GE2020 analysis: Why election during Covid-19 outbreak disadvantages S'pore's opposition even more

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Tanya Ong | March 18, 2020, 11:15 AM

On March 13, the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) report was released.

This means that the General Election will likely be called soon. Real soon.

Election in the time of Covid-19?

The release of the report comes amidst a flurry of developments on the Covid-19 front.

With an increasing number of confirmed cases, the government has announced a slew of enhanced precautionary measures from Stay-Home Notices, travel restrictions and advisories.

Just days before the EBRC report was out, Gan Kim Yong, the minister for health and co-chair of the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, announced that all ticketed events with 250 or more participants are to be cancelled or deferred.

Owners of dining venues were also advised to reduce close contact between patrons.

With such social distancing measures, it may seem counterintuitive to hold the election anytime soon, since the process of political campaigning and polling typically involves interaction with large groups of people.

In response to the release of the EBRC report, opposition parties have also put out statements urging the government to focus on the battle against Covid-19.

The Progress Singapore Party also told Mothership that it hopes Singapore can focus on the containment of Covid-19 for now.

Citing the lack of urgency for an election — given the current parliamentary term ends in April 2021 — the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) also called on the government to “categorically rule out the GE”, until it is clear we are seeing the “tail-end of the virus spread”.

The SDP added that this would show that “the PAP is putting its own interests over the people’s safety”.

The Workers' Party (WP), the only opposition party with parliament seats, urged the government to "take caution and exercise judiciousness" in calling for a GE.

In its statement on March 15, WP said that the government's decision "must be one that is in the the best interests of Singapore, our democracy and the public health of Singaporeans".

The PAP seeking a "fresh" mandate

But there may be a good reason for the PAP to call for GE sooner than later.

Firstly, it could be a way for the PAP to secure a strong mandate to tackle the Covid-19 crisis.

PM Lee hinted at this on March 14, saying that the election date will depend on what will best see Singapore through the Covid-19 crisis.

He said that Singapore has two choices:

“Either hope and pray that things will stabilise before the end of the term so that we can hold elections under more normal circumstances – but we have no certainty of that.

Or else call elections early, knowing that we are going into a hurricane, to elect a new government with a fresh mandate and a full term ahead of it, which can work with Singaporeans on the critical tasks at hand.”

Opposition disadvantaged on several fronts

Some analysts that Today spoke to, however, have explained how calling for the GE now will disadvantage the opposition.

We are in (heading into?) crises times

Historically, the ruling party tends to see landslide victories in times of great global uncertainty and crises.

For instance, the 2001 General Election, which took place months after the September 11 attacks, saw the PAP winning with a overwhelming 75 per cent vote share.

Incidentally, 2001 was also the first election held in Singapore after the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.

Currently, Singapore (and the world) is facing a health pandemic on a global scale, and the threat of a financial recession looms.

The virus crisis is likely to be a political boon for the ruling party as Singapore heads into a deeply uncertain future -- understandably, voters do not want to "rock the boat" during such times.

The ruling party is further advantaged by its management of Covid-19, which has earned praise from even the World Health Organisation for our containment efforts.

Infectious disease specialist Dale Fisher, who has also been involved with the World Health Organisation’s Global Outbreak Alert & Response Network (GOARN) for 15 years, also said:

"Overall, internationally, I don’t believe the world is ready for this outbreak. But Singapore is."

Privileges those with great resources

Secondly, Covid-19 will inadvertently affect how rallies are run.

And this is likely to advantage parties with greater resources.

For instance, analysts that spoke to Today suggested that event organisers would have to implement temperature screening measures, book multiple venues to ensure adequate segregation of participants, and also consider live-streaming debates on social media.

This would likely result in huge logistical costs, which disadvantages opposition parties with fewer resources.

Nature of opposition rallies

Going digital also fundamentally alters the way politicians interact with electors, and hence, alters the entire campaigning experience in a way that may disadvantage the opposition.

Opposition party rallies have historically seen much larger crowds than those organised by the PAP.

But what does crowd size really mean?

There’s the argument that more people at opposition party rallies means more votes for them.

But crowds may not necessarily reflect voter sentiment either.

Nevertheless, rallies are still a crucial mode in which the opposition canvases for votes from swing voters.

These undecided voters are more likely to attend rallies and spend more time reading up on party campaigns before polling.

And needless to say, physically standing in a crowd and listening to powerful speeches during a rally is vastly different from watching a video uploaded to your Facebook feed.

Yes, this disadvantages the opposition. But this isn't new.

Terence Lee said in a commentary published by CNA that Covid-19 is the "elephant in the room that may be the ultimate game-changer",

But even without this external crisis facing us, the attainment of the PAP’s effective political dominance in Singapore means that the opposition in Singapore has been historically disadvantaged.

In Is the PAP here to stay?, Associate Professor Bilveer Singh elaborated on how performance legitimacy of the PAP, coupled with entrenchment of its power, has made it difficult for the opposition to replace this ruling party.

Since the PAP has attained parliamentary dominance since 1959, they have successfully met various challenges to secure economic and social stability.

They have since then also secured control over political and non-political organisations in Singapore.

The party has also engineered the rules of engagement -- seen in the case of gerrymandering, where electoral boundaries are carved out by the ruling party to better their chances of increasing vote share.

Lee pointed out that the three SMCs (Sengkang West, Punggol East and Fengshan) that have disappeared in this year's EBRC report have been "strong stomping ground for WP candidates since 2011".

We see the effects of politics in everyday life as well, in something as banal (but important, nevertheless) as lift upgrading.

Workers Party former-NCMP Yee Jenn Jong had argued that the PAP has been subtly (and sometimes openly) crafting the narrative that support for the opposition would adversely affect Singapore's well-being and stability.

In 2011, a university student asked PM Lee why opposition wards are not treated as well as PAP wards -- namely, PAP wards being prioritised when it comes to resource allocation and upgrading programmes.

PM Lee said:

"There has to be a distinction. Because the PAP wards supported the government and the policies which delivered these good things... Between the people who voted and supported the programme and the government, and the people who didn't, I think if we went and put yours before the PAP constituencies, it would be an injustice."

Difficulties will always lay ahead

The opposition acknowledges that while these are very real challenges, the truth is, many key opposition parties aren't interested in replacing the PAP as the ruling party (yet).

Parties like the Workers' Party, for instance, are more focused on challenging the ruling party by winning more parliamentary seats and having a greater voice in Parliament.

Their 2015 manifesto wrote:

"A Parliament monopolised by one party fails the test of rigorous debate and voting in forging sound policies... A Parliament that includes MPs from a rational, responsible and respectable opposition party compels the government to listen to the collective wisdom of the people."

There will always be difficulties that lay ahead for Singapore's opposition.

It always had since 1965.

But the possibility of emerging victorious (arguably against rather stacked odds) to create a better future for Singapore, will continue to propel many to diligently work towards their political goals.

Top photo by