Political parties, politicians and voters in Singapore are gearing up for the possibility of a general election later this year. Here’s how the media covered the latest moves.
Singapore’s general election was initially scheduled for April before it was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Although the governing People’s Action Party (PAP) must call an election by April 2021, it looks increasingly likely that they will do so this year, perhaps as early as July.
Parties have already started making preparations
Channel News Asia’s Chew Hui Min reported that senior public servants were stepping down, likely in preparation to stand as PAP candidates in the election. “With the prospect of a General Election growing, the recent resignations of a number of senior officials in the public sector have taken on added significance, as in past years, with the expectation that they will stand as People’s Action Party (PAP) candidates,” she wrote.
In particular, Linette Lai, writing in The New Paper, highlighted the resignation of Infocommunications Media Development Authority Chief Executive Tan Kiat How, along with Yip Hon Weng, who worked for the Agency for Integrated Care, and Ng Ling Ling from the Health Ministry.
Some parties have already unveiled their candidates. Channel News Asia reported that the Reform Party revealed seven potential candidates via a Facebook Live event on June 15. However, the party has not yet decided which constituencies they will contest. The article also noted that the Singapore Peoples’ Party (SPP) had already announced its candidates.
This election will break new ground thanks to COVID-19
The impact of COVID-19 means this election will be very different. Parties cannot hold rallies and strict social distancing protocols will be in place on election day.
The Straits Times detailed the Elections Department’s campaign guidelines, released on June 19, which include a guaranteed three-minute TV slot for all candidates to compensate for the lack of rallies. Although candidates can engage in some door-to-door campaigning, they must limit their interactions with the public and avoid physical contact.
Political experts don’t agree on whether the shift to online campaigning will help or hinder the PAP. National University of Singapore political science don Bilveer Singh told The New Paper that the PAP does badly at rallies, adding “The only way the opposition is able to compensate [for their disadvantage]…is to see shifts on the ground in the nine days of campaigning.”
However, Gillian Koh, deputy director of the university’s Institute of Policy Studies, believes smaller parties could gain some traction. “The bigger and well-resourced [political parties] were more able to do the mass public rallies,” she told The New Paper. “Now they can’t. Now, the smaller ones can run their campaign rallies out of their party premises.”
Facebook has begun combating fake accounts and suspicious activity on its platform in the build-up to the election. “We’ve been doing sweeps to ensure that we remove accounts that are impersonating candidates and elected officials, and we’ll continue to do proactive work to look [for] and remove—or at least take action—on accounts that are misrepresenting themselves on our platform,” Clara Koh, Facebook’s head of public policy, told Channel News Asia.
PAP will likely maintain their hold on power despite criticism
In an op-ed for Yahoo News Singapore, journalist and media consultant P N Balji described how the government is doing everything in its power to secure re-election. “This is pandemic politics at work with ministers talking daily about how the government is dealing with the impact of COVID-19,” he wrote. He added that ministers are trying to convince voters they are in control and that outgoing Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong wants to exit on a high note.
Balji predicted that despite missteps in responding to the pandemic, the PAP would be safe: “They are sitting on a golden foundation that the first generation of leaders toiled to leave behind for them. The nest egg built and jealously guarded by Lee Kuan Yew and the subsequent generations of People’s Action Party leaders has come in handy to help the country tide over the crisis.”
The Economist Intelligence Unit also gave journalists its analysis of the situation. “While the government’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic was viewed as successful, its reputation has been damaged by a large-scale outbreak within foreign-worker dormitories, which has prompted economically damaging lockdown measures. Although we expect the PAP’s vote share to fall from the 2015 election, risk aversion among the populace and a weak opposition mean that it will retain a comfortable grip on power.”
The Independent focused on comments by Abdillah Zamzuri, who contested the 2015 election for the SPP. He predicted in a Facebook post that once the election is over, the country will go into lockdown once again. “I can’t help but know/feel that because our government didn’t do community testing prior to Phase 1, we will all need to welcome a lockdown again after the elections,” he said before accusing the PAP of using the pandemic to gain a political advantage.
In recent years, predicting election outcomes has been a tricky business but Singapore offers little prospect of an upset. The PAP should prevail and continue to govern as it has since 1959. However, the effects of the coronavirus outbreak will first impact its election day performance and then dominate its agenda for the next five years.