GE2020: Bread-and-butter issues to dominate more than ever amid COVID-19 – analysts

Amir Hussain
Senior Reporter
Supporters of various political parties display party flags on Nomination Day on September 1, 2015. (Photo: MOHD FYROL/AFP via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — As some 2.65 million registered voters in Singapore prepare to head to the polling booths amid a pandemic, the hot button bread-and-butter issues will assume greater importance than before, said analysts.

And for good reason. Singapore’s economic contraction looks set to be the country’s worst since independence due to COVID-19, putting sharp focus on employment and income security. On this front, the proven track record of the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled the country since 1959 and brought it to First World economic success, automatically puts it in a position of advantage at the next General Election (GE), said analysts, who were interviewed by Yahoo News Singapore before the GE date was set.

Polling Day is set for Friday, 10 July, while Nomination Day is on Tuesday, 30 June, the Elections Department announced on Tuesday (23 June).

Meanwhile, campaigning rules and the timing of the election during Phase 2 of Singapore’s reopening will also mean that there will be no physical rallies, to the disadvantage of opposition parties, according to the analysts.

And with parties unable to walk the ground in the months prior to Phase 2 during the circuit breaker period, at least one analyst believes the opposition risks not winning any seats this time round.

Bread-and-butter issues ‘a mainstay’, but other issues at play

“Bread-and-butter issues have always been and will be very salient for as long as Singaporeans can’t take employment and income security for granted,” said Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Similarly, Dr Felix Tan of SIM Global Education said issues such as education, transport costs, and housing have always been the main concerns for Singaporean voters. “One can say that the very ‘Singapore Dream’ has been based on the stability of these bread-and-butter concerns.”

However, observers noted that the pandemic has also highlighted other fissures in society. Singapore Management University’s Associate Professor Eugene Tan said, “COVID-19 will be the segue for the parties to discuss other potentially hot-button issues such as immigration, income gaps, and social safety nets as the global pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the unmet needs in our society, and class divide and the challenges posed to the social compact.

“COVID-19 may have demonstrated that material concerns often arise from how society is organised, how wealth is made, shared, and redistributed, and how society values the different jobs,” he added.

In a similar vein, NUS Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian noted that bread-and-butter issues are linked to the broader issues facing Singapore.

“The pandemic demonstrates clearly that the way Singapore treats and manages migrant worker rights affects not only public health, but also the entire economy. The current administration imposed the circuit breaker that basically froze much of the economy because of the very high infection rates in migrant worker dormitories,” he said.

As such, Singapore’s future economic and political roadmap will affect things such as social mobility, life opportunities, inequality, and social cohesion, Prof Chong added.

Shift in focus of polls due to global pandemic?

The pandemic has brought issues of economic transformation, which Singapore has been grappling with for some time, into sharper focus, said Prof Chong.

In this crisis, SMU’s Prof Tan predicted that “many sacred cows could potentially be slain” in the run up to the GE and after. “As the conversations and debates in the GE shift to a post-COVID world, the remaking of Singapore society, economy and perhaps even politics become salient issues. Voters will want to see a fairer and more just society.”

Other analysts believe that COVID-19 may have shifted the electoral discourse towards the government’s response to the daunting pandemic challenge.

As NUS Associate Professor Bilveer Singh puts it, “This is a global crisis and everything else is secondary. The government has done well and it will be mining it in the general election.”

Meanwhile, SIM’s Dr Tan said the health crisis has shifted the conversation away from “previous rhetoric” such as the cost of living as well as the immigration issues. “How the government plans to overcome this recession, as a result of the pandemic, will dominate most of the political agenda.”

NUS Professor Chua Beng Huat quipped, “Bad economic times are good for incumbent PAP government because it has the management experience that is needed and trusted by the electorate to keep the economy steady if not growing.”

A ‘baptism’ and ‘golden opportunity’ for 4G ministers

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has indicated that he will step down after the next GE and the fourth generation of ministers have gradually stepped up to handle bigger portfolios over time.

In his 11 June national broadcast on Singapore’s post-Covid-19 future, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said of his younger colleagues, “The ministers have sought advice and tapped the experience and knowledge of their older Cabinet colleagues, and consulted widely within and outside the government...They have stepped up to the task, worked together as a team, and led from the front. This is the way that we collectively ensure resilience and continuity in our leadership team for Singapore.”

Asked whether succession planning in government will be a key consideration among voters, Prof Chong said, “That the next generation leaders from the PAP have been prominent in attempting to handle the pandemic response means to say they are on voters’ minds.”

Prof Singh pointed out that the government has used the COVID-19 crisis to highlight the 4G leadership including the multi-ministerial taskforce headed by ministers Lawrence Wong and Gan Kim Yong. “While there is some flak, generally it has done well and hence succession planing would be seen as a success with the 4G being baptised by COVID-19,” he said.

NUS’ Prof Tan noted that the leadership renewal process paving the way for 4G ministers has been in motion for some years. He added, “The pandemic has presented the 4G leaders a golden opportunity to demonstrate its leadership and ability to tackle a deadly, infectious virus which affects lives and livelihoods—a major, once in a lifetime type of challenge they can call their own.”

Campaigning amid pandemic in PAP’s favour

Meanwhile, most of the analysts said the timing of the election during Phase 2 along with campaigning rules will play to the incumbent ruling party’s advantage.

“Opposition parties need public rallies with huge turn-out to visually demonstrate their relevance; rally speeches are akin to giving people voices. The cold screen does nothing for the opposition parties,” said Prof Chua.

SIM’s Dr Tan noted that it would be hard to reach out to undecided voters and the elderly. “Unfortunately, given the dire circumstances that we are living in, many will simply vote for the familiar rather than taking time to listen to alternative voices. Moreover, even though there will be more leeway to post political rallies online, not everyone is tech-savvy or engages in social media that often,” he added.

And it will take creativity to attract and retain eyeballs for online rallies, according to SMU’s Prof Tan. “There may well be easily half a dozen or even more rallies each night and with the ease of moving to another e-rally site, parties have to work even harder and smarter to draw traffic to their sites,” he said.

Furthermore, Prof Chong pointed out that the more established political parties will be better placed in running their campaigns by being able to “commit more to training candidates and editing their presentations”.

“Better resourced political parties are as well in a stronger position to deliver more polished and persuasive direct advertising and soft messaging. This come on top of the usual advantages that the mainstream press provides to the incumbent political party,” he added. 

Prof Singh said that while the PAP has been campaigning all year round, since the multi-ministry taskforce was set up on 22 January, the party has been campaigning daily on the health crisis. In contrast, the opposition is “literally paralysed” by COVID-19. “Hence, COVID-19 has literally destroyed and made the opposition irrelevant; the opposition is in danger of not winning any seats this time round,” he added.

The Workers’ Party is currently the only opposition party with seats in Parliament, having won the five-member Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC at the 2015 general election. It won Aljunied GRC with some 51 per cent of votes and Hougang SMC with about 58 per cent, down from some 55 per cent and about 62 per cent respectively at the 2011 polls.

For the next GE, there will be 93 parliamentary seats up for grabs, compared with 89 currently. There will be 17 Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) and 14 Single-Member Constituencies (SMCs), up from the current 16 GRCs and 13 SMCs.

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