As politicians and Singaporeans turn in for the (very late) night it’s not likely there are going to be huge celebration parties anywhere (even if some WP supporters are, indeed, cheering the win in Sengkang). At the same time, nobody is going to sob their eyes out into their pillows either. Instead, some tears and some laughter are bound to make an appearance behind the closed doors of all camps.
There’s no question that this contest has exposed deep shifts in the Singaporean society. But it has also shown that despite these shifts, the nation as a whole has – for now – decided to stay its course. Nearly every party in the contest has something to be happy about – and plenty of reasons to worry as well.
Here’s the summary of what happened.
People’s Action Party
On the surface little has changed for the incumbents in charge of the city-state since 1959. After 61 years they have still secured a healthy 61.24% of the vote and ca. 90% of elected seats in the parliament – 83 out of 93 contested. Such a result is unheard of anywhere else in the developed, democratic world. And yet, due to unusual Singaporean circumstances, it is going to be felt as a disappointment more than a success in the ruling camp.
PAP has campaigned on a plea for a “strong mandate” from the society to deal with the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. This mandate – by local standards – hasn’t exactly been granted by the voters.
The party lost 8.7% of the vote from the last GE in 2015, when it reached nearly 70%. At 61.24% it is marginally above the 60.1% it received in 2011, which was then widely decried as a disaster – especially as for the first time ever a GRC was won (and successfully held in subsequent electoral rounds) by the opposition Workers’ Party.
In a lot of ways, then, 2020 is like 2011 – as PAP has just lost another GRC, this time the newly carved out Sengkang, where WP fielded a relatively inexperienced, young team, that sent packing the ruling party’s slate featuring three government officials.
So, is it a gloomy morning for People’s Action Party?
Not quite. Using 2015 as a benchmark was never a good idea. The whole nation was moved by Lee Kuan Yew’s passing and the emotional wave elevated the PAP above what it could otherwise have expected. That its share of the popular vote is going to drop in 2020 was pretty much certain.
Given the circumstances – the Covid-19 pandemic and the problematic epidemic in foreign workers’ dorms, which – despite being contained – surely dented the party’s image, its campaign was always going to be challenging. The situation was in some ways favorable – in the sense that many voters could be swayed by the fear of rocking the boat during a roaring storm and would flock to PAP’s safe arms – and unfavorable because the public opinion about handling such an unprecedented crisis is divided.
At the same time the opposition has presented a challenge greater than usual – with the entry of heavyweight Tan Cheng Bock’s Progress Singapore Party, that could rival WP in influence. And, as it turned out, it has – although not quite enough to win any seats outright (but more on that in a minute).
Finally, it has to be said that Workers’ Party win in Sengkang was as much a surprise to PAP as it was to the victors. The tight 48-52 defeat of the incumbents can be blamed on the explosion of popularity of a new candidate, Jamus Lim, who wowed audiences with his performance during a televised debate in early July and quickly gained traction among young, internet savvy voters. Quite overnight he was catapulted to a celebrity status that the PAP found difficult to compete with.
Ironically, the short period of the electoral campaign – which should, generally, favor the incumbents – this time provided help to the opposition, as the novelty factor of Jamus Lim’s performance would simply not wear out quickly enough.
So, considering the difficult environment that forced some unexpected stumbles, as well as much strengthened opposition, the PAP should view its result as rather good. Its last stumble in 2011 happened in a much different environment so, relatively speaking, keeping 83 seats and securing over 60% of the popular vote, granting it a supermajority mandate for the next 5 years is really a rather resounding victory – even if appetites have been quite a lot bigger.
One has to remember that even the late Lee Kuan Yew had to make do with little over 60% of the popular vote throughout the 1980s and Goh Chok Tong secured a comparable 61% back in 1991.
PAP: The Good
- 83 out of 93 contested seats give it an absolute supermajority in the parliament for the next 5 years
- 61% of the popular vote can be considered pretty good given the rough circumstances and political competition
- The party has managed to hold onto some of its gains at the political heart of WP in Hougang, where it performed worse than in 2015 but better than in preceding elections in 2012, 2011 and 2006.
- If it wasn’t for a surprising performance of Jamus Lim, its vote count would likely be a few points higher.
PAP: The Bad
- Losing second GRC (Sengkang) to opposition has a highly symbolic meaning.
- Defeat to a young, inexperienced WP team only makes it more embarrassing.
- Being blindsided by a new entrant should be a warning for the future.
- 61% of the popular vote is only marginally better than in 2011 and one of the lower results in history.
