2020 in Review: From elections in a COVID-19 world to the regional rise of political youth

by Danisha Hakeem and Yas

The major events of 2020 marked a tumultuous finish to a decade — most notably seen in the coronavirus pandemic that has upended the world, forced public and private institutions to reinvent the way they operate, and compelled many people across the globe to rethink the way they work, study, play and live under the ‘new normal’.

First identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) then declared the novel coronavirus outbreak as a global health emergency on 30 January this year. It was later officially labelled a pandemic on 11 March.

Since then, nations across the world began to implement domestic lockdowns or partial restriction regulations. International tourism and aviation — which were previously booming — were brought to their knees this year, as governments promptly put in place travel bans and border closures in a bid to stop the import of the virus into their respective countries.

The emergence of the ‘new normal’

Singapore put in place its COVID-19 circuit breaker from 7 April to 1 June, which — among other measures — saw the closure of workplaces islandwide except those in essential services and key sectors. The country on 28 December entered Phase Three of its post-circuit breaker reopening, part of which will see small congregations in places of worship being allowed with strict standard operating procedures in place.

Malaysia’s Perintah Kawalan Pergerakan (Movement Control Order) began on 18 March. The nation has since undergone gradual lifting of restrictions, from the Conditional MCO to the current Recovery MCO in most states, among other more targeted forms of MCO. RMCO will be in force in most states until 31 December this year. CMCO, however, will be enforced in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Sabah until January 14 next year due to the high number of cases in these areas.

Multiple cities in Indonesia began implementing its Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar (Large-Scale Social Restriction) in April. Jakarta, the archipelagic nation’s capital city, extended the measures on 28 December until 3 January next year to prevent a rise in new cases during the holiday season.

Sports and live entertainment sectors were also among the most affected in the wake of the pandemic. Major sporting events have been deferred — the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, for example, have been postponed to July or August next year.

Some entertainment companies have since worked their way around such cancellations — South Korean entertainment giant SM Entertainment, for example, introduced Beyond Live in April in partnership with online platform Naver.

Beyond Live, according to SM Entertainment, harnesses augmented reality technology and real-time 3D graphics as well as “interactive communication through live video calls between artists and global fans” in its artists’ online concerts in lieu of the usual stadium concerts.

Elections in a COVID-19 world and the rise of political youth

Anxieties around the COVID-19 pandemic did not, however, halt several nations from holding elections — an event that typically involves hordes of people in one place at a time. Strict health protocols such as hand-washing, temperature-checking, and safe distancing guidelines were implemented during the said elections to ensure the safety of voters and polling officers.

Sabah, an East Malaysian state, held statewide polls on 26 September. The results saw Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) obtaining a simple majority after gaining 38 out of 73 constituencies, as indicated by official results released by Malaysia’s Election Commission.

The Sabah state election was called following the ceremonial head of state Yang Dipertua Negeri Tun Juhar Mahiruddin’s decision to dissolve the state legislative assembly on 30 July after a meeting with previous Chief Minister and Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan) president Shafie Apdal.

Shafie’s move was pre-empted by his predecessor Musa Aman’s attempt to orchestrate a coup, which saw some 13 assemblymen ‘hopping parties’ to support the latter.

The former retained his Senallang constituency with a smaller majority compared to the one he obtained in the 14th general election in 2018.

GRS comprises the Perikatan Nasional and Barisan Nasional (BN) alliances, as well as state-based party Parti Bersatu Sabah, while Warisan was included in a Warisan+ coalition alongside the United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation and several Pakatan Harapan (PH) component parties.

Indonesia held regional elections in October, amid a drastic surge in the numbers of new COVID-19 cases and widespread calls for the tighter implementation of health and safety protocols.

Several countries recorded relatively high voter turnouts amid the global health crisis. South Korea’s legislative election in April saw a voter turnout of 66 per cent — the highest since 1992, with the ruling party obtaining a supermajority.

Singapore held its general election — despite calls for postponement from multiple alternative parties and segments of the public — in July, which also saw the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) securing a supermajority. However, the PAP obtained a lower vote share, dropping to 61.24 per cent — the lowest since GE2011.

The Workers’ Party became the highlight of the election after winning over an entire group representative constituency (GRC) — the newly-carved Sengkang, where resident demographics skew toward younger people.

The Sengkang team, helmed by 37-year-old He Ting Ru, comprises 44-year-old Jamus Lim, 33-year-old Louis Chua and 27-year-old Raeesah Khan. All four Sengkang GRC MPs were elected to WP’s central executive committee in an internal election on 27 December.

In the 2020 general election, WP’s recorded the best performance by an alternative party in Singapore’s history so far in terms of overall contested vote share with 50.49 per cent of the votes.

Academician Lily Zubaidah Rahim opined that the WP securing the Sengkang GRC and, in general, alternative parties having an overall higher share of votes, signal the Singapore electorate’s demand for the PAP’s democratisation.

Dr Lily, whose areas of specialisation include authoritarian governance and Southeast Asian politics, noted that “the PAP’s vote share dropped by 8.6 per cent relative to the 2015 election” despite having the advantages of “incumbency and the COVID-19 crisis”.

She posited that Singapore’s authoritarian political landscape “may well be shifting away from one-party dominance, in line with neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia and the Northeast Asian democracies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan”.

In Malaysia, ‘Langkah Sheraton’ or ‘Sheraton Move’ prompted the germination of youth-centric movements such as the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) party, founded by Muar MP and former Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman to counter the dominance of older politicians in the Malaysian political landscape. A vast majority of Malaysian lawmakers at present are above the age of 50.

‘Sheraton Move’ saw Muhyiddin taking the mantle of Prime Minister from former premier Mahathir Mohamad following a power vacuum left by the latter’s resignation from the post. The event also catalysed the collapse of the PH government.

The ‘Sheraton Move’ derived its name from the Petaling Jaya hotel in which a meeting among leaders from the Malay-centric Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia — which is now led by Muhyiddin — and PKR attempting to form an alliance with Umno and other parties in a bid to establish a new government.

PH had earlier wrested power from Najib Razak’s BN administration in 2018, particularly after the former premier became mired in controversy over his alleged abuse of state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, among others. BN governed Malaysia for 61 years since the nation’s independence prior to the 2018 general election.

In neighbouring Indonesia and Thailand, the Indonesian Solidarity Party and the now-banned Future Forward Party have propelled the voices of their local youth in the respective countries.

A heated race in the United States presidential election in November saw Democrat candidate Joe Biden defeating Republican candidate and incumbent Donald Trump.

The President-elect Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris will be inaugurated in January 2021. Biden is set to become the oldest US President in history at 78.

Harris will become the first woman vice-president and the first politician of South Asian descent to hold such a post in the US.

Pushback against racism and the shrinking of democratic spaces & freedom of information

The pushback against the tightening grip of authorities and the shrinking of democracy was most evidently seen in mass demonstrations such as those in Thailand, primarily led by the youth. The protests focused on advocating for the dissolution of Parliament, the enactment of a new Constitution and reforms to the monarchy.

An emergency decree was announced on 15 October in a bid to halt the protests, after which the Thai Ministry of Digital Information announced that it will investigate over 300,000 URLs of social media accounts that have allegedly violated the emergency decree.

The decree, among other restrictions, bans the publication of news and information “which may instigate fear amongst the people” or that “affect national security or peace and order”.

Media organisations such as Prachatai, The Standard, The Reporters, and Voice TV were investigated for their reporting of the protests. A Thai court on 20 October ordered Voice TV’s suspension.

In Hong Kong, the passing of a national security law by China’s top legislature which took effect on 30 June, ignited a new wave of protests in the city.

The law, which was passed merely weeks after it was first announced without going through the Hong Kong local legislature and without public consultation, punishes those who are found guilty of “secession”, “subversion”, “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces”.

Those found guilty under the law may face severe penalties such as life imprisonment.

Many months before alleged police brutality reared its head against anti-establishment protestors in Thailand sometime in November, demonstrators and even journalists covering pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong were reportedly subject to similar use of water cannons and tear gas by the city’s police.

Instances of alleged police violence appear to not be limited to seemingly disproportionate methods of dispersing crowds of protestors — in the United States, the death of Afro-American man George Floyd sparked outrage across the country and brought the spotlight on multiple other instances of police brutality against Black people.

Floyd’s death on 25 May sparked nationwide and worldwide protests. The event also partially paved the way for more conversations on systemic racism closer to home to be amplified — from police brutality to cultural appropriation to housing discrimination as seen in Malaysia. In Indonesia’s West Papua, the hashtag #PapuanLivesMatter went viral alongside #BlackLivesMatter as activists highlight instances of racism against Papua’s indigenous people, who are of dark-skinned Melanesian origin.

The curtailment of freedom extended to reporting about the spread of COVID-19, as seen in China’s jailing of 37-year-old former lawyer Zhang Zhan in December this year for documenting life in lockdown from Wuhan and questioning the level of access to virus testing and hospital capacity through her videos.

Of garlic and marijuana: Hoaxes on curing COVID-19, vaccines and more

Notwithstanding genuine ground reports from citizen journalists such as Zhang, the ease and speed at which information on COVID-19 could be disseminated through social media and messaging apps have also enabled the rapid spread of hoaxes and other false news related to the pandemic.

Among such misinformation is that garlic could kill the virus, due to its immunity-boosting properties.

The premise was based on a study of 146 healthy respondents who were given garlic supplements and a placebo. Results from the study showed that those who took garlic supplements could reduce the risk of catching a cold by 63 per cent.

This claim, however, was refuted by WHO, as there is no valid evidence that garlic has anti-COVID-19 properties despite its ability to boost the immune system.

The arrival of vaccines

Presently, one of the most widely discussed topics in the final days of 2020 is the subject of COVID-19 vaccines — a subject not spared from hoaxes and misinformation.

On 20 December, a social media post on China’s Sinovac vaccine circulated on social media. The post claimed that according to WHO, the Sinovac vaccine has the lowest efficacy compared to other COVID-19 vaccines such as those produced by Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca.

While the Sinovac vaccine’s efficacy is still unknown, Indonesia’s Food and Drugs Supervisory Board confirmed that the world’s health body did not issue a report comparing Sinovac’s efficacy to other vaccines.

Indonesia so far has bought 1.2 million dosages of Sinovac jabs and millions more will arrive in 2021. The country is also purchasing the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Singapore’s first shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines arrived at Changi Airport on 21 December, making the city-state the first country in Asia to bring in the said vaccine.

Germany’s Paul Ehrlich Institute rejected the claim that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine—which are from messenger RNA—could alter people’s DNA, DW reported.

According to the German federal institute for vaccines and biomedicine, it is impossible to integrate mRNA into DNA, as they have “different chemical structures”.

There is also no evidence that the mRNA integrated by the body cells after vaccination will be converted into DNA, added the Paul Ehrlich Institute.

Touching on the new coronavirus strain spreading in the UK, which has since been imported to several countries, head of COVID-19 mitigation at the Indonesian Medical Association Dr Zubairi Djoerban said that the vaccines in the current production process have effectively contained the new virus variant.

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