Singapore ruling party’s support dwindles at poll
>>SINGAPORE: Singapore’s long-ruling party retained power yesterday but its support fell sharply, while the opposition made gains, in a general election held under the shadow of a coronavirus outbreak.
Voters put on masks and gloves and had to observe social distancing rules during a poll held as the city-state emerges from a lengthy lockdown.
The affluent financial hub has seen large virus outbreaks in dormitories housing low-paid foreign workers, but with new infections slowing and authorities easing a partial lockdown, the government pushed ahead with the poll.
The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore for six decades, was always assured of victory, and won 83 of 93 parliamentary seats up for grabs, and 61.2% of the popular vote.
But that was pointedly down on the nearly 70% of the vote it won at the country’s last election in 2015, while the opposition Workers’ Party picked up 10 seats — its best ever showing at an election.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, visibly disappointed, conceded the “percentage of the popular vote is not as high as I had hoped”.
“The results reflect the pain and uncertainty that Singaporeans feel in this crisis — the loss of income, the anxiety about jobs,” he told a press conference. “This was not a feelgood election.”
The trading hub has been hit hard by the pandemic and is forecast to be heading for its worst recession since independence in 1965.
The PAP’s share of the popular vote was close to its lowest ever level of 60.1%, in the 2011 election.
But for the Workers’ Party, which previously held just six seats, the results felt like a victory. Raucous celebrations erupted in one of the party’s strongholds, with people cheering and waving flags.
“I’m very grateful to all the voters, I’m also very humbled,” said party leader Pritam Singh. “I think there’s a lot of work to do.”
Commentators said the ruling party’s support may also have been dented by a desire for change among the young.
“Younger voters wanted their voices to be heard in a more significant way,” Eugene Tan, political analyst from Singapore Management University, told broadcaster CNA.
“One-party governance may not go down so well with them in this age and time.”
>>SINGAPORE: The ruling party in Singapore, stung by its worst-ever election results, yesterday signalled a possible delay to its meticulous succession plans, and analysts foresaw other policy changes that could affect the international business hub.
The People’s Action Party (PAP) secured 83 of 93 parliamentary seats in Friday’s election — a resounding win by international standards — and its share of the popular vote dropped near a record low, while the opposition won an unprecedented 10 seats.
The results showed “a clear desire for a diversity of voices”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told an early morning news conference. “Singaporeans want the PAP to form the government but they, and especially the younger voters, also want to see more opposition presence in parliament.”
Stability and predictability define Singapore’s politics, dominated by the PAP since independence in 1965, proving crucial in developing the city-state into a global finance hub and regional trading centre.
But analysts said the unexpected setback for Mr Lee’s party likely means tighter rules on foreign employment and other changes to social policies to assuage concerns raised by opposition parties.
“Policymakers will have a tighter line to walk on foreigners in the labour force and to double-up efforts on the economic well-being of lower-income groups,” said Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB Private Banking.
In 2011, when the PAP polled a record low 60% of the popular vote, it moved to tighten international hiring rules to address voters’ sensitivities. Similarly, voters in Friday’s election had also expressed grave concerns about their job prospects and whether their wealthy, small island actually needed so many foreigners in the top paid roles. The election results cast a pall over Mr Lee’s plans to seek a mandate for the next generation of leaders as he prepared to step down.
Analysts said the strong Workers’ Party showing, which prompted wild celebrations in the small hours of yesterday morning in stronghold seats, could make Mr Lee’s eventual handover even more contested.
His designated successor, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, scraped through with just 53% of the vote in his constituency in the first real test of his popularity.
“This was not a strong endorsement of the new leaders,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia. Mr Heng, 59, “lacked national pull power in the campaign”, as did many other next-generation leaders, she said.
The prime minister, who took a gamble by calling the election in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, said he would now “see this crisis through”, a statement analysts took to mean that he may put his retirement plans on hold for now.
Mr Lee had earlier said that he had been preparing to hand over the reins to a new generation of leaders in the coming years.
With an overwhelming parliamentary majority, the PAP rarely has to court public opinion on policy or government plans. Mr Heng had been selected by his peers as a future leader in a secretive process compared to how cardinals pick a pope.
The PAP’s setback “reopens questions about who is next”, said Chong Ja Ian political scientist and a visiting scholar at the Harvard-Yenching Institute. “No one knows for sure, but these questions are sure to arise.”