By Matthew Mohan
SINGAPORE: The vote swing towards opposition parties in this year’s General Election has shown that the electorate does not only care about bread and butter issues, political observers told CNA.
While the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) had built its campaign and manifesto around saving lives and jobs amid the COVID-19 pandemic, observers said the results mean some voters also prioritise issues like social justice and having diverse voices in Parliament.
The results also pointed to a more “discerning” electorate, analysts said, adding that the PAP will likely need to demonstrate it can listen to and act on these additional concerns to woo back some of its support.
Official results released after counting dragged into the early hours of Saturday saw the PAP’s vote share slide by close to nine percentage points from the previous election in 2015.
The PAP clinched 61.24 per cent of the vote in this year’s election, but the Workers’ Party (WP) made inroads into Parliament by claiming its second Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in the polls held amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The WP’s victory in the newly formed four-member Sengkang GRC marks the first time that an opposition party will hold two GRCs, since the GRC scheme came into effect in 1988.
Still, the PAP has retained its supermajority and will form the Government after winning 83 seats out of an available 93. In 2015, it secured 83 out of 89 seats across 29 constituencies.
BEYOND BREAD AND BUTTER
Political observer Eugene Tan noted that the election results pointed to some unhappiness with the performance of the PAP-led Government, even as economic worries weighed heavily on voters' minds.
“Voters signalled that they are assessing how the Government had governed, particularly the trust between Government and people,” said the Singapore Management University (SMU) law professor.
Voters, for one, are concerned about the “post-material issues” as well, such as Singapore's identity and social inequality, said Associate Professor Tan.
SIM Global Education associate lecturer Felix Tan agreed, saying that people were beginning to realise “there are many more important issues such as social inequality and social injustices that pervade our society”.
“I think people want these issues to be dealt with, especially among the younger voters,” he said.
Dr Tan pointed to the episode involving WP Member of Parliament-elect for Sengkang GRC Raeesah Khan, who is being investigated by police over comments she made online about race and religion.
Police announced that it was investigating Ms Khan on Jul 5, in the middle of the campaigning period, following several reports made against her. Ms Khan apologised for her “insensitive” remarks later that evening.
WP chief Pritam Singh declined to comment on the party’s position on the matter, citing the ongoing investigations. The WP will review this incident after the election, he added.
On Jul 7, Progress Singapore Party (PSP) chief Tan Cheng Bock described the police reports against Ms Khan as "gutter politics", while the PAP later called on the WP to clarify its stand on her posts and questioned its decision to let her continue running.
“There's obviously a clear disparity between the political parties towards (Ms Khan’s) posts. That needs to be dealt with, that needs to be talked about, that needs to be discussed, that level of racial or even social injustices,” Dr Tan said.
“People want to talk about beyond bread and butter issues. They want to talk about social inequality.”
A MORE “DISCERNING” ELECTORATE
Mr Leonard Lim, country director of Singapore at government affairs and public policy consultancy Vriens & Partners, said bread and butter issues were not the “be-all and end-all” for younger voters.
“While bread-and-butter issues still matter, it is not the be-all and end-all for these younger voters, and a desire for diverse voices in parliament, having a check on the ruling party, and other softer issues were as important if not more important,” he said.
“The overall picture is an electorate that wants to send a signal – it still wants the PAP in power, but does not want to give the PAP untrammelled power in Parliament.”
The election results also pointed to “more sophisticated and discerning electorate”, he added, describing this as being part of a “mature democracy.”
Mr Lim gave the example of how younger voters were willing to plump for parties or candidates with a “demonstrable track record” even amid a “backdrop of economic uncertainty”.
This was especially demonstrated in the WP’s victory in Sengkang, he stated.
The WP’s Ms Khan, Jamus Lim, He Ting Ru and Louis Chua won with 52.13 per cent of the vote, edging out a PAP team comprising Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Ng Chee Meng, Senior Minister of State Lam Pin Min, Senior Parliamentary Secretary Amrin Amin and new candidate Raymond Lye.
During a live political debate involving representatives from the PAP, WP, PSP and the Singapore Democratic Party on Jul 2, Dr Jamus Lim said the WP was not trying to stop the PAP from getting a mandate, but to deny it a “blank cheque” in Parliament.
Dr Tan Ern Ser of the National University of Singapore said the argument that “effective checks and balances” were needed in Parliament contributed to reducing PAP’s vote share “across almost the entire slate of constituencies”.
In particular, he said the WP had played the role of “providing checks and balances, and injecting new, bold ideas which challenge conventional ideological wisdom”.
TIME FOR “SOUL SEARCHING”
The PAP will likely now enter a “period of soul-searching”, said Mr Lim, as it figures out how to bounce back strongly.
“Moving forward, it will have to demonstrate that it has heard the voters, listen to their concerns, and initiate policies or programmes that speak to their various needs,” he said.
“If Sengkang’s demographics are a bellwether for how a future Singapore could look like, the PAP will have to examine how to win the hearts and minds of a more educated, discerning electorate yet not alienating older citizens who have journeyed with them from the Lee Kuan Yew days.”
SIM’s Dr Tan said the PAP-led Government has to show that it listens very carefully and deals with issues that “touch the hearts of Singaporeans”.
“They should realise that it’s not just about job security, and it's just not about the pandemic,” he added. “There are more underlying issues that the PAP needs to deal with.”
The Government is trying to address this through the Singapore Together movement, launched in June last year. It is a platform for Singaporeans from all walks of life to engage 4G leaders on building a shared future for the country.
Topics covered include climate challenges, social inequality and how to strengthen Singapore’s cohesive and multiracial identity.
Mr Lim said Singapore could come out stronger after this election, referring to the state of politics in the country moving forward.
“A PAP that will now work very hard and strive to win back swing voters in the years ahead through being more responsive and listening, as well as an opposition that is energised and may benefit from greater volunteers to assist in its ground engagements,” he said.
SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan agreed, noting that Singaporeans have emerged as winners after what he called a “watershed” election this year.
“Discerning voters have sent nuanced messages to the parties and candidates on the Singapore they would like to see in a post-COVID world,” he said.