Tashryn Mohd Shahrin
MA International Relations
University of Pécs
When Singapore decided to dissolve Parliament and go forth with holding General Elections on 10th July, it had the second-highest coronavirus record in Southeast Asia (CSIS). This was despite the fact that low-wage migrant workers were still testing positive in the hundreds every day and community infections were unrelenting in the city-state. Health Minister Gan Kim Yong is even cautioning Singaporeans on the possible onslaught of a second wave in the current post-election period (Straits Times).
What are some reflections we can gather from this unique election?
Having an election in the middle of a pandemic is not only distasteful but presents important risks; spreading infection and depreciating democratic legitimacy. In-person voting involves lining up and touching polling booth equipment, which can be dangerous without careful procedures. Furthermore, COVID-related measures that were introduced – including those under the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Act 2020 – fail to ensure a fair campaigning process during the pandemic, or protect the voting rights of specific groups like the sick and overseas voters.
“Singapore has until April 2021 to hold the election. There is no need to rush into organising one so soon, especially as the country continues to record hundreds of new daily coronavirus cases. There is no reason why the authorities are unable to accommodate all voters, and the possible exclusion of specific groups will only further undermine the legitimacy of the poll,” said Teddy Baguilat Jr., the executive director of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a former Philippine member of Parliament (APHR).
To make matters more complicated, voting is deemed compulsory in Singapore where citizens are expected to show up and cast their vote at polling stations that are set up across the country. For those who should have voted but did not, their names will be removed from the Register of Electors and these non-voters would then no longer be allowed to vote at subsequent elections, and are disqualified from being an election candidate in the future. In light of these consequences, how can we be sure that the rules do not threaten those who are fearful of being in public amongst other voters in a pandemic situation? People should not be coerced to sacrifice their health for elections that the government so impetuously decided to organize. Voting is a basic human right and every vote can tip the balance in favor of any political party that will determine Singapore’s future. It is blatant disenfranchisement, should any Singaporean choose to prioritize his or her health over exercising this basic human right.
Looking at the results, Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) won a supermajority in Parliament with 61.24% of vote share (CNA) but the real victory lies with the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) that has made significant inroads by claiming its second Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in the polls held amidst Covid-19.
Political observers have opined that the vote swing towards opposition parties this time has shown that people care more about social justice and diverse representation in the government – beyond the PAP’s manifesto and campaign that was centered around saving jobs and lives. There are no qualms in that Singaporeans are beginning to realize the more important issues that determine the bedrock of a true democratic society such as social inequality and welfare. Especially younger voters, who are unyielding about having more accountability and transparency in the government as seen from their adamant voices both online and offline.
In retrospect, having the elections during the coronavirus outbreak denigrates the fair and due process of normal campaigning which is gainful for candidates to reach out to voters. Some opposition lawmakers also advised against conducting elections while pandemic regulations severely limit traditional campaigning, since Singapore criminalized the breaching of its stringent social-distancing measures. Mass rallies, a primary campaigning method, is especially affected and can peripherally be seen as a political ploy tilting in favor of the ruling party. A party – who also asked for a strong mandate that translates into fully elected Parliament seats (over 90%) to govern. This definitely raises some eyebrows particularly because after the last General Election in 2015 when the PAP won 69% of votes, the government used a similar strong mandate narrative to change the Constitution i.e. the rules of the political game. These are just some of the structural flaws that prevent the election from being fair and free, underscoring the Prime Minister’s broad powers over the whole electoral process that lack any effective oversight.
Notwithstanding the use of a group constituency system where candidates run as a team combined with the short campaigning period of 9 days and confining media restrictions, these difficulties on the opposition to field candidates and prepare adequately beforehand did not refrain them from coming on strong. Together with eligible voters who have to endure a limited civic space fraught with authorities using draconian laws to target political opponents and silence critical voices, the results of GE2020 are by vast margins, a fragile victory.
This victory, is the mark of Singaporeans awakening to their own power and learning that there is more space to work towards a proper functioning democracy.
n.d. Southeast Asia Covid-19 Tracker. Retrieved from: https://www.csis.org/programs/southeast-asia-program/southeast-asia-covid-19-tracker-0
Tay, T.F. (2020) Coronavirus: Community cases remain low but Singapore should prepare for second wave, says Gan Kim Yong. The Straits Times, July 17. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/coronavirus-community-cases-remain-low-but-singapore-should-prepare-for-second-wave-says
Chew, H.M. (2020) COVID-19: Recommended time-bands for voters to cast ballots among new safety measures for elections. Channel News Asia, June 8. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/covid-19-general-election-voting-polling-time-band-safety-12815466
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (2020). In Singapore, an already unfair vote undermined by COVID-19. APHR, Jakarta. Retrieved from: https://aseanmp.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/APHR_Briefer_SingaporeElections_2020-06-16-1.pdf