Political calculations heading into Singapore’s upcoming polls have been disrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak. Will a ‘flight to safety” among jittery voters give the PAP a major boost? Or will the ruling party be punished for holding the election during a pandemic? Get up to speed with our quick recap of key trends behind the last seven elections.
Over the past three decades, Singapore has seen two major inflection points in voting trends — in 2001 and 2011, when electoral support for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) reached the respective highest and lowest points since Independence in 1965.
Signs are that General Election (GE) 2020 — framed by the most uncertain global outlook in decades due to the Covid-19 pandemic as well as generational leadership changes in the PAP and Opposition parties — will usher in another major political milestone.
The conventional wisdom is that the PAP will enjoy a significant boost at the polls during a time of crisis, due to the strong “flight to safety” instinct among many Singaporean voters. This was clearly demonstrated during GE 2001, held just months after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, when the PAP won 75.29% of the vote share.
But another school of thought suggests that the PAP will be punished for holding an election during a major health and economic crisis.
Unfortunately, there is no way to predict how voters will behave in this highly uncertain environment given the lack of public opinion polls and granular data on voting patterns.
Publicly available data, however, can still give us some useful context for assessing the various possible outcomes for GE 2020.
1. VOTE SHARE
“Vote share” is arguably the most popular electoral metric used to assess the the PAP’s performances at the polls. It is defined as the total number of votes won nationwide divided by the number of valid votes cast (which in turn means the total votes cast minus the number of invalid/rejected votes).
By that score, we can see two major inflection points over the last three decades — in GE 2001 when PAP’s vote share hit a post-Independence high of 75.29%, and in GE 2011 when the party’s vote share hit a low of 60.14%.
The overall Opposition vote share and that for the Workers’ Party (WP) were included in the chart above to provide additional context for the PAP’s electoral performance. But in reality, it is tricky to compare these three percentages directly as the Opposition is a loose collection of political entities that does not directly compete with the PAP at the national-level. The performances of these Opposition parties are best observed at the local level, in the non-walkover wards where they’ve taken on the PAP.
So just bear in mind that the red and yellow dotted lines showing the respective Opposition and WP vote shares serve primarily as proxies for gauging the level of non-PAP support among the electorate at the national level.
For GE 2020, which direction would the vote share trend for these rival parties?
Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, most analysts would likely stay on the conservative side and anticipate a slight to moderate dip in the vote share for the PAP. The ruling party’s surprisingly strong performance in 2015 has been seen as something of a one-off “fluke” that bucked the longer term trend of more competitive politics in the city-state.
But all bets are off in the current environment, where voter sentiment has been scrambled by anxieties over the Covid-19 outbreak and the economic fallout it has wrought. It is not unimaginable to see a repeat of GE 2001, when anxious voters returned the PAP to power with a record 75.29% of the vote share.
The main question here, of course, is how voters view the PAP government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis thus far — an issue of considerable debate on social media.
Some have criticised the Government for dropping the ball by failing to prevent the explosive growth in the number of cases among foreign workers, resulting in the need for an economically painful eight-week lockdown. Others lauded the Government for handling an unpredictable crisis in a transparent manner, and keeping the number of fatalities low despite the massive surge in number of new confirmed cases. Elsewhere, others have complained about the authorities’ inconsistent policies and knee-jerk response to new developments on the ground.
At this point, it is unclear whether unhappiness with the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis is enough to create significant voter defection to the Opposition. The Opposition parties have been relatively low-key since the outbreak first appeared in Singapore, and have made no overt attempt to rally public anger on the issue or offer clear policy alternatives of their own.
The counterfactual is just as interesting in this scenario: Can the Opposition convince Singaporean voters that they can do a better job in containing the outbreak? If so, how would they go about it? If not, will criticisms of the Government alone be enough to win them votes?
The new political landscape is tricky for both the ruling and Opposition parties, with the pandemic resetting voter priorities in a big way. The gains and losses at the coming election could well have major long-term implications for the longevity of some political parties.
2. TOTAL VOTE TALLY
The overall vote tally is infrequently mentioned in media reports on the elections, but they provide another interesting layer of insights on how the parties have fared over the last seven elections.
The overall vote tally for the Opposition saw a dip in GE 2015 for the first time since 2001. In the run up to GE 2020, the entrance of new Opposition figures like Dr Tan Cheng Bock has created some buzz in the local media. But it remains to be seen if they can change the broad trajectory of the Opposition camp.
The WP, Singapore’s main Opposition party, contested 28 seats in GE 2015, up sharply from just two seats in GE 2001. But in terms of the total number of valid votes garnered, the growth seen by the party in the last two decades had largely been gentle, and almost flat by GE 2015. The WP’s share of the total Opposition votes between 1988 and 2015 has only averaged 36.76% .
