As Singapore enters a lockdown that the authorities won’t call a lockdown, one burning question remains: when will the government call for an election?
Next week, the government will table a bill to enable elections during the Covid-19 outbreak. With Parliament dominated by the People’s Action Party, the Bill is practically guaranteed to pass. The only question remains is what form it will take.
Anywhere else in the world, even contemplating elections in such a time is madness. But Singapore is Uniquely Singapore, and the government will do what it wants to do.
After all, the government stands to win tremendously if it holds the elections soon.
In the next general election, Singapore is poised to transition to the fourth generation of political leadership. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has repeatedly signalled his plans to hand over the reigns of power to his future successors.
To legitimize the new regime, the government will want to hold elections and secure an overwhelming majority vote.
At the same time, the government does not want to take any chances. Historically, the government has done everything in its power to hobble the opposition and stifle alternative media, giving itself every advantage in the elections. A pandemic election is a golden opportunity to entrench the power of the Establishment and sweep the opposition from Parliament for the next four years.
The Crippled Opposition
Unlike other countries, Singapore’s opposition parties are stymied by a host of government regulations and measures. They must put up election deposits to contest a ward, they must secure minority-race candidates to stand in Group Representative Constituencies, and it is no secret that the mainstream media favours the PAP.
Opposition politicians are part-time politicians. Irrespective of their political ambitions, they must support their families. They must work. Only elected Members of Parliament are capable of serving as full-time politicians, as they enjoy a monthly allowance. With only a handful of Opposition MPs at any one time, the majority of the Opposition are part-timers by necessity.
But this part-time approach to politics is their greatest weakness. An election cycle runs for a maximum of five years. For four out of five years, you will barely hear a peep from the Opposition.
This is not to say they don’t do anything. They have newsletters, community events, social media. But it is not enough.
I have only ever seen Opposition newsletters during election cycles — and I live in an Opposition-held ward. Community events are limited to the community they live in, with little to no connection to wider politics. Singapore’s social media scene is relatively free — that is, it faces the least restrictions — but the opposition barely use them to communicate their message. Indeed, it is hard to tell if they do have a message.
Singapore has a strange approach to politics. For four and a half years, there is mostly silence. Then, when the elections are confirmed, suddenly new players emerge, politicians pledge themselves for various parties, complex manifestos appear, and the hustings begin.
The Opposition does not maintain active political messaging campaigns in between election cycles. What political messaging and activities they do present are mostly reactive, in response to current events or government legislation. There is no consistent messaging, no general sense of what each party stands for beyond simply serving as a check and balance against the PAP. They rarely take the initiative to seize the spotlight.
While the Opposition has social media pages, they are woefully underused. They post speeches from Parliament — which tend to be long and dry and inaccessible to the people. They share their latest walkabouts and outreach sessions, which may make people feel good but share nothing about what they stand for. But until the elections come, they don’t talk about their beliefs, their ideas, their aspirations; they don’t have any significant messaging or branding exercises until the hustings are imminent.
Where other political parties elsewhere in the world have platforms and ideologies and manifestos, Singapore’s opposition politics are heavily reliant on personalities. Opposition politicians swim from one party to another in between cycles, sometimes helping each other out during the elections. There is no distinctive identity and branding among the smaller Opposition parties, and even the larger ones lack a memorable platform that appeals to the people.
The Opposition compensates for their lack of consistent political messaging through mass rallies during the general elections. Rallies are the cornerstone of their campaign strategy.
And with the outbreak, they have been disarmed of their most potent weapon.
Who Loses the Least?
To be sure, I’m not terribly sympathetic towards the opposition. I’ve been warning about it since I was a teenager, in the early days of my blog. I’ve harped on the need for constant presence in between election cycles. The Opposition stuck to its old ways, remaining reliant on rallies.
With rallies and face time banned, campaigning will have to move online and to print and broadcast media. These are precisely the areas which the opposition are weakest in. They have not developed significant messaging capability on the Internet, even on their own pages, and everybody knows who the mainstream media will side with.
The alternative media — namely, The Online Citizen — will attempt to cover the Opposition fairly. However, TOC’s Chief Editor, Terry Xu, as well as TOC writer Danisha Hakeem are facing contempt of court charges. If the Chief Editor were jailed, TOC would effectively cease operations — or at least suffer a significant blow — until his return. The implications for the Opposition should be obvious.
It is true that the PAP will also be unable to employ rallies. But they are the government. Everybody knows what the government stands for. Open a newspaper or watch the news and you will see the government in action, and with those actions, the PAP’s brand. From a political perspective, the PAP has the least to lose from Covid-19 — and everything to gain.
Covid-19 has exposed the flaw in the Opposition’s strategy. If the government runs an election now, the opposition will pay dearly.
A Question of Timing
The government can endure criticism from the Opposition. But it knows that it needs to retain popular support to ensure its legitimacy — especially for the next generation of the political leadership.
Talking about the election now has roused great anger among the people. A (now-removed) poll by Lianhe Zaobao revealed that 84% of readers do not want to hold an election now. With community transmissions accelerating, it’s only prudent not to hold any elections.
Any elections will likely take place in the second half of the year, if not next year. Long enough time for disease control measures to kick in and reduce risk to a (politically) acceptable level.
The great risk here is that if the elections are held too soon, the opposition can legitimately accuse the government of risking the lives of the people for political advantage. That will spur a backlash unlike anything in recent history. Not to mention risking the emergence of new infection clusters all over the country.
But the government can’t wait too long either. The PAP’s branding has always been stability and prosperity. Covid-19 has disrupted the global economy, taking Singapore with it. While the government has announced relief measures, it can only soften the blow. It will take a long time, perhaps years, to recover. If the PAP waits for too long, they may run the risk of current events contradicting their branding. That will cause their image to suffer.
Hence this talk about elections now. To lay the foundations for elections soon, because the PAP knows that now the Opposition is severely disadvantaged, and that if they wait too long they will be disadvantaged.
The Soul of the New Regime
The true tragedy of this situation is that there is no need to even talk about elections. Per the Constitution, elections must be held by April 2021. A full year from now.
The government may pride itself on being far