, PM Lee, while emphasising the ‘clear mandate’ for PAP, highlighted the results indicating a desire for more diversity in Parliament ( His comments further resonate the growing penchant among relatively younger voters for a more visible political contrast among Singapore’s lawmakers. This is evident from the main opposition party, the Worker’s Party, obtaining more than 11% of the popular votes. In fact, the current election, in many ways, underscored the growing competition beginning to characterise Singapore politics. Eleven parties were in the fray with some constituencies witnessing three-cornered contests. Demographically, the election witnessed a significant rise in the number of female candidates, who would now occupy nearly one-third of seats in the Parliament. There has also been a marked rise in the young and first-timers among those elected.

It is important to note that the somewhat ‘anti-establishment’ pattern of votes and eventual election results, might also reflect the exceptional and unusual conditions under which the elections were held. Economically, Singapore has been hit hard by Covid-19. After two successive quarterly contractions in GDP growth, Singapore is technically in recession, with the overall GDP growth for the current year forecasted to drop to -4% to -7%.

As days and weeks pass, the economic fallout of Covid-19 is becoming more prominent, with households and businesses struggling to cope up with lost revenues, disappearing incomes and displaced jobs. Notwithstanding government financial support and stimulus packages amounting to nearly 20% of the GDP, the immediate economic repercussions of Covid-19 are too strong. These might have injected some cynicism and frustrated among a section of voters. Furthermore, the pandemic also accentuates social stress, through greater hardships people and households face, in adjusting to demands of a restrictive ‘new normal’. The adjustment becomes more difficult, given the uncertainty over when old habits and practices could revive again.

As the world and the region struggle to overcome Covid-19, the Singapore election conveys important lessons. Foremost among these is the importance of staying committed to established processes. Deferring scheduled activities, particularly those that are national priorities, such as general elections, shouldn’t be a default option for countries and governments. It is true that systems and agencies are not prepared everywhere for carrying out elections, notwithstanding Covid-19-like conditions. But to the extent possible, going ahead with such exercises gives countries, and their people, the much-needed confidence to move on with lives and priorities, notwithstanding odds.

The other important takeaway from the Singapore election is the importance of accepting change as constructive. Countries change in several respects, many of which are almost impossible to discern given their gradual nature. Singapore’s political character is changing, which is inevitable, as younger people become a larger part of voters, and social media and digital communication come to influence political narratives. Singapore’s example shows that while its polity is showing signs of change by acquiring diversity, such change is not disruptive or indicative of instability. The overwhelming preference continues to be towards a political choice favouring stability and strong government. The PAP’s victory affirms this in a domestic political space. Pushing for political change that is supportive of stability while expanding inclusiveness is always welcome for pluralistic societies and countries.

The author is Senior research fellow and research lead (trade and economics), Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

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