The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Singapore ruling party holds on to supermajority, but with historic losses

Voters practice social distancing while lining up at a polling station in Singapore on Friday. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

After gambling on holding a vote in the midst of a pandemic and a recession, Singapore’s ruling party predictably won the general election — but with one of the smallest vote shares in the party’s history, and conceded a historic number of seats to the opposition.

There was little doubt that the ruling People’s Action Party, which has been in power since 1959, would hold on to its supermajority. But its share of the popular vote fell to 61 percent, from 70 percent in 2015. The Workers’ Party, the main opposition, managed to wrangle more seats away from the ruling party, winning 10 out of 93 seats — the most ever held by opposition lawmakers.

The results reflect a mounting challenge to the PAP’s dominance in the city-state and a growing desire for a plurality of voices in the legislature.

“We have a clear mandate, but the percentage of the popular vote is not as high as I had hoped for,” Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a news conference Saturday morning after the results. He characterized the election not as a “feel-good” moment, but one that reflects the “pain and uncertainty that Singaporeans feel in this crisis.”

As the country enters into a recession, “there was a sense that [Singapore] needed something different from the economy,” said Linda Lim, a professor at the University of Michigan who focuses on political economies of Southeast Asia. “But what the government came up with was the same, there were no fresh ideas.”

When polls opened Friday morning, thermometers and hand sanitizer were at the ready. Face-masked Singaporeans stood in snaking lines to cast their vote, putting on disposable gloves before marking an X next to their preferred political party. Voting was extended by two hours, as the new public health measures delayed the process. By the end of the day, 96 percent of the electorate had cast their votes, the highest voter turnout since independence.

The opposition had widely criticized the ruling PAP for holding a vote in the midst of a pandemic, labeling it opportunistic. Once considered a model for how to keep covid-19 at bay, Singapore saw cases swell in April, disproportionately affecting migrant workers housed in overcrowded dormitories. So far, it has recorded over 45,600 infections, among the worst in the region, and 26 deaths. There is no absentee voting in Singapore, and voters had to be there in person — a potential major health risk.

The PAP however argued that it needed a clear mandate to guide citizens through the economic and public health crisis. Lee argued that investors would “scrutinize the results, and act on their conclusions,” and criticized the opposition for championing ideas like a minimum wage or a universal basic income. The ruling party has argued a minimum wage would make Singapore less competitive.

“Some of the arguments that were advanced in this election by the leaders of the PAP — why it was imperative that they had the strongest possible mandate, or a clean sweep of seats — were obviously self serving and weak arguments,” said Garry Rodan, an emeritus professor at Australia’s Murdoch University who has long studied Singapore. “It probably ended up being counterproductive, and might have even swung some people that were sitting on the fence to support an opposition candidate.”

Singapore also has tight controls on speech, including stringent “fake news” laws that critics say have been weaponized against political opponents. Holding an election during the coronavirus outbreak meant that rallies, which have attracted new voters to the opposition in the past, could not be held. Only a nine-day campaigning period was allowed.

The People’s Action Party “does not have a monopoly on the best ideas on how we should bring society forward,” argued economist and Workers’ Party candidate Jamus Lim in a televised debate. His party, Lim said, wanted to deny the PAP a “blank check.”

Lim was part of the team that won a newly created electoral district, known as Sengkang. It was only the second time in history the opposition has won a group representation constituency (GRC), a type of electoral district in Singapore in which a group of candidates, instead of an individual, contests. The party also defended its existing constituencies, winning its stronghold of Aljunied with a significantly wider margin than in the last elections in 2015.

Lee, who has helmed Singapore since 2004, is the eldest son of Singapore’s first prime minister and founding father Lee Kuan Yew. In this election, his brother, Lee Hsien Yang, came out against the prime minister and instead lent his support to a new opposition party, spotlighting a deepening feud within a family once considered untouchable in Singapore politics. Lee Kuan Yew served as Singapore’s prime minister for more than three decades.

Analysts have long argued that future PAP leaders will struggle to continue the party’s absolute dominance in Singapore, as the young in particular push for greater social mobility, discourse on subjects like race and religion and other topics that were long considered taboo by the center-right party.

Race bubbled to the surface in the election, after Raeesah Khan, a candidate for the Workers’ Party, was targeted for comments on social media that accused the police of treating ethnic minorities differently from the Chinese majority in Singapore. Her posts, which were made on social media two years ago, prompted the filing of two police reports, for allegedly stoking animosity between different racial groups — an offense in the city-state.

Khan was among the team that won in Sengkang and will be a new member of parliament.

“The PAP is playing by an old playbook in a new world,” said Linda Lim, the Michigan professor. “But a lot of people are having a visceral reaction to this, including the bullying.”