Singapore’s 2020 General Elections: Has the Status Quo Changed?

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  • On July 10, 2020, Singapore held its general election amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and opposition parties gained historic grounds for the first time.
  • The incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore since independence, gained 83 out of the 93 seats in parliament, the remaining going to the Workers’ Party (WP).
  • The results saw some of the PAP’s next generation of leaders lose their seats in parliament, while others saw a decrease in total votes compared to the 2015 elections.
  • It would appear that the electorate did not want to give the PAP a ‘blank cheque’ in parliament and wanted more diverse voices in government.

Singapore voters headed to the polls on July 10, 2020, as the country held its general election amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The results saw the People’s Action Party (PAP), led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, secure 83 of the 93 seats in parliament with 61.24 percent of the vote share. The main opposition, the Workers’ Party (WP), took 10 seats – the most for any opposition party since elections began in 1965.

The 93 selected seats in parliament were divided into 14 Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) and 17 Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs).

Each SMC provides one candidate through the first past the post system whereas each GRC provides four or five MPs through a block voting system. This time candidates were only given nine days starting from June 30 to campaign. The day before the election no campaigning was allowed as it is considered a ‘cooling-off’ period.

Voting during the COVID-19 pandemic

Singapore’s Elections Department issued strict health and safety measures that some 2.65 million eligible voters had to follow.

Voters were obligated to wear masks and were provided with gloves at polling stations. Also, the e-poll cards provided the recommended two-hour voting time band in order to spread out voters across the official polling hours.

People aged 65 years and above were allotted earlier time bands from 8am-12pm and for polling stations with fewer senior citizens, younger voters were able to cast their ballots between 10am-12pm.

The number of polling stations was also increased from 880 to 1,000.

Opposition parties gain historic grounds

A total of 10 parties and one independent candidate faced the incumbent PAP throughout the city-state. The PAP had never lost an election since the party first governed the country in 1959 and has always enjoyed a supermajority in the polls. This year, despite clinching 61.24 percent of the votes, the party saw a decline from the 2015 results, where it garnered 69.9 percent of the votes.

The election saw a heft swing of votes for the opposition – seen as a rebuke of the country’s ‘fourth-generation (4G) leaders’. The 4G leaders are a group of 16 PAP politicians who are poised to assume more power in the coming years. Among them is Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was designated as Deputy Prime Minister in 2019, cementing his position to become the country’s next leader.

However, Keat and his PAP team barely won their seats in the East Coast GRC – gaining only 53.41 percent of the votes, which is the PAP’s worst performance in the ward since the East Coast GRC was formed 30 years ago.

More surprisingly, the WP was able to unseat the PAP in the Sengkang GRC and ousted 4G leaders Ng Chee Meng, Lam Pin Min, and Amrin Amin from parliament. Meng served as Minister from the Prime Minister’s Office and chief of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), and Min served as Senior Minister of State for Health and Transport, whereas Amin was the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and Health.

The Sengkang GRC was only created in March 2020, formed from the merger of the Sengkang West SMC, Punggol East SMC, and Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. The WP also managed to retain the Aljunied GRC, which the party has held since 2011.

Other prominent 4G leaders saw their support drop. The Tanjong Pagar GRC saw a 14.58 percent swing against the PAP from the previous election. The party received 63.13 percent of the vote, a significant drop from 2015 where it garnered 77 percent of the votes. The results were deemed more surprising considering the PAP’s strong performance in this constituency over the decades – the PAP has won the Tanjong Pagar GRC by walkover (that is, there were no opposition candidates) during the 1991, 1997, 2001, 2006, and 2011 elections.

Moreover, the PAP team, which included Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing and Indranee Rajah who serves as Minister from the Prime Minister’s Office, stood from the ward in the previous three elections.

4G leader and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong saw an 18.25 percent swing of votes against him and his team at the Chua Chu Kang GRC, garnering 58.64 of the total votes, going against candidates from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), which included 23-year old law undergraduate, Choo Shaun Ming. Gan Kim Yong has led the Chua Chu Kang GRC for a decade.

Further, the PAP party won the Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC with 63.18 percent of the votes, a drop of five percent from the 2015 elections. National Development Minister Lawrence Wong led the PAP team, another upcoming 4G leader and co-chair of the government’s COVID-19 taskforce.

Flight from the status quo

Singapore’s 2020 general elections raise the questions of whether the 4G leadership have the trust of the country’s citizens.

The electorate, in particular young voters, has a growing belief that diversity and fair competition are critical ingredients of good governance. By extending the PAP’s mandate to form a government, voters recognized and showed their preference for the ruling party’s technocratic abilities, but public opinion indicates that the PAP has not sufficiently tackled concerns beyond bread-and-butter issues.

The elections demonstrated that Singapore’s voters were more sophisticated and discerning – compared to previous elections – and did not want to give the PAP unrestricted power in parliament.

The PAP sought to leverage its management of the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting its work to slow down the rate of local transmission as well as the various incentives for businesses and citizens to mitigate the economic impact caused by the pandemic.

Yet, the pandemic inevitably exposed the vulnerabilities of Singapore society, such as income inequality and housing. In response, the WP and PSP tried to appeal to voters through social media campaigns, making their respective cases for how they would solve these socioeconomic issues.

This also meant voters did not have the ‘flight to safety’ mindset that plagued the 2015 elections due to a sense of increased patriotism inspired by Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence as well as respect for the death of Premier Lee Kuan Yew (the current PM’s father) who died before the elections.

In an unprecedented move, the Prime Minister announced that Pritam Singh, the Secretary-General of the WP, would be named as the official leader of the opposition – this was only an unofficial role prior to the 2020 election. The opposition leader will be provided with resources and staff in a move that acknowledges the public’s demand for more diversity in government.

What does this mean for foreign investors?

In extending its mandate, the PAP’s biggest challenge will be to mitigate the economic impact caused by the virus pandemic. The country officially entered a technical recession as GDP plunged 12.6 percent in Q2 and the unemployment rate is at a decade high of 3.5 percent.  

Despite these challenges, Singapore is still a preeminent destination for foreign investors, thanks to its technocratic system of government.

Singapore’s business, legal, and tax regimes are one of the most investor-friendly in the world and the country’s comprehensive network of more than 85 double taxation agreements (DTAs) and 24 free trade agreements (FTAs) are not matched among other ASEAN member states.

Furthermore, the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, as well as the US government’s decision to end Hong Kong’s special status with the US, will increase Singapore’s attractiveness as a regional hub for finance and business in Southeast Asia.


About Us

ASEAN Briefing is produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm assists foreign investors throughout Asia and maintains offices throughout ASEAN, including in SingaporeHanoiHo Chi Minh City and Jakarta. Please contact us at asia@dezshira.com or visit our website at www.dezshira.com.

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