from Asia Unbound

Singapore’s Election: The PAP Triumphs, But Long-Term Trends Suggest a Viable Opposition

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Secretary-General of the People's Action Party speaks at a virtual press conference following the general elections in Singapore, in this still frame obtained from social media video on July 11, 2020.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Secretary-General of the People's Action Party speaks at a virtual press conference following the general elections in Singapore, in this still frame obtained from social media video on July 11, 2020. People's Action Party/via Reuters

July 13, 2020

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Secretary-General of the People's Action Party speaks at a virtual press conference following the general elections in Singapore, in this still frame obtained from social media video on July 11, 2020.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Secretary-General of the People's Action Party speaks at a virtual press conference following the general elections in Singapore, in this still frame obtained from social media video on July 11, 2020. People's Action Party/via Reuters
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In last Friday’s election, Singapore’s long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), as usual, won a large share of the seats in parliament. With roughly 61 percent of the total vote, the PAP took eighty-three out of ninety-three seats in parliament, 89 percent of the total contested seats, the result of an electoral system that is built to create large majorities for the PAP. Still, the various opposition parties made major strides. They came just short of holding the PAP to its lowest share of the popular vote ever—the PAP took about 60 percent in the 2011 general election—but they came close to that 2011 figure.

The opposition also won two group representation constituencies for the first time, and seriously challenged the PAP in others, coming much closer than before in several constituencies. The opposition now has a firmer ground in parliament to scrutinize PAP policies, and propose real alternatives. And the poor showing in the election by the presumptive next prime minister, Heng Swee Keat, who led a slate that barely won its group representation constituency, raises doubts about whether Singaporeans are ready to embrace the leadership of the next generation of PAP politicians, in the same way they embrace Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, and Lee Hsien Loong. As a result, Prime Minister Lee might wind up staying in the job longer than previously assumed, and delaying any handover to the next generation of PAP leaders.

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And the decision to call a snap election, during the pandemic, clearly angered some Singaporeans. The election in Singapore might well lead Malaysia’s ruling coalition, which has a bare majority in parliament and appears to be deciding whether to call a snap election, to reconsider.

Reflecting on the results of the general election, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted that the PAP faced a tough battle. "This was not a feel-good election," Prime Minister Lee told reporters. He also said: "The results show a clear desire for a diversity of voices in parliament."

The overall trend in Singaporean politics, then, seems to suggest that, while the PAP remains powerful, it is no longer as dominant as in the past. Opposition parties are putting together deeper benches of politicians—the PAP historically has attracted the city-state’s best political talent and derided the opposition for its lack of quality recruits—and have made excellent use of social media and other tools to appeal to younger Singaporeans.

In addition, the PAP’s inability to confront some of the biggest issues in Singapore society made it vulnerable in this election, and could allow the opposition to make further gains going forward. Besides the PAP’s struggle to control COVID-19, which (might) be a shorter-term issue, the persistently high cost of living, the hard-hit Singaporean white-collar workforce, the challenges with Singapore’s existing housing model, and other deeply entrenched socioeconomic problems will continue to challenge the PAP government. In the longer-term, the stage may be set for more contested politics.

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