With a new generation of leaders in place, can the WP make a breakthrough in 2020 and start to claim the lion’s share of non-PAP votes? Or will voters spurn the party as a result of Covid-19 anxieties and concerns over the WP’s recent legal troubles? This will be one of the key trends to watch in GE 2020.
In a series of six televised speeches in June, top Singapore leaders from the ruling PAP outlined their plans for taking the country forward amid global uncertainties brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. These speeches will likely form the heart of the ruling party’s electoral pitch in GE 2020.
Three main topics stand out — jobs and the economy, adapting to an uncertain future, and dealing with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Using a 60-keyword filter list, we found that economic and jobs-related concerns received the most mentions:
This gels with the current anecdotal view of the public’s top concerns over jobs and long-term unemployment, and the sense that many Singaporeans have become desensitised to news about the pandemic. Mentions of Covid-19 are still prominent, though they seem to serve more as a backdrop to illustrate the bigger challenges ahead for Singapore. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of how the three topics featured in each of the six speeches:
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong is the notable exception among the six whose speech had more mentions of Covid-19 related terms than economic related keywords.
It is as yet unclear how the Opposition will frame their messaging in GE 2020, especially given the edge that the PAP enjoys on economic and bread-and-butter issues as the incumbent Government.
4. HOT SEATS
On their own, Opposition parties in Singapore contest only a select number of seats during each election. This means the best way to find out which are the most competitive seats is to see where the ruling PAP did poorest over successive elections:
WP-controlled Hougang and Aljunied would be the two most obvious hot seats to watch given that the PAP’s vote share for these two wards have been the weakest since 2011.
And unsurprisingly, the next batch of poor-performing PAP wards in GE2015 have been rezoned following a review by the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee. Three PAP single-member wards that performed poorly in GE2015 — Punggol East (51.77%), Fengshan (57.5%)and Sengkang West (62.13%) — have been absorbed into bigger Group Representative Constituencies (GRC) (See wards highlighted in red in chart above).
For GE 2020, the overall number of Parliamentary seats up for grabs has been increased from 89 to 93. There will be 14 single member wards, just one more than the current 13, while the number of GRCs will also go up by one from 16 to 17.
For now, let’s take a closer look at Aljunied and Hougang, as well as Potong Pasir, another long-held Opposition ward, which returned to PAP control only in 2011.
4.1 HOT SEAT ALJUNIED
The WP clung on to Aljunied GRC with a margin of just 2,626 votes in GE2015. All eyes are on whether this razor-thin buffer will hold or cave in a big way amid changing voter sentiment brought about by Covid-19 and the long-running court case over the WP’s financial stewardship of the ward.
The High Court ruled in October 2019 that the three WP Members of Parliament for Aljunied — Ms Sylvia Lim, Mr Low Thia Khiang, and Mr Pritam Singh — and others were liable for damages incurred by the by Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) and Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council (PRPTC). The WP is appealing the judgement.
The electoral outcome in Aljunied GRC for GE 2020 would have long term consequences for the WP as well as the Opposition at large, especially in addressing long-running questions over voter loyalty and the Opposition’s ability to manage municipal affairs.
4.2 HOT SEAT HOUGANG
Hougang, a veritable WP stronghold since Mr Low Thia Khiang won the Single Member Constituency in 1991, has overtaken Potong Pasir as the longest-held Opposition ward in post-Independence Singapore. Mr Low, who is popular with Hougang residents, left the ward in 2011 to contest the Aljunied GRC. In April 2018, he formally stepped down as the WP chief.
Will Hougang residents continue to back the WP strongly, with Mr Low fading further away from the political scene? Will the court case involving the Aljunied GRC WP MPs hurt incumbent Hougang WP MP Png Eng Huat as well?
There’s no publicly available polling data to answer these questions. But these uncertainties mean that in GE 2020, the PAP might have its best chance in about 30 years to retake Hougang.
4.3 HOT SEAT POTONG PASIR
Potong Pasir flipped back to PAP-control in GE 2011 by a wafer-thin margin of 114 votes. That gap widened to 5,234 votes in favour of the PAP in GE 2015.
That sort of gap would usually put a seat out of the Opposition’s reach. But Potong Pasir was under Opposition control for 27 years prior to the surprise results of GE2011.
Can the Opposition stage a comeback, or did 2011 truly mark the end of an era in Potong Pasir?
Given the lack of competitive politics in Singapore, analysts tend to anticipate changes in the domestic landscape through the lens of global trends. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, for instance, some have suggested that Singapore politics could be buffeted by the sort of populist wave that brought Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to power.
Others looked at former Malaysian premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s spectacular political comeback in 2018, and wondered if a political maverick could do the same in Singapore and end the PAP’s long tenure in power.
The Covid-19 crisis has put a quick end to these theories, and brought bread-and-butter issues back into the spotlight. How will the political map be re-drawn? We shall see in a few weeks.
A more detailed breakdown of the results by constituencies can be downloaded here: