Friday, 14 Aug 2020

GE2020 official results: As the opposition seizes another GRC, time for the great re-invention

SINGAPORE – Amid the ongoing pandemic, the question as Singaporeans headed to the polls was this: Would they prioritise bread-and-butter issues in a flight to safety and leadership?

In the end, the flight turned out to be more of a shuffle. And voters – especially younger ones – sent a strong signal that they wanted not just bread and butter, but more chefs to butter their toast.

On Friday (July 10), the ruling People’s Action Party won 61.24 per cent of valid votes cast, down from 69.9 per cent in 2015, a swing of nearly 9 percentage points. It secured 83 of 93 seats, down from 83 out of 89 seats in 2015.

The opposition Workers’ Party (WP) not only strengthened its hold over Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC, but added another feather to its cap in the form of Sengkang GRC with a comfortable 4.26-point margin.

The Progress Singapore Party put up a strong fight in West Coast GRC, losing to the PAP by fewer than 4 percentage points.

Yet the outcome of the election was not entirely unpredictable. Online and among younger voters, there had been palpable buzz over the quality of the opposition slate this year, and the eloquence of some of their candidates.

In the first election campaign waged mainly online, the opposition’s proposed policy alternatives received ample airtime, thanks to a constant stream of online dialogues and e-rallies.

Their campaign slogans – such as the WP’s Make Your Vote Count – sought to focus Singaporeans’ minds on the need for elected representation in Parliament to serve as effective checks and balances.

Not only did these efforts pay off, they resonated with younger voters. In Sengkang GRC, where more than 60 per cent of residents are aged below 45, and more than one in 20 is younger than five – both above the national rates – the WP took home 52.13 per cent of the vote share against the PAP team led by stalwart and labour chief Ng Chee Meng.

The only opposition-held GRC until then, Aljunied, also saw an increase in the WP’s vote share by almost 10 percentage points from 2015, when a razor-thin margin had forced a recount. Its lead in neighbouring stronghold Hougang SMC also widened significantly.

There were essentially two competing narratives going into the election: The PAP’s was “vote for who can protect your lives, jobs, and future”, while the opposition’s narrative was “we need an opposition as checks and balances”.

All over Singapore, as the results from sample counts started streaming in after 10pm – and as they were confirmed by actual vote counts in the wee hours of this morning – it became clear which way Singaporeans were leaning.

With no hard data, one can only offer several possibilities as to why the results turned out this way.

First, the economy. With the economy slated to shrink by up to 7 per cent this year, one would have expected the PAP – which has always fared well in crises – to strengthen its position.

But in a sign of just how bad the outlook is – and how much further the national mood could sour – Singaporeans who lost their jobs, are in the process of losing them, or have suffered pay cuts may be unhappy about stumping for the incumbent despite the massive fiscal firepower it unleashed across four Budgets and to the tune of $93 billion in Covid-19 support.

Second, and relatedly, the pandemic. The month-long circuit breaker and its extension shuttered businesses and led to job losses, some of which may never return.

Anecdotally, official instructions had initially caused confusion among businesses, which did not know if they were allowed to remain open.

The surge in infected cases in foreign worker dormitories also reopened issues that non-governmental organisations had flagged for years, such as overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions.

How much of this – as well as a debate over whether officials had taken the need for mask-wearing seriously enough – influenced public opinion on the Government’s handling of Covid-19 remains cloudy.

Third, voters did not wholly agree with the PAP’s single-party definition of a strong mandate. A pre-election series of national broadcasts, right up to PM Lee’s closing rally on the night before Cooling-Off Day, drove home the high stakes involved and why the PAP is the best party to steer the country through the crisis.

The party also argued that there would be at least 12 opposition MPs in Parliament due to the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme, and that NCMPs have voting rights.

But Singaporeans did not bite, signalling that they wanted more elected opposition representatives – a sentiment captured by WP’s Mr Jamus Lim, who had said that the WP was not trying to deny the PAP a strong mandate.

