What can Southeast Asia learn from Singapore and its first ‘COVID-19 election’?

Peoples' Action Party SupportersPeoples' Action Party Supporters (file photo: Jacklee. / CC BY-SA)

With political campaigns entirely online but voting still taking place in person, what does Singapore’s election say about future votes in Southeast Asia?

By Umair Jamal

Today (July 10) Singapore becomes the first country in Southeast Asia to hold a major election since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the city-state heads to the polls for its general election.

The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which has dominated Singaporean politics for more than six decades, is likely to cruise to victory. PAP was established by Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew and is currently led by Lee’s son and current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. 

In the country’s last general election in 2015, the PAP received 69.9% of the popular vote and secured 83 of 89 seats in the parliament. PAP is likely to win most of the 93 seats that are being contested in the current general election.

In Singapore, the opposition political party’s role is perceived as weak. Ten political parties have fielded candidates in the current election but only one of them, the Workers’ Party, has ever won seats in the parliament.

Traditionally, general elections in Singapore are low on drama. However, the current election is important and extraordinary for several reasons.

Singapore’s election is taking place as the city-state continues to battle COVID-19, making the entire process an extraordinary and perhaps challenging experience for politicians and voters alike.

With more polls likely to take place in Southeast Asia later this year, Singapore’s pandemic election should offer a wide range of learning experiences.

As COVID-19 turns people’s lives upside down, voters’ choices and priorities are changing rapidly. In the coming months, political parties across Southeast Asia may struggle to hold voters’ attention. In the face of COVID-19 and its deep impacts, parties will struggle to show voters that they’re working to meet their economic, political and social needs.

A first digital election for Southeast Asia

Traditionally, Singapore’s parliamentary general elections are considered a highly social event, bringing together thousands of people through rallies and other campaign events.

However, COVID-19 has forced Singapore to embrace technology, making this the first general election in the city state’s history to be primarily contested online.

Strict social distancing rules and the banning of large-scale rallies mean that political parties have been forced to conduct their campaigns in a virtual space. Over the past week, parties have held rallies online, conducted webinar sessions and broadcasted their manifestos on various social media platforms to reach out to the public.

For voters, there are benefits to attending online rallies and campaign events. Voters can attend more than one rally at the same time and participate easily by posting comments and questions.

However, the entire exercise can be a challenge for politicians as pandemic regulations make normal campaigning impossible. Politicians have to find innovative ways to connect with voters as in-person communication has become largely impossible.

Convincing voters to buy into a manifesto for the next five years in the midst of a pandemic without any physical interaction is a daunting task.

One strategy is to try to civilize and humanize the online campaign process. An online election campaign that gets voters extensively involved, through voicing their opinions and questions, can help make up for the lack of in-person interaction.

Does a ‘short notice’ election during a pandemic put opposition parties at a disadvantage?

The government gave political parties in Singapore less than two weeks to prepare for election day. The government’s move to rush elections offers political parties across the region insight as to what the pandemic might mean in their own contexts.

This is not going to be an easy election for Singapore’s ruling party as it faces growing criticism from voters and opposition parties due to its response to the COVID-19 crisis. The impact of the pandemic on the city-state’s economy has figured heavily in the election campaign. Singapore’s economy is projected to shrink by 4-7% in 2020.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: The Chancellery of the Senate of the Republic of Poland / CC BY-SA 3.0 PL

A week ago, Singapore’s prime minister acknowledged the pandemic’s devastating impact on the country’s economy. “A long struggle lies ahead,” said Prime Minister Lee. “Singapore has not yet felt the full economic fallout from COVID-19, but it is coming.”

Constitutionally, Singapore’s elections have to be held by April 2021. However, from the ruling party’s perspective, an early election means a chance to ensure they maintain their majority in the parliament for another five years.

“An election now, when things are relatively stable, will clear the decks and give the new government a fresh five-year mandate,” said Lee.

Lessons for Southeast Asia

Digital election campaigns are likely to become a new normal in the COVID-19 world and planning for this eventuality should be a focus for every country in Southeast Asia.

Political parties in Southeast Asia will need to improve their digital campaign strategies. Learning from Singapore’s experience, they can plan more effectively and prepare better online campaigns that can translate into improved voter engagement.

Political parties across the region can also watch the election to see what constitutes a key concern for voters during a pandemic and what pushes them to engage in or disengage from the entire process.

In terms of the voting process, Singapore still requires voters to physically go to the polls, but the government has established an online system for voters to see how many people are already at each voting station. By accessing this information remotely in real time, people can decide when and where they want to cast their votes to avoid crowds.

However, despite such measures to ensure social distancing, every single vote in Singapore’s election is going to be cast physically. For an election conducted during a major health crisis, Singapore should have digitized its voting process. Singapore is a developed country and has the digital infrastructure to implement a digital voting process. This leaves an important lesson for other countries in the region that are hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the same time, it’s difficult for political parties and governments to protect online campaigning and digital voting from outside influence. Online threats such as cyber-attacks, hacks into voter registration data and manipulation of results could jeopardize the process.

This may be one reason that Singapore didn’t move its voting process online. Political parties could challenge the results of a digital vote, prompting controversies and contention.

It’s hard for political parties currently in power to gauge whether conducting an election in the midst of a pandemic will suit their political interests. South Korea held a parliamentary election in April that resulted in a decisive win for President Moon Jae-in’s ruling party.

In Singapore’s case, waiting another 10 months to hold a vote could have serious political costs for the ruling party, as the economy is expected to take further hits. For opposition political parties in Southeast Asia, they may have to prepare quickly if parties in power move to call an election based on similar partisan motives.

In this regard, mobilizing support at the grassroots level can go a long way towards helping political parties to deal with challenges presented by the COVID-19 situation. As COVID-19 disrupts political, social and economic life for millions across Southeast Asia, political parties need a new vision for the future that can retain the support of voters.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15