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A government in denial

13 July 2020

Despite the many obstacles, Singapore’s opposition made a strong showing on Friday

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Supporters of the opposition Workers’ Party celebrate during the counting of votes. Ore Huiying/Getty Images

Supporters of the opposition Workers’ Party celebrate during the counting of votes. Ore Huiying/Getty Images


The government of Singapore has suffered its worst-ever election result, but prime minister Lee Hsien Loong has suggested merely that the result was “not as strong an endorsement as hoped.” If the result is not recognised as a disaster, the government is in denial.

Individual swings against the ruling People’s Action Party, or PAP, of up to 27 per cent, and typically of 6–15 per cent, were insufficient to defeat well-entrenched PAP candidates who enjoyed a multitude of unfair advantages.

Elections are Singaporeans’ twice-a-decade opportunity to send messages to the government, and on this occasion the message was clear. A national 8.66 per cent swing against the PAP delivered its second-lowest national vote since independence — 61.24 per cent, only 1.1 per cent better than the train-wreck 2011 election.

The opposition Workers’ Party enjoyed massive swings to strengthen its hold on its existing seats and win four seats in a newly created multi-member constituency. This added four MPs, bringing the opposition tally to ten, against the PAP’s eighty-three. The new Progress Singapore Party, led by former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock, came within a whisker of defeating the PAP in its West Coast heartland.

Worryingly for the government’s succession plans, Prime Minister Lee’s designated successor and favoured family friend Heng Swee Keat held his constituency with a mere 3.4 per cent margin, down 7 percentage points from the 2015 election. Heng was also in charge of the PAP’s national campaign, so he bears heavy responsibility for the flop. It is a sign of the state of self-delusion, both in cabinet and among what passes for Singapore’s political commentariat, that a recurring theme of the election-night coverage was that “this is not a referendum on Heng Swee Keat.” It was.

The most sobering lesson for Prime Minister Lee and his inner circle is that the next generation of leaders — known collectively as 4G — have failed to cut through to the electorate and don’t seem up to the job of government.

Between them, the 4G leaders have presided over a massive Covid-19 second-wave failure, government data breaches involving personal medical records, rising health and transport prices (and failures), new restrictions on when retired Singaporeans can access retirement savings, and a flatlining economy.

Amid these failures has been an alarming 4G initiative: empowering cabinet ministers to issue directives to websites with supposed correction notices, backed by huge fines for those that don’t comply. During the election campaign this power, known as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, was wielded by permanent secretaries, thus politicising and weaponising the civil service against the opposition. Tellingly, civil servants wielded the new power fairly freely during the election campaign.

Heng’s personal contribution to government has been a series of inarticulate speeches. These are perhaps the consequence of the lingering effects of a massive stroke he suffered in 2016, but they are making him something of a figure of fun, not just in Singapore but in the region.

It is hard to believe that Lee is not aware of the problem, but it is even more difficult to accept that Heng’s colleagues, whom he beat in the race to the top, are oblivious — especially as nearly all of them polled better than Heng himself.

The 4G leaders have been basically running government for the last year or more, and this was the election at which Singaporeans were asked for their judgement — which they gave, though no one seems to be listening.

Lee Hsien Loong was planning to step down as prime minister in the next year or so. He has postponed these plans indefinitely, but in his post-election press conference he made it clear that Heng is still the anointed successor. So desperate is Lee to maintain his succession plans that he is willing to keep his senior team in place for another parliamentary term to protect Heng from his own shortcomings and from the ambitions of his colleagues.

Why is Lee so keen on Heng? Perhaps because he is the only candidate he can rely on to step down at a time that suits Lee’s longer-term succession plans.

The election points to secular deterioration in the standards of Singapore’s government. The outcome for the opposition is now much rosier. The Workers’ Party has confirmed its status as the main opposition party under its new leader, Pritam Singh. It was particularly instructive to see a new generation of political activists — including high-calibre minority (Indian and Malay) candidates — take leading roles in the Workers’ Party’s successful campaigns. Looking ahead, it will need to think more strategically in choosing where to run its most effective campaigners.

Tan Cheng Bock has also declared that he will be back for another round in five years’ time — keeping alive his fledgling party, which nearly defeated two ministers on the West Coast.

If these “Davids” can find a way to form a single alignment with a fused brand and a cooperative strategy, they might even be able to do some serious damage to the Goliath they confront. •

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum.

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