What Does Data Tell Us About Singapore’s General Elections?

What Does Data Tell Us About Singapore’s General Elections?
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

Singapore's ruling People's Action Party has received one its weakest mandates ever. What does this mean for the opposition?

Singaporeans voted last Friday in what was labeled the Crisis Election. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) won a supermajority of the parliament per usual, but gained one of the lowest popular vote shares since independence. 

The PAP called for the election only three weeks ago and allocated barely nine days for campaigning. 

In a leaked recording, PAP’s Chan Chun Sing said in 2019 that holding elections during crises has “saved” the PAP based on historical trends. This has led to speculation that the PAP’s decision to hold an election amid the Covid-19 pandemic was a power grab.

After the election, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the PAP has been given a “clear mandate,” but it is actually one of the weakest mandates since the PAP’s ruling. 

PAP’s vote share this election, at 61.24 percent, is the third-lowest since 1968. Two of the party’s poorest performances occurred under Lee’s premiership in 2011 and 2020.

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Notably, the PAP’s vote share has also been on a general decline over the last half-century. In comparison, the alternative parties have seen gradual gains in their overall vote share.

The PAP lost 10 seats this time around  

The strongest performing opposition party, the Workers’ Party (WP), has seen a rise in its vote share. 2020’s general election was also the first time the WP’s overall vote share was higher than the PAP in the contested seats. The WP won 50.49 percent of the votes, as compared to the PAP’s 49.51 percent. 

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) also made general gains. In particular, Paul Tambyah and Dr. Chee Soon Juan, SDP’s chairperson and secretary-general respectively, were the 6th and 7th highest performers among the opposition candidates. WP and PSP candidates made up the top five.

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Prior to voting, the PAP’s Josephine Teo said she did not believe that the 2020 election is a referendum on her subpar performance during Covid-19. But many Singapore observers considered the election result to reflect public sentiment about the PAP’s new breed of politicians.

The PAP has drummed up the capabilities of its fourth-generation (so-called “4G”) politicians and even put them on the Covid-19 Multi-Ministry Taskforce. However, their disappointing management of the outbreak has resulted in Singaporeans losing confidence in these 4G politicians.

Singaporean voters were highly critical of the 4G politicians on issues ranging from their initial advice to not wear masks, the delayed closing of schools and going under a lockdown (the PAP called it a “circuit breaker”), the mismanagement of the migrant worker dormitories leading to clusters of outbreaks, the insistence of re-opening too quickly, to the calling of a general election during a pandemic. 

Besides Lee and the PAP’s Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a popular candidate to be the next prime minister, all the other 4G politicians garnered lower vote shares.

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Heng Swee Keat, touted by the PAP as a successor of Lee, won only 53.41 percent of the votes at the East Coast GRC. Ng Chee Meng, formerly another prime ministerial candidate, lost his seat at Sengkang GRC.

Unfortunately, Tharman is unlikely to become prime minister despite his popularity. 

Heng was the principal private secretary (PPS) of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Even other prime minister candidates were either PPSs of the current prime minister or top-ranking military officials.  

Singapore’s failing group representation constituencies 

Notably, Heng and Ng both led a group constituency in this election, running against WP teams in districts the WP has held on to for years.

Singapore’s general election has a unique feature known as group representation constituencies (GRC), where PAP ministers are allocated to helm a group of candidates. The ministers are expected to draw in the votes to enable up to five other candidates to enter parliament, reducing individual risk. 

Such a system has been called unfair, even by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)

However, due to the declining popularity of PAP’s ministers, their ability to hold on to their seats has been severely challenged.

The PAP losing Sengkang, mostly composed of younger voters, was a reality check for the government. WP’s Jamus Lim won many voters over due to his eloquent presentation during the political debates. Raeesah Khan, who was perceived as a victim of a smear campaign against her opinions on racial discrimination in Singapore, gave voters another reason to choose the WP GRC. 

The star power of WP’s Nicole Seah, who first entered politics in 2011, was also seen as a strong challenger against Heng in the East Coast.

Although the PAP won the election, we should remember that close to a million Singaporeans voted for the alternative parties — the highest ever in Singapore’s history.

The peculiarities of Singapore’s election history 

Despite its vote share dropping, the PAP did not actually lose any seats between this election (2020) and the last (2015), as it still won 83 seats. 

The addition of seats into parliament has therefore enabled the PAP to maintain and even increase the number of seats it can win, even as the opposition gained seats.

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Some might ask how the PAP has managed to sustain its power.

Historically, whenever the opposition parties began to threaten the PAP’s dominance, the law was used to delegitimize the opposition before they made more gains. 

As an example, after SDP’s Dr. Chee Soon Juan first ran for the Marine Parade by-election in 1992, he was dismissed from his job as a psychology lecturer at the National University of Singapore. Dr. Chee was then sued for defamation by PAP leaders in 2001. He declared bankruptcy several years later because of the lawsuit, and he was prevented from running again until 2015 under Singapore’s laws.

SDP’s vote share was on the rise in the 1980s, but the PAP’s actions dampened the SDP’s vote share in the following two decades. 

A similar tactic was used against WP politicians in the 1980s, effectively wiping out the party’s influence for 30 years. After WP won a group constituency for the first time, a smear campaign was launched in 2012, targeting the WP's management of its town council seats and finances. The ongoing campaign led to a legal tussle in which the courts have ruled the WP politicians liable for damages. 

The PAP government will likely carry out new forms of persecution to beat down the vote share of the alternative parties. 

What has been different, however, is how much more vocal the electorate has become — both online and offline. With the power of social media and an ever-increasing youth presence, the opposition parties will soldier on even in the face of persecution. 



This article has been updated at 9:38 p.m. on July 13, 2020 to correct statistical errors.

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

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

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