“What we’re trying to deny them is a blank cheque,” he said.

Fourth, controversy over opposition candidates may have helped raise their profile and causes. WP’s candidate in Sengkang, Ms Raeesah Khan, is the subject of a police probe over her social media comments, but the context in which those comments were made – and public knowledge of her activist background – seemed to successfully counter allegations that she had promoted “enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race”.

On the other hand, PAP new face Ivan Lim, who withdrew from contest amid online criticism of his character and conduct, attracted little public sympathy.

But it is worth noting that last night’s result still puts 83 out of 93 seats in Parliament firmly in the hands of the PAP. Faced with an ongoing pandemic and economic recession, Singaporeans still strongly back the incumbent party as it embarks on the difficult task of repairing and restructuring a damaged economy.

At the same time, the capture of another GRC by the WP can be read as a desire for more robust debate and opposition representation in Parliament by a maturing electorate.

It has chosen not just any kind of opposition representation – but a moderate, rational one in the form of the WP, which is exactly the kind of image the party has tried to cultivate as it refrained from hitting out at the Government’s handling of Covid-19, both before and during the hustings.

Even as both sides take stock today, a few things could have been finessed.

First, candidates often seemed to be talking at cross purposes during live debates, partly due to limited airtime on official channels.

Key arguments – as interesting as they were – had to be compressed into 1.5- to 4.5-minute soundbites, some of which descended into both sides accusing each other of peddling in falsehoods.

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan claimed that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had, at a forum, toyed with the idea of raising the population to 10 million by bringing in more foreigners, which was met with strong rebuttals from Mr Heng and the PAP as misperceptions about the matter continued to swirl on social media.

The campaign was mired in distractions and controversy, from a flurry of police reports over everyone from WP’s Ms Khan to social media influencer Xiaxue, to leaked audio clips involving Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing.

Second, more could have been done to probe the assumptions behind certain policy proposals.

When the SDP suggested a wealth tax or to re-impose estate duties, why did it not address the downsides which the Government had already spoken of?

One can imagine seasoned trade negotiators raising their eyebrows when the PSP said it wanted to review free trade agreements such as the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) without giving details – especially when reviewing even a single trade pact can have serious implications for all the others.

When the PAP said it is not prudent to raise the Net Investment Returns Contribution cap above 50 per cent, is this a hard position or something up for reconsideration further down the road? What other solutions it has in mind to deal with fiscal pressures, in addition to the GST hike?

There was regrettably little time to address these issues. But even if voters accept the bite-sized answers given this time round, these questions are not going to go away any time soon – and will likely resurface before long.

Third, as with any electoral contest, it was sometimes hard to resist turning one’s opponents into cardboard caricatures.

While it is easy to label opposition parties that advocate more social spending as piggy-bank-raiding villains, they tap a deep vein of anxiety and pain felt by many Singaporeans.

Instead of depicting the PAP as being hyper-capitalist, rigid and uncaring, maybe the opposition needed to acknowledge that it has in fact been responsive – and focus on how they, the opposition, can build on that.

Yesterday’s results have clearly exposed the wounds in the nation’s psyche – both fresh and old, that the PAP will need to salve as it seeks to unite Singaporeans and tide them over this difficult period.

Across the world, Covid-19 has catalysed important qualitative changes in the way policymakers manage the economy – from the role of the state and the extent of its involvement, to the criteria used to judge policy success or failure.

Already, this year’s Budget was unprecedented for a government often criticised as being tight-fisted, with outright cash transfers, payouts for the self-employed and wage subsidies to help firms retain workers.

In a world where governments are ripping up the rulebook to keep their countries thriving, now, more than ever, fresh approaches are needed.

And today, Singaporeans said loudly and clearly that they want to see more of these fresh approaches, from more parties.

Singapore GE2020: Get full election coverage on our dedicated site here.

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