A new beginning for Singapore?

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Author: Ying-kit Chan, Leiden University

The 2020 Singapore General Election confirmed the Workers’ Party (WP) as the strongest alternative to the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP). The WP strengthened its hold over its existing six seats in a single-member constituency (SMC) and a group-representation constituency (GRC). It also won four more seats in a newly-created GRC. But what does this mean for Singapore’s political landscape?

Opposition Workers' Party supporters celebrate the results of the general election in Singapore on 11 July 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su).

Opposition Workers' Party supporters celebrate the results of the general election in Singapore on 11 July 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su).

The WP’s success in capturing this new GRC is significant — over 60 per cent of residents are below the age of 45. It seems young citizens no longer accept the hard-line tactics of the PAP in censoring online speech, overplaying the race card, and claiming that the party will not be able to lead the nation out of the COVID-19 crisis if it is denied a strong mandate.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong conceded that his party received only a ‘clear’ mandate by garnering 61.24 per cent of the national vote — one of its lowest since independence. In recognition of young Singaporeans’ desire for more diverse voices in parliament, he also formalised the role of WP chief Pritam Singh as Leader of the Opposition.

To many observers, especially supporters of the WP, this development bodes well for democracy in Singapore. The loss of another PAP GRC to the WP means that opposition forces are edging closer toward denying the PAP a supermajority that it has enjoyed since independence. The PAP’s endorsement of the WP as the somewhat official vanguard of opposition forces may also predispose more Singaporeans to vote for the WP in future general elections.

But a look at inter-party dynamics and intra-party ideologies paints a less rosy picture. The WP has been known to devise its own electoral strategies without coordinating with other opposition parties. Neither does it have to — most parties steer clear of the WP’s strongholds in the eastern half of Singapore and focus their grassroots efforts on the western constituencies. Assuming that the WP continues this modus operandi, it would have to nab at least another four to five GRCs and perhaps a few more SMCs before it can form a one-third minority in parliament under its own banner.

The presence of the WP in the western constituencies is slight, and its ability to capture votes there can only be hypothesised. The fight against the PAP in the west was taken up by the well-established Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) under Chee Soon Juan and the newly-formed Progress Singapore Party (PSP) under former PAP stalwart Tan Cheng Bock. Although Chee Soon Juan had his best-ever performance since entering politics almost three decades ago and Tan Cheng Bock was the so-called best loser, the west remains a PAP bastion.

Perhaps WP support could have improved the prospects of the SDP and the PSP. The lack of coordination, solidarity, and success among opposition parties in contesting the western constituencies may become a key obstacle to realising even the most modest opposition aim of securing a one-third minority in parliament.

But why does the WP’s inability, or unwillingness, to work more closely with other opposition parties matter? Besides its degree of success in the general elections, the WP differs from other opposition parties — particularly the SDP — in its ideology and approach to political culture.

The WP believes in projecting a moderate voice, gaining legitimacy as a credible and responsible alternative, and pursuing parliamentary representation at a measured pace. In contrast, the SDP seeks to first change the way Singaporeans think about politics, state policies, and their own rights — and then contest the elections on the basis of a widespread awakening. It does so primarily through Chee Soon Juan’s books and speeches. In other words, the WP subscribes to the idea of power before change while the SDP values change before power.

But the SDP has a troubling image of being a confrontational, quixotic, and ‘radical’ party for promoting a slew of social welfare policies that PAP and even WP supporters think will bankrupt the nation. As a result, popular support continues to elude the SDP — even the brand-new PSP fared better than the SDP at the polls. The WP and the PSP scored notable victories and noble defeats by emulating the PAP, suggesting that meaningful changes in electoral patterns and political thinking have not occurred.

Voters continued to assess the qualities and potentials of opposition candidates against PAP standards. How electable a candidate is remains highly dependent on how ‘PAP-like’ they are. A key message of the WP is that the PAP has ‘lost its way’ and requires the WP to steer it back on the road. By professing respect for former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and appealing to voters that they exist to uphold his ‘way’, the WP and the PSP have created a distinction between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ PAP and implicitly endorse the PAP system of governance.

The WP is a party more concerned with reducing the excesses of PAP policies than with fundamentally changing them. Even if it manages to assume a one-third minority, it may not be expected to alter the existing socio-political structure that provides the PAP with near-absolute political power and causes the problems and grievances that enlarge the WP base. Whether there will be a new beginning in the political landscape with the newfound gains of the WP remains a question rather than a certainty.

Ying-kit Chan is a postdoctoral fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University.

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