by Remy Choo Zheng Xi
This election was supposed to be a cakewalk for the PAP. Called in the midst of a pandemic, after a $93 billion set of Covid-19 budgets, the ground couldn’t have been sweeter. As Chan Chun Sing told his party activists, crisis has traditionally “saved” the PAP.
Not this time.
The PAP scraped by with 61.24% of the vote, significantly down from the 69.9% in GE 2015 and only marginally better than its 2011 tally (60.1%). It is also a discordant swansong for PM Lee, who has said he’s going to retire when he’s 70, in 2022.
Amongst the noise, what does GE 2020 tell us? Here are some quick takes.
For the PAP
GE 2020 was a referendum on the 4G.
Singaporeans don’t want to have the next Prime Minister of Singapore chosen in a backroom and then foisted on them. GE 2020 was a way for Singaporeans to send key signals to the PAP about what they want and what they don’t.
Here is what Singaporeans are telling the PAP about the 4G.
It is difficult to see how Heng Swee Keat can take over as PM. Not with a 53.4% electoral margin in East Coast. There is no way to spin this. Singaporeans cannot confidently see our lives and the future of our country in Heng’s hands. This is a pity, because Heng is a fundamentally decent person who doesn’t come to politics with some of the worst instincts of PAP hardliners. He’s naturally a technocrat, not an attack dog.
This shouldn’t make Chan Chun Sing the default choice. Other things being equal, Chan’s showing in Tanjong Pagar is not much better than Heng’s. Although Chan’s vote share was numerically higher than Heng’s (63%), Tanjong Pagar is Lee Kuan Yew’s former seat in Parliament.
Chan will be haunted by his boast to party members that a crisis comes along periodically to “save the PAP”. Because of this, voters will forever remember him, fairly or not, as one of the architects of the Pandemic Election: willing to risk lives for political expediency.
So who is in serious contention to take over?
Of the 4G, Ong Ye Kung has the strongest electoral mandate.
With 67.29% in Sembawang GRC, Ong’s vote count stands head and shoulders above his 4G peers who are in serious contention for the post. Ong’s Chinese debate performance was widely acknowledged, even by opposition supporters, as a masterclass: it was commanding, confident and humorous. Ong is also widely considered to be the least hardline of all the 4G ministers, and is often compared to Tharman.
A PAP with the sensibilities of Tharman, George Yeo, and potentially Ong, is a PAP that younger Singaporeans may be able to see themselves relating to.
Lawrence Wong, who has received plaudits (or relatively less brickbats) for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, should also be strongly considered as a DPM candidate despite a relatively tepid vote share (63.18%) in Marsiling Yew-Tee. He is confident, articulate, technocratic and a much less polarizing figure than Chan Chun Sing.
The PAP’s Western Flank Blows Wide Open
The PAP has traditionally racked up commanding margins in the West. The East has always been under threat from the WP, but for many GEs the PAP has had no serious contenders in the West. Now, the West can no longer be taken for granted.
The PAP squeaked in with a whisker in West Coast GRC against Dr Tan Cheng Bock, with 51.69%. This is remarkable when you consider, in GE 2015, the PAP scored 78.5% of the vote.
Also nipping at the PAP’s heels in the West is their arch-nemesis, the SDP. Dr Chee Soon Juan turned in his highest electoral vote count of his political career, which dates back to his entry into politics in 1994. His showing of 45.2% in Bukit Batok SMC was within striking distance of victory. This is despite bearing the brunt of the PAP’s POFMA attacks.
Even more impressive than Dr Chee’s showing was Dr Paul Tambyah’s electoral result in Bukit Panjang SMC, the first time he’s contesting in the ward. At 46.26%, Paul’s result is the best SDP result in the SDP’s post-Chiam See Tong era.
Gutter Politics Backfiring
GE 2020 will also be remembered as a referendum on gutter politics. Sengkang is the most spectacular example of the PAP hardliners’ gutter politics exploding in their face.
Although Jamus Lim had star appeal, the WP’s win in Sengkang can’t be attributed to him alone. The Sengkang result happened because of three factors.
