In an opinion piece published on Straits Times today (20 March) titled “Merits of holding a GE during an outbreak“, editor of Chinese Media Group’s NewsHub Han Yong May said: “The present moment, seemingly fraught with danger, might also present the best opportunity for an election.”
In the article, which was translated from Chinese and first published on Lianhe Zaobao on Sunday, Mr Yan explained that there have been discussions over when the next general election (GE) could be held since the formation of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) last year.
However, with the coronavirus outbreak, there was a slight shift in focus, with people worrying about whether they can make it through this situation, how their lives might be affected, and if businesses can overcome the challenges they’re facing.
Ms Han then admitted that the “abrupt release” of the EBRC report last week (13 March) caught many people in his field—media—by surprise since they were focused on reporting the outbreak and though it unlikely that an election would be held now.
She added, “It also forced us to seriously consider the possibility of the GE being held in the near future as it would affect manpower deployment and planning for news assignments.”
Noting that in the last three GEs in 2015, 2011, and 2006, the release of the EBRC report was followed by parliament being dissolved within two months, Ms Han said that this shows a “possibility of the GE being held in a couple of weeks”.
She went on to then talk about how Singapore is handling the outbreak, specifically noting that the country has stepped up immigration control measures. Ms Han said that while the outbreak has entered a high-risk phase following the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s declaration that it is a pandemic, “it is not impossible to keep it under control”.
She said that if Singapore’s immigration control measures are effective, “we should see a drop in imported cases in about two weeks’ time.” She added that related clusters would also diminish in about two weeks if there is no widespread community infection.
She further said that he thinks the government’s ongoing efforts—including the SG Clean campaign and social distancing measures—would lead to the outbreak subsiding in about a month.
Bringing this back to the question of elections, Ms Han said, “If it is not possible to put an end to the global outbreak within a year, it will be better to hold the elections while the outbreak remains under control, rather than wait until the April 2021 deadline under the Constitution.”
Although, she admitted that those in media will have to “scramble and prepare to fight another battle on the news front” as allocation of resources will become difficult with several major “battles” to fight at the same time.
Ms Han then went on to ask a similar question about the Government’s allocation of resources to handle both elections and an outbreak. She asked, “Does the Government have boundless energy and resources to kick off the elections?”
She also questioned whether holding a GE in the middle of an outbreak would be a problem for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) or a “golden opportunity” for them to secure a strong mandate.
Ms Han asserted, “If we observe carefully how Singapore has been handling the Covid-19 situation over the last three months, we will notice that Singapore is not one to make major moves just for show, but is continually fine-tuning its countermeasures according to the situation.”
She claimed that Singapore has been “consistent” in its handling of the outbreak by trying to both contain the spread of the virus while minimising disruptions to people’s lives is a crisis management approach that suits this small and highly urbanised nation.
She added, “While dealing with the immediate outbreak situation, Singapore has not deviated from its long-term strategic goals. It has remained open and upheld its international reputation.”
She went on to say, “Singapore’s strategy for managing the Covid-19 outbreak has gained international recognition. Domestically, the Government has won more praise than criticism. This may be a critical period for the ruling party, but it also presents the best opportunity.”
Focusing on the impact of the virus, Ms Han said it has “also forced us to address the fundamental principles of freedom, equality, democracy and governance in our society.”
“The GE is a time for people to consider seriously the life and future they would like to have, as well as how the country is run,” she urged.
“There is no government that is able to give you one option during peacetime and an additional option during a crisis. What would you prioritise when various needs cannot be addressed concurrently?”
Touching on the so-called 4G leaders, Ms Han says this next GE is a vote of confidence in them and that these past three months have been a “public test” for the 4G leaders in how they handle a crisis.
Ms Han opined, “During the fight against Covid-19 led by the 4G leaders, while there have been some inadequacies, they have done well overall and gradually gained the trust of the people.”
She added, “In a democracy, the GE must be held within a certain timeframe. The present moment, seemingly fraught with danger, might also present the best opportunity for an election.”
Changes to the electoral boundaries
The review of the boundaries has resulted in 31 electoral divisions, more than the 29 in the last election. That’s 14 Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) and 17 Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) due to the addition of four new SMCs to replace three that have been removed as well as the formation of a new 4-member GRC.
The hotly contested Punggol East, which has changed hands twice between PAP and the Worker’s Party over last 3 elections, has been absorbed into a newly formed 4-member Sengkang GRC. The new Sengkang GRC comprises parts of the existing Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, parts of Sengkang West SMC and the whole of Punggol East SMC. It will have a total of 117,546 voters.
The new SMCs are Kebun Baru (formerly part of Nee Soon GRC), Marymount (formerly part of Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC), Punggol West (from Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and Yio Chu Kang (from Ang Mo Kio GRC).
The three SMCs which have been removed are Fengshan, Punggol East and Sengkang West. Punggol East and Fengshan were both wards that have been closely contested in previous elections, with PAP barely scraping through.
Hints that the elections will be called sooner rather than later
As for when the elections might actually be called, apart from the historical evidence that the release of the EBRC report means that the GE will be called very soon, another indication that the GE might be held in May is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook post on Saturday (14 March) in which he said that the GE can only be called after the electoral registers have been updated, which can take up to a month. Only after that can parliament be dissolved followed by the issuance of the writ of election.
PM Lee also wrote:
“… We have two choices. Either hope and pray that things will stabilise before the end of the term so that we can hold elections under more normal circumstances – but we have no certainty of that.
Or else call elections early, knowing that we are going into a hurricane, to elect a new government with a fresh mandate and a full term ahead of it, which can work with Singaporeans on the critical tasks at hand…”
Additionally, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said on Wednesday (18 March) in an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia that the elections will “very likely” happen while in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. He explained that a number of medical experts have revealed that the virus may not go away any time soon, meaning that the world’s fight against the deadly novel coronavirus could “drag on for a year and beyond a year.”
“So, whatever the timing of the election, because it has to be held by April 2021, it is very likely that it will have to be held when COVID-19 is still circulating in our midst—that’s the reality,” said the Minister, who is also Singapore’s second finance minister and co-chairs a multi-ministry task force to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus in Singapore.