Will Singapore’s first truly ‘online’ election shake the status quo? Experts doubt it.
ON Friday, Singaporeans will go to the polls even while the country and the rest of the world continue to battle the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although the People’s Action Party (PAP) is expected to comfortably remain in power in the July 10 election, the question to ask is the degree to which the ruling government will maintain its position and whether the Opposition can put up a significant fight during polls held in the midst of a significant crisis.
Singapore’s election will take place with new safe distancing guidelines which will restrict physical campaigning and encourage online alternatives to appeal to the country’s more than 2,650,000 eligible voters. Physical rallies, for example, are to be replaced with e-rallies. All 93 seats, including four new seats, will be contested on polling day.
University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Dr Elvin Ong notes that the main question is what will be PAP’s vote share and how many constituencies and seats the Opposition will win.
“On rebooting Singapore, PAP has emphasised in their manifesto that the election is about Singaporeans’ lives, jobs and future. In contrast, Opposition parties, particularly the Workers’ Party, have campaigned on a platform of not giving a blank cheque to the PAP. It is unclear how the two countervailing messages will sway voters, ” says Ong, who is from UBC’s Institute of Asian Research and whose area of interest is Singapore.
The PAP, currently headed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has governed Singapore since 1959, even before the city-state’s independence in 1965.
“Optimists will hope that the Workers’ Party will be able to win one more constituency beyond their existing Hougang Single Member Constituency (SMC) and Aljunied Group Representative Constituency (GRC), ” Ong says.
Optimists will also hope that the two other main Opposition parties – the Progress Singapore Party and the Singapore Democratic Party – win at least one constituency, says Ong, but pessimists will suggest that there is a real danger of the Opposition being completely wiped out and the PAP winning all the constituencies.
Because large physical rallies are disallowed due to the pandemic, candidates will have to turn to technology if they hope to connect with a larger pool of potential voters.
“All political parties will have to rely on their online platforms to broadcast their electoral messages and engage with voters. From this point of view, this election will be Singapore’s first truly ‘online’ election, ” says Ong.
The main Opposition Worker’s Party video published at the end of June, for instance, shows that online campaigning can be impactful. The video portrays the human side of party members and what appears to be a heartfelt message of the party’s cause also received many positive reactions and gained steady traction on social media in a country where the Opposition is not known to secure many elected seats.
Social media rules
One side effect of this being Singapore’s first truly “online” election is that Singaporeans have been unexpectedly vocal on social media in expressing their views, says Ong. As a result, he says, the general rhetoric and debates in this election will be less about what the mainstream media writes about and more about the salient topics online that netizens and social media users care about.
“We have already seen the power of online debate. Over the last weekend, potential PAP candidate Ivan Lim was forced to withdraw his candidacy after online netizens shared stories of his alleged arrogance and elitism in school, at work, and in his army training. Those stories went viral, overshadowing the PAP’s online launch of its manifesto, ” Ong says.
Assistant Professor Dr Walid Jumblatt Abdullah from Nanyang Technological University’s School of Social Sciences notes that the PAP, Worker’s Party and Singapore Democratic Party have been doing better than others in their online campaigns so far.
He observes that there has been an improvement of the democratic process and less state-imposed restrictions on essential freedoms compared with previous years, but the absence of physical rallies due to Covid-19 is likely to hurt the Opposition.
“It is a Covid election, so it remains to be seen how voters react in a crisis. And this is an election where we know the fourth generation leadership are going to be in charge afterwards, so it is a referendum on them, ” says Asst Prof Walid.
Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute, says that the issues raised during this election have been hard hitting: Covid-19, inequality, the economy, and PAP’s record, etc.
There is also less fear on the part of the public to engage in issues this time around. This has allowed for a richer narrative in Singapore’s political environment.
An interesting turn of events is the decision of PM Lee’s estranged brother Hsien Yang to join the Opposition’s Progress Singapore Party and call for an end to PAP’s supermajority in Parliament.
Although Hsien Yang is not a candidate in Friday’s elections – he says he will not stand for political office because he believes that “Singapore does not need another Lee” – it would be interesting to see how the sibling dynamics on opposite sides of the political field play out in the run up to polling day.
Covid-19 crisis a priority
Professor Ruhanas Harun from the National Defence University of Malaysia’s Department of Strategic Studies says that foremost on people’s minds during the election would be stability and how to overcome the current crisis resulting from the pandemic.
“I think PAP has calculated the risk, advantages and disadvantages of holding a General Election at this time. It is a good strategy not to wait until its term runs out next year. The Opposition may propose anything but in the minds of ordinary people, it is about moving forward and how to get out of this situation, ” she explains.
Acknowledging that Singapore’s general elections have been predictable in the past and will likely continue to be predictable this year, the major difference this time around is that it is being held in unusual circumstances during a pandemic, she notes.
Singapore has had a total of 44,664 Covid-19 cases and 26 deaths from the pandemic as at July 4.
“A look at their manifestos show that the PAP and the Opposition are forced to converge on their focus: bread and butter issues, looking for a better life, stability, security and economic development. So there are no fundamental differences, ” she says.
Prof Ruhanas adds that the Opposition’s aim this year is to deny PAP a two-thirds majority, but this looks unlikely given the Covid-19 situation.
Another reason that will solidify PAP’s position is that people are generally not willing to gamble in unprecedented times like these, says Prof Ruhanas, adding that a change of government will create further uncertainty.
“Given these circumstances, voters would rather stay with a government they have known. Better a known devil rather than an unknown angel. And in politics, there are no angels, anyway.”
On a macro level, Prof Ruhanas does not think the outcome of the election, whatever it may be, will have a large impact on Malaysia or current Singapore-Malaysia relations.
“Malaysia is too preoccupied with its own internal issues and problems and habitually does not interfere in the affairs of Singapore, ” she says.
When approached by The Star, another academic who is linked to a Singapore institution declined to be interviewed, citing the Singapore government’s aversion towards criticism.
Despite the improvement of political discourse this election, some people prefer to tread carefully as there is still a fear of voicing out critical opinion openly – will they do so through the ballot box?