SINGAPORE — In the lazy rhetoric of Singapore politics, every general election is said to be a watershed. But GE2020, held amid the shattering repercussions of the global COVID-19 pandemic, made history in more ways than one.
And even while physical rallies were forbidden, the personalities and the candidates involved were as compelling as ever, with twists and turns worthy of a blockbuster movie.
Here’s Yahoo News Singapore’s ranking of the top 10 key figures of the 2020 general election.
1. Workers' Party Sengkang team
Few could have predicted the fall of Sengkang, only the second Group Representation Constituency (GRC) won by the opposition since the scheme’s inception in 1988. After all, the odds were stacked against the four-man team of He Ting Ru, Dr Jamus Lim, Raeesah Khan and Chua Kheng Wee from the start.
Competing in a brand new GRC, with a team including three first-time candidates, they were up against a People’s Action Party (PAP) team with three political office-holders. Singapore was in the midst of a global pandemic, with weary voters anxious about the future. Then came the bombshell: police reports were filed against Raeesah for alleged racially divisive comments she had made on social media.
But on Polling Night, a stunning upset unfolded with the WP team scoring 52.13 per cent of the votes. Pundits credited, among other factors, Lim’s popularity on social media following a TV debate, and voter distaste at what was perceived as bullying tactics by the PAP.
2. Lee Hsien Loong
GE2020 was meant to be Lee Hsien Loong’s final general election. The 68-year-old was to exit the political stage in a blaze of glory, having paved the way for the vaunted fourth-generation leaders. After all, the PAP had always done well at the polls in times of crisis.
Instead, the oft-predicted flight to safety failed to materialise, with the PAP claiming 61.24 per cent of the overall vote - a sharp drop from 2015. And the WP’s victory in Sengkang led to a record 10 opposition Members of Parliament (MP). The Prime Minister found himself with little choice but to acknowledge voters’ desire for more alternative voices in Parliament, creating the new role of Leader of the Opposition.
Lee also pledged to stay in office till the end of the pandemic, a less than ringing endorsement of the 4G leaders. Deputy PM Heng Swee Keat, the man officially designated to succeed him, has so far failed to set pulses racing. And while the eldest son of the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew remains a popular incumbent, the history books will nevertheless record that two GRCs were lost to the opposition on his watch.
3. Pritam Singh
Cometh the man, cometh the hour. Nine years after being elected as an MP for Aljunied, the WP chief came of age in GE2020, surpassing even his old mentor Low Thia Khiang. In the face of pandemic-imposed restrictions on campaigning, accusations of racially-charged comments by Raeesah, aggressive rhetoric from the PAP and the ever-present threat of POFMA, Pritam Singh retained the calm of a chess grandmaster who has planned the next three moves in his head.
While others might have hung Raeesah out to dry, Singh eschewed the queen’s gambit by backing his candidate and facing the media at a hastily-convened press conference. The 44-year-old also refused to be baited by the PAP’s demand for him to make his stand on Raeesah’s social media posts clear. Overall, he did not put a tactical foot wrong in the campaign, which ended in historic gains for the WP, and Singh becoming independent Singapore’s first Leader of the Opposition.
4. Lee Hsien Yang
For months, it was a case of will-he-won’t-he: would the younger brother of PM Lee really throw his hat into the electoral ring and run against the party their late father had led for decades? After all, he had joined the Progress Singapore Party, giving a ringing endorsement of its chief Tan Cheng Bock and openly denouncing the PAP as having lost its way. The ongoing saga on the family’s Oxley Road estate had already seen him and his sister Wei Ling accusing the PM of abusing his power.
After teasing voters with the tantalising prospect of another Lee in politics, Hsien Yang ultimately did not run. Instead, he became a figurehead for the PSP, accompanying Dr Tan on walkabouts and urging Singaporeans to vote ‘fearlessly’ for the opposition. On the flip side, he has had to deny using the party as a mouthpiece for his personal gain.
The combined star power of Lee and Tan almost worked - the PSP team in West Coast GRC led by Dr Tan lost by a whisker, garnering 48.31 per cent of the vote.
5. Charles Yeo
The 30-year-old lawyer became the breakout star of the Reform Party team that contested Ang Mo Kio, following a Party Political Broadcast where he valiantly attempted to deliver a speech in Mandarin in place of his ill team member Darren Soh. “Voters of Ang Mo Kio - first of all, let me apologise. Mr Soh was supposed to deliver this speech, but he fell ill,” Yeo said haltingly as he scanned his script.
“But we will not let this...” said Yeo, as he took a long pause to find the right word in Mandarin. “Influence the topics we want to discuss today.” What followed has become the stuff of Internet legend, arguably on a par with former Returning Officer Yam Ah Mee’s monotone delivery of the election results back in 2011. The memes and the gifs came thick and fast, particularly centred on Yeo’s catchphrase 成何体统 (roughly, what a terrible state of affairs).
Yeo, who is now RP chairman, later became embroiled in a legal dispute with lawyer Imran Rahim amid allegations of sexual misconduct, which has been resolved. He remains active and popular on social media.
6. Tan Cheng Bock
A former PAP MP of 26 years standing, the man who came within 7,000-odd votes of becoming president, opposition icon and...social media sensation? At an age when most would be kicking back and enjoying life with the grandkids, the 80-year-old is still a force to be reckoned with in Singapore politics.
With more than 74,000 followers on Instagram, Dr Tan garnered a following among younger voters with his use of millennial slang like “hypebeast” and “woke”. But it wasn’t all just flash and hype - the PSP chief has finely honed political instincts, choosing his moment to speak to maximum effect.
After all, he is one of the few opposition figures to provoke an almost immediate response from the PAP whenever he criticises the government. What’s more, how many politicians can almost capture a GRC at the first attempt?
And the grandfather isn’t quite done yet, pledging to groom the party’s next generation of leaders – and even to run again, if need be.
7. A messy Polling Day
It was unheard of in orderly Singapore, particularly in light of previous elections that had proceeded smoothly: long queues formed at several polling stations, with many senior citizens involved. The Elections Department (ELD) even did away with the need to wear disposable gloves while casting votes, in a bid to speed up the process.
Then for the first time ever, voting hours were extended for two hours, in order to give voters enough time to cast their votes. This sparked a protest from opposition parties like the PSP, who called the unprecedented move “highly irregular” and claimed it could compromise the integrity of the voting process. Events on Polling Day also cast doubt on the government’s claim that it was safe to hold an election amid the pandemic.
8. Raeesah Khan
The daughter of would-be presidential candidate Farid Khan, the 27-year-old became the unwitting centre of the WP Sengkang team following the police reports filed against her. She found herself facing the media and apologising for her remarks, albeit backed by her party chief Pritam Singh. And despite continual pressure to explain her social media posts, Raeesah remained silent for the remainder of the campaign.
What now for the Sengkang MP? The outspoken social activist – along with her teammates – has largely been outshone by Jamus Lim, who is often the target of attacks by the PAP. It has only been five months since the WP team’s victory in Sengkang, but it remains to be seen if she would be an effective advocate for her favoured causes.
9. Ivan Lim
Ivan Lim’s place in history is assured: the 42-year-old has gone down in history as having the shortest-lived political career of any PAP candidate, his bizarre appearance alongside the winning PAP team in Jurong on Polling Night notwithstanding.
It took all of three days before he withdrew as a candidate, amid online accusations of elitism and arrogance. With the PAP flailing in its communications strategy, Lim was even pressured by no less than DPM Heng, who called on him to respond to the accusations.
Despite his spectacular flameout, all 26 of the other new PAP candidates were elected, mainly via GRCs. But Lim’s experience should be a cautionary tale to all future candidates, as well as the PAP: be prepared to address any potential skeletons in the closet, while a clear communications strategy is vital.
10. Heng Swee Keat and the East Coast plan
It should have been a slam dunk: all DPM Heng had to do was give a simple thank-you speech and rally the party faithful on Nomination Day. There wasn’t even a crowd for him to address.
Instead, the PM-designate managed to mangle his words to such an extent that he was relentlessly mocked online. T-shirts with his quotes on the infamous “East Coast plan” are even being sold.
And as the campaign went on, Heng spoke less and less, as if he were still feeling the effects of that ill-fated speech. The penultimate press conference of the campaign was even helmed by Chan Chun Sing, his supposed rival for the premiership, with Heng nowhere in sight.
Months after the election, Heng remains the official successor to PM Lee. But will he go the distance? Many have their doubts.
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