First, the WP fielded a team that resonated with the demography in Sengkang GRC. As He Ting Ru said in her constituency broadcast, each of the WP GRC’s team members are young parents like most of the voters in Sengkang.
Second, Jamus Lim is everything that is right about the WP’s succession planning in the same way that Heng Swee Keat is everything that is wrong with the PAP’s. In the only televised English language deabte, Jamus went toe to toe with foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan, and appeared to be his equal if not better.
But third and probably crucially, the Raeesah attacks probably gave the little push that got the
Sengkang WP team over the 50% mark. The Raeesah attacks ripped the mask off the “new PAP”, and reminded the electorate that the PAP was still, at its core, controlled by hardliners schooled in knuckle-duster politics.
The Raeesah attacks also had the unintended effect of putting her humanitarian and NGO work under the spotlight, and younger voters liked what they saw. Raeesah conducted herself impeccably under fire. And it also gave Pritam Singh the opportunity to provide a blinding contrast in leadership to Heng Swee Keat’s disappearing act in the campaign.
In GE 2020, the voters of Aljunied made political history again. With a WP win at 59.9%, here’s what Aljunied told us.
The Aljunied GRC team in Parliament now comprises three minorities (Leon Perera, Pritam and Faisal Manap). The Aljunied team prevailed despite 5 years of slurs, smears and litigation. Who can forget Heng Swee Keat’s botched hatchet job (with alot of prodding by PM) against Sylvia Lim in Parliament? The WP prevailed despite not having Low Thia Kiang and Chen Show Mao on the ticket.
In the middle of the campaign, PAP partisans went out of their way to paint the WP as too “westernized” and made a meal out of the WP’s failure to attend the first televised Chinese debate.
They questioned whether the party of Nantah graduates like Low had lost its way. Voters of Aljunied have told us that they want nothing to do with the racialized politics of these PAP partisans, and that such insinuations have no place in modern Singapore politics.
Finally, GE 2020 may also mark the beginning of a serious rethink of the GRC system, and the cynical use of Constitutional amendments for political gain.
In one fell swoop, the PAP lost three office holders in Sengkang. With West Coast GRC under threat by PSP, and WP coming increasingly closer to winning East Coast GRC, the PAP needs to see the abolition of the GRC scheme both as a principled return to a less skewed electoral system as well as a matter of survival. The PAP needs to bite the bullet, unwind the GRC system, take the risk of losing more SMCs, or face the prospect of losing swathes of office holders at a go.
The PAP also needs to be more careful, in its next term of office, not to cynically amend legislation and the Constitution for what may look like political gain.
In 2016, the Constitution and the Parliamentary Elections Act were tweaked to increase the number of NCMPs to 12. This was used by the PAP in the campaign trail to persuade the electorate that it was ok to give the PAP a clean sweep. The NCMP argument got no traction, and may have even reinforced the impression in voters’ minds that the PAP was unprincipled in amending key legislation for electoral gain. Ironically, the NCMP argument may have become an argument for a stronger, genuine opposition check in Parliament.
This leads on to the subtext of a relatively un-surfaced issue on the campaign trail: the introduction of the Reserved Presidential Election. Chan Chun Sing was quoted in the media as saying the PAP would be willing to pay the political price for the constitutional tweak. One of the most direct political prices it has paid is 48.31% for Dr Tan Cheng Bock in West Coast GRC.
In its next term of office, the PAP will have to think very carefully before it makes constitutional and legislative changes which look, to Singaporeans, like obvious power plays. No matter how well justified these changes may be on paper, no amount of select committee hearings are going to give legislation like POFMA legitimacy in the people’s eyes.
The Road Ahead
For now, the opposition has a lot of work to do to consolidate the gains made in this GE.
Those of us who support the opposition can’t let this good result get to our heads. Remember that every 2011 breakthrough will be followed by a 2015 downer. Punggol-East was narrowly lost in 2015 after a hard-won by-election in 2013. Now that the opposition has two GRCs to defend, it’s time to put skin in the game and start helping the opposition between elections to make sure they are able to serve their residents well.
Let’s please never, ever, take our elected opposition for granted. Tonight, their victories have helped us sleep easier. Tomorrow, we need to make sure we have their backs.