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In Singapore, an Orderly Election and a (Somewhat) Surprising Result

2020-07-11 02:04:42

Face-masked citizens lined up to vote in Singapore on Friday, with plenty of space separating them from each other. Their temperatures had been checked. Before receiving their ballots, they spritzed their hands with sanitizer, and many put on disposable gloves.

If any country could successfully carry out a general election during a global pandemic, it was surely Singapore, a rich, manicured city-state with a population that has largely been conditioned to follow the rules.

The winner was never in doubt, either, even though balloting was extended by two hours to accommodate the long lines.

But while victory went to the center-right People’s Action Party, which has held power longer than any other elected political party in the world, results released early Saturday showed a surprising slip in its support. Its share of the popular vote fell to 61 percent, a nearly nine-point swing from elections five years ago. The leading opposition party took a record 10 of Parliament’s 93 seats.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the 68-year-old son of the nation’s founding father, said he would stay at the helm until the coronavirus crisis passed, and he acknowledged his weakened mandate.

“The results reflect the pain and anxiety that Singaporeans feel in this crisis, the loss of income, the anxiety about jobs,” Mr. Lee said early Saturday morning.

If calling an election during a pandemic was meant to showcase the steady hand of a party that has used Singapore’s greatest strengths — deep coffers, technocratic professionalism and a belief in science and technology — to battle the coronavirus, the campaign also highlighted divisions in a society that, like many others in the developed world, is struggling with a changing geopolitical and economic landscape.

Several of the parliamentary races proved surprisingly competitive, and high-profile candidates from the governing party lost their contests. Besides adding four seats to its previous showing, the opposition Workers’ Party won more than 10 percent of the popular vote for the first time.

“Singapore rode the wave of globalization to great heights, but with Covid, we’re entering a period of deglobalization that leaves Singapore’s economy very vulnerable,” Bridget Welsh, a political scientist focused on Southeast Asia, said before the results were announced.

“From the outside, Singapore looks like a great success story and in many ways it is, but there are legitimate questions being raised about what it aspires to be in this new era,” Ms. Welsh added.

The People’s Action Party promised, above all, stability and competence. Having led Singapore since even before independence in 1965, the party claims credit for transforming a resource-starved backwater on the tip of peninsular Southeast Asia into one of the most prosperous nations on the planet.

The coronavirus has ripped through crowded dormitories housing 200,000 foreign laborers, infecting tens of thousands, but Singapore has kept its death toll from the pandemic to just 26 people. Job losses and a looming recession have been blunted by a relief effort costing more than $70 billion, the People’s Action Party said. While Singapore has no minimum wage and at least 10 percent of its households are considered poor by some estimates, extensive public housing for citizens ensures a kind of social safety net, according to the governing party.

For the 10 opposition parties that ran against the People’s Action Party, the campaign was less an attempt to unseat a political behemoth than an effort to inject different viewpoints into the national conversation. The smallest mandate the governing party has ever received was a 60 percent victory in 2011, a shade worse than Friday’s showing.

“What we are trying to deny them is a blank check, and that is what I think this election is about,” Jamus Lim, an economist and candidate for the Workers’ Party, said in an online debate during the campaign.

Mr. Lim won a seat in Parliament.

Singapore’s political strictures, along with social distancing measures, put even more roadblocks in the way of an opposition trying to gather momentum.

The campaign season was only nine days long. A “fake news” law that came into force last year was seen as having a chilling effect on online debate. Because of the coronavirus restrictions, electoral rallies were banned. Nor was electoral polling allowed.

The short campaign period was dominated by personal vitriol, particularly a spat between Mr. Lee and his younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, a former brigadier general and business executive who joined the opposition Progress Singapore Party last month.

Their father, Lee Kuan Yew, co-founded the People’s Action Party and served as prime minister for more than three decades.

The senior Mr. Lee steered the ethnically Chinese-dominated city-state to independence in 1965, after it broke off from the new country of Malaysia. He embraced rules and order, championing Confucian virtues.

Today, most Singaporeans are still of Chinese descent, but about 40 percent of the country’s 5.7 million residents are foreign-born. Under racial harmony laws, people who stoke religious or racial enmity can spend up to three years in jail.

Last year, Heng Swee Keat, the deputy prime minister and presumptive successor to Mr. Lee, said that older Singaporeans were “not ready” for a leader who is not ethnically Chinese. Mr. Heng won his race on Friday by a relatively narrow margin.

​On Sunday, Raeesah Khan, a ​​candidate for the Workers’ Party​​, apologized for comments on social media that accused the police of treating ethnic minorities and migrant workers more harshly than whites or rich Chinese. Her commentary prompted the filing of two police reports, the Singapore police confirmed.

“Systemic racism is a reality in Singapore,” said Jolovan Wham, a social worker and activist who has campaigned for migrant workers’ rights.

Members of ethnic minority groups have feared that if they publicly challenge racism, they may be subjected to investigations by the police, said Mr. Wham, who spent a week in prison this year for criticizing Singapore’s courts.

“Self-censorship has become the norm,” he added. “The lack of freedom of expression in Singapore has made it difficult to have authentic and honest debates about important issues affecting us.”

Still, Ms. Khan won a seat in Parliament. At 26, she will be the youngest member of the legislature.

Young Singaporeans, some of whom have expressed their political views in boisterous online forums, are part of a global discourse about privilege and power, said Donald Low, a former high-ranking civil servant in Singapore who now teaches at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Some prominent members of the governing party have pushed back against the notion that they are beneficiaries of a system that unfairly rewards an ethnically Chinese elite.

“To deny to young ethnic minorities that a well-to-do Chinese man isn’t privileged, that there isn’t prejudice in society, is incredibly patronizing,” said Mr. Low.

At a news conference early Saturday, Mr. Lee acknowledged that the country’s youth were yearning for a diversity of political voices.

“The younger voters also want to see more opposition presence in Parliament,” he said.

Singapore’s prosperity depends on the sweat of its million or so low-wage migrant workers, who help keep the city neat, efficient and breathtakingly modern.

Unlike other expatriates who can eventually qualify for permanent residency, these migrants, who are mostly from South Asia and China, work in Singapore knowing they are temporary members of society.

“The setting up of new dorms with more space is not a silver bullet,” K. Shanmugam, Singapore’s law minister, said in an interview. Cruise ships, he noted, are luxurious, yet the coronavirus still spread quickly within their shared spaces.

But the public health crisis among Singapore’s migrant workers has catalyzed a debate about the fundamental structure of the nation’s hyper-globalized economy.

“The real problem is our overreliance on low-cost foreign labor,” said Mr. Low, a former director of fiscal policy at the Singaporean ministry of finance.

“What this has revealed,” he added, “is not just systemic injustice for foreign workers, but also something that is a stain on Singapore’s veneer of technocratic modernity and superior governance.”


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