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In the run-up to Friday’s general elections in Singapore, the first since 2011, many foreign analysts, and some Singaporean experts, predicted that the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) would suffer a significant defeat. After losing its first group member constituency in 2011, the PAP could have lost even more group constituencies to the opposition, led by the Workers Party. Some analysts predicted that the PAP’s share of the popular vote would fall to its lowest point in history, even if the PAP remained in power in Singapore’s parliament.
High turnout at some of the pre-election rallies held by the Workers Party and other opposition parties, as well as the apparently strong pro-opposition sentiment on Singaporean social media, appeared to suggest a swing election. It also made it appear that younger Singaporeans would not support the PAP as their parents and grandparents had. Some reports suggested that Workers Party rallies were attracting fifty thousand people, a significant number in a city-state with a population of about 5.5 million people. The Singapore Democratic Party, led by longtime opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, even hoped to take a district that has one of the highest average incomes on the island, and where residents had previously been staunch PAP supporters.
Compared to previous elections, this time, the opposition was contesting all the seats on the island, and also had recruited many candidates with the experience and skills to match those of PAP politicians. The pre-election campaign period, though, was very short by the standard of most democracies. A short election period normally would benefit the ruling party, since it is harder for the opposition to formulate a nationwide, well-coordinated campaign in just a matter of days. In fact, the campaign period was impressively focused on issues, a credit to Singapore and its voters.
Yet the opposition does not appear to have made a breakthrough in Friday’s vote; initial polling results reported by the BBC and other media outlets suggest the PAP has won a much larger victory than it did in the last election in 2011. Why might this have happened? For one, the PAP may indeed have benefitted from nostalgia for the era of Lee Kuan Yew, after Singapore’s founding father died earlier this year. Certainly, the outpouring of emotion following Lee’s death was a factor the PAP hoped to use to its advantage in the election. In addition, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other PAP leaders used the campaign period to effectively shift the political debate from the opposition’s favored themes – fighting inequality and managing immigration – to some of the problems within the opposition ranks. PAP politicians drove home the message to voters that the Workers Party had mismanaged a town council it had run, that the opposition was fragmented and fighting amongst itself, and that the opposition had no experience managing a national economy, foreign policy, and other matters of state. (Of course, no opposition in a country that has been run by one party could have experience in these matters, but this charge seemed to resonate with voters.)
Opposition leaders in Singapore also remained unsure, as they have in the past, of whether they should be offering a message that a vote for them will mean getting rid of the PAP or that a vote for the opposition would help create a viable parliamentary opposition without removing the PAP from government. As in the past, in this year’s campaign season many opposition leaders argued that they were not actually trying to remove the PAP from power, but simply attempting to check its power. Indeed, they allowed that the PAP, which has amassed an enviable track record in government – would still run Singapore even if the opposition gained broad popular support. These mixed messages seemed to please no one among the opposition’s core supporters.
Perhaps social media and other newer forms of communication also have not become as powerful in Singapore as they might have appeared. Although opposition supporters clearly utilize social media extensively, the major, mainstream media outlets remain owned by a government-linked company. Although the major Singaporean media outlets covered all the parties contesting this election, many Singaporean analysts note that the mainstream outlets tend to give more extensive coverage to the PAP.