- Poor communications in the preceding months made the party look desperate for a political win.
The leading opposition party is sure to make headlines of the media in and out of the country with its historic grab of the second GRC, increasing its parliamentary tally to 10 seats. Despite losing its longtime leader, Low Thia Khiang, who retired from politics this year, WP has pulled off what few deemed possible just weeks or even days ago, increasing its influence in the eastern parts of the island and upsetting People’s Action Party by bringing fresh faces to the parliament.
It even managed to apply pressure on the future PM designate Heng Swee Keat with its good performance in East Coast GRC, where HSK was parachuted in the last minute to prop up the PAP defenses. Ultimately the maneuver paid off and WP was defeated – though not without a fight, pulling in a respectable 46.6% of the vote.
And yet, for all their successes – celebrated by hundreds of voters in the streets in the east – this night is going to have a bitter aftertaste for the WP.
First of all, much like PAP, WP has actually lost its share of the popular vote from the previous contest, dropping by 1.26% to just 11.2%, while Tan Cheng Bock’s Progress Singapore has managed to secure 10.4%, just right behind WP’s back.
In fact, WP has lost its share of the popular vote in three consecutive elections, dropping from 16.3% in 2006 to 12.8% in 2011, 12.5% in 2015 and, finally, 11.2% today. That’s a loss of over 5 percentage points or nearly one-third.
Of course its crucial wins in contested constituencies gave it much needed mandates – but did little to expand its reach, which is still limited to parts of eastern Singapore. In other words – its recent successes came from greater focus on limited areas, rather than expanding its holdings, to achieve which it still seems to be ill-equipped.
Furthermore, if we consider that the party’s campaign was given a significant and largely unexpected boost by a sudden explosion of popularity of Jamus Lim, we can see how this election could have gone far further south for them. Jamus’ televised performance swayed enough voters in Sengkang and has given the party a boost in its heartlands of Hougang and Aljunied – where it would likely still have won, albeit by smaller margins.
Nationwide WP collected 279,000 votes vs. 253,000 garnered by the PSP – so it is entirely likely that if it wasn’t for Jamus Lim, its tally could have put it behind PSP, in 3rd place overall.
While there’s plenty to celebrate in its HQ, its close shave and a surprising victory in Sengkang should also serve as a warning that pulling rabbits out of a hat in the last minute is not exactly a sustainable political strategy.
Of course we have to bear in mind that WP was contesting a very limited number of seats (only 21 out of 93 overall). That said, it also shows that despite being the leading opposition in Singapore, its human resources are extremely limited and already stretched so thin, that it remains quite far away from being able to mount a more daring charge for power.
That WP’s cadre reserves are very shallow was already proven during the campaign, by its inability to field a competent Mandarin-speaker in the first of the televised debates in Chinese – a sign of a perplexing shift away from its traditional Chinese base. This hiccup turned out to to be relatively harmless this time but a prolonged disconnect with Chinese voters may leave space open for competitors, while WP’s bet on young, tech savvy, wealthier electorate may not necessarily pay off.
Finally, despite winning Sengkang, its lineup in the parliament will only increase by 1 seat – up from 9 (6MP + 3NCMP in 2015) – hardly a game-changing landslide. The remaining NCMP seats were offered to PSP, what – in total – increases the opposition presence in the parliament by 3 members, keeping PAP’s team at 83 (since new NCMP seats were added ahead of this GE).
In other words – the situation in the parliament has hardly changed.
All in all, Workers’ Party has reasons to celebrate today but not without a bitter reminder that it owes its successes more to a stroke of luck rather than a sound political strategy and its current lineup is so limited that it was only able to compete for little over 20% of the seats citywide.
WP: The Good
- Historic second GRC won – Sengkang.
- Fresh, new faces in the parliament, that can give the party a nationwide boost in popularity.
- First opposition party to win majority of the contested votes (50.5%).
WP: The Bad
- Retreat to contesting only 6 constituencies reduces its reach and share of the popular vote.
- Its success was largely a result of a surprising popularity of Jamus Lim rather than sound political strategy or program.
- Without that sudden boost the party’s performance would likely have been considerably worse across the board.
- Despite winning a second GRC, the number of seats in the parliament increased by 1 only.
Progress Singapore Party
Tan Cheng Bock’s re-entry to Singaporean politics in 2019 caused quite a commotion, given his popularity on the West Coast. A former presidential hopeful and ex-PAP backbencher of 26 years was considered a formidable foe for the PAP, surely able to wrest an entire 5-seat GRC from the incumbents and possibly challenge them in other constituencies.
