OPINION: Singapore's Crisis Election Is About Mudslinging, Not Real Issues

OPINION: Singapore's Crisis Election Is About Mudslinging, Not Real Issues
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

Singapore was supposed to have a public deliberation over its post-Covid-19 future. Instead the ruling party has cracked down on the opposition.

The general election in which Singaporeans will vote on July 10 was supposed to be a serious election about “life and death issues.”

Singapore is still grappling with over 100 new cases Covid-19 every day. The majority of these cases are migrant workers confined to their dormitories, but the number of cases outside of the dorms has risen, too — 20 were reported on Tuesday — as the country implements a phased exit from almost two months in lockdown.

The ruling People’s Action Party has pointed to the pandemic as the “crisis of a generation” — although that didn’t prevent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong from calling a general election ahead of schedule. (The previous electoral term was set to end in April 2021.) Teams of political candidates and volunteers have been hitting markets, hawker centers, and public housing estates on a daily basis, handing out flyers, fist-bumping constituents, and engaging in cheer battles even as Singaporeans are told that it’s not yet safe enough to have gatherings larger than five people.

As usual, the campaigning period has been kept to the legal minimum of nine days, resulting in an intense, rushed flurry of not just walkabouts, but also party and constituency political broadcasts, e-rallies, Facebook Live chats and online panel discussions. But the focus has repeatedly drifted away from the “critical issues” the nation is supposed to be deliberating as we struggle through a pandemic that has disrupted economies and upended lives across the world.

Photo Credit; Reuters / TPG Images
Electoral officials disinfect microphones before candidates give speeches at a nomination center ahead of the general election in Singapore, June 30, 2020.

Senior civil servants, appointed as alternates to government ministers during the campaign period, have issued multiple correction directions against opposition politicians and media platforms under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). Most recipients of these orders have complied by publishing a correction notice above their posts as required under the law. Even if any are inclined to challenge these directions in court, the election would likely be over before they get a hearing.

But what’s really captured attention is the announcement by the Singapore Police Force on Sunday that they’d opened an investigation into Raeesah Khan, a candidate with the opposition Workers’ Party. A “woke” segment of young voters have flocked to Raeesah, with her identification as an intersectional feminist. She is willing to speak up about the institutional discrimination faced by minorities in a country where public discourse on race and religion has been tightly regulated.

According to the police, two of Raeesah’s old Facebook posts were reported. In 2018, she reacted to a high-profile case of church leaders whose sentences were deemed inadequate, even by the PAP government. More recently, she questioned the racial and class-based double standards in the law enforcement of social distancing.

The police said that they were investigating Raeesah under a section of Singapore’s Penal Code, which criminalizes acts that intentionally promote disharmony or feelings of enmity between different religious or racial groups. It’s unknown who actually made the reports, or why they’ve chosen to do so now. However, a PAP supporter boasted in a now-deleted Facebook post that he’d been among the first to circulate these old posts, in the hope of getting Raeesah and her team disqualified from the race in their constituency, thus assuring a walkover for the PAP. The police have since said that they are investigating him as well after reports were made against him.

星國大選提名日 李顯龍率隊登記
Photo Credit: CNA
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong campaigning, June 30, 2020

Raeesah apologized for her statements on Sunday evening. “My intention was never to cause any social division, but to raise awareness to minority concerns,” she said. “I apologize to any racial group or community who have been hurt by my comments. My remarks were insensitive, and I regret making them.”

The next day, the PAP called on the Workers’ Party to clarify its stance on Raeesah’s views, claiming that Raeesah had “admitted to making highly derogatory statements about Chinese and Christians.”

Yet anyone who has seen the original Facebook posts, or heard or read her apology, will be able to tell that Raeesah had made no such admission, nor were her posts — strongly worded as they were — derogatory towards Singapore’s Chinese or Christian populations.

There has been no POFMA order against the PAP’s erroneous statement so far, although at least one person has reported it to the police for also allegedly promoting enmity between different groups.

For Singaporeans who remember or know of previous cases of opposition politicians being investigated, sued for defamation, bankrupted and harassed, the case against Raeesah is simply a continuation of the PAP’s tactics against their opponents.

There’s of course been criticism of Raeesah, but Singaporeans across age groups have also rallied in support online. Not long after the police announcement, the hashtag #IStandWithRaeesah began to trend on Twitter. It was followed by the more whimsical hashtag #CatsForRaeesah, in which people tweeted photos of cats in an attempt to cheer up and bolster the courage of the feline-loving candidate.

Singaporean netizens are sharing personal experiences of pain and exhaustion, expressing solidarity, and calling for a need to listen. In these actions, ordinary Singaporeans have shown themselves to be more empathetic and committed to challenging injustice than the powerful party poised to govern once more after Polling Day.

Important conversations about differing visions for a post-pandemic Singapore have been derailed during this election by accusations, mud-slinging, and potshots. An asymmetrical war of words is being waged in lieu of a real contest of ideas. Since it’s illegal to publish opinion polls, there’s no way for us to know how Singaporean voters feel about it.

Until July 10, that is.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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