As the vote count closed, however, PSP has failed to win a single seat, despite putting up a good fight, garnering 48.3% in West Coast GRC and showing strong performance elsewhere, collecting in total over 250,000 votes – or more than 10% of the nationwide total, placing it just behind Workers’ Party.
Ultimately, two candidates from its West Coast team will be offered NCMP mandates, granting the party two seats in the parliament.
Of course Tan Cheng Bock must be disheartened by another defeat of his post-PAP career (having lost his bid for presidency twice before) but challenging the ruling party during a raging pandemic was always going to be very difficult. Winning nearly 41% of the votes contested definitely puts PSP on the political map – and that in itself is a huge success for the new entrant.
That said, the question is – how much of its popularity is down to its leader, who is already 80 years old? Naturally, TCB may very well enjoy longevity comparable to that of Dr. Mahathir across the border – in which case we may see him around for another 3 electoral rounds. That said, it isn’t exactly a strong foundation to build on.
To remain relevant PSP has to present more than just one known face and its future existence will depend on its ability to find them.
Right now it has managed to spook PAP and show WP that it is no longer the only opposition party that counts. Getting those two NCMP seats is going to provide a valuable platform for the party to anchor itself in the political discourse in Singapore. But whether that’s enough to stay relevant remains to be seen.
PSP: The Good
- Very strong performance in West Coast GRC – with a potential for victory in different circumstances.
- Good results elsewhere and over 40% of the contested votes won.
- Two NCMP seats are going to allow the party to have a voice in the parliament.
PSP: The Bad
- Despite winning 10% of national vote, the party failed to win any mandates.
- Tan Cheng Bock lost on his home turf and at 80 years old he may find it difficult to compete in the future elections.
- There’s currently nobody who could replace him at the helm, calling the future of the party into question.
The Best of the Rest
Behind the heavyweights, smaller parties made their mark too. NSP and SDP collected around 100,000 votes each – a highly respectable figure. Even Lim Tean’s People’s Voice party manage to score 2.37% – or 60,000 votes. Those three parties together performed on par with WP and PSP.
SDP in particular put in a good performance in two SMCs – Bukit Batok and Bukit Panjang, where Chee Soon Juan and Paul Tambyah gathered 45-46% of the vote against the PAP incumbents – enough to think of mounting another charge in 5 years time, possibly in more favorable circumstances.
It’s currently not enough for any single opposition party to seriously challenge PAP but it is clear that they are not impossibly far away from chipping away its mandates here and there.
So, much like their bigger opponents, they have things they can definitely celebrate, even as they have suffered ultimate electoral defeats.
Quo Vadis, Singapore? Back to… status quo
When the government was dissolved in late June, Goh Chok Tong asked the Latin question on Facebook.
Today we know the answer – Singaporeans went to cast their votes and decided to… march back to the status quo.
This General Election was really rather peculiar. It has brought several big surprises and exposed a lot of changes in the Singaporean society – and yet has, effectively, changed very little.
All of the significant participants have plenty to be happy – and equally much to worry – about.
PAP sought a “strong mandate” – i.e. a high seat count coupled with high popular support as a glowing, red cherry on top. The voters gave the party the seats it wanted – but kept the cherry for now.
Workers’ Party wanted to chip away at PAP’s dominance – and yet hasn’t really succeeded at it, even after winning its second GRC. In the meanwhile, Tan Cheng Bock did rather well – but, as usual, fell just a tiny bit short of succeeding. Though if PSP sticks around it may become a better challenger next time, assuming it can find leaders to support the elderly founder.
The thing to watch are the new faces that the Workers’ Party is bringing to the parliament.
Jamus Lim has to prove that his debate performance wasn’t just a one-off – and the novelty factor that boosted his popularity in the past days is bound to wear off over the next 5 years. His controversial colleague, 26-year old Raeesah Khan, already under investigation over potentially insensitive comments and accusations tantamount to scandalizing the judiciary, may have a tough start. And given her foreign lingo and affinity for questionable, imported woke culture, what she says may not exactly sit well with the voters, who haven’t thus far had enough time to get to know their candidates too well ahead of the vote.
If WP does perform well over this term it may very well be a sign that a shift towards a more Westernized left is underway in the society – and that may change politics of the ruling PAP as well.
Some cracks may be showing but the electorate has largely played it safe. The priority right now is to stay the course to get out of this pandemic into a post-Covid reality – which may be quite a lot different for a country that so enormously relies on logistics, trade and travel.
The consequences of the outbreak have not only affected the current election but may very well set the stage for the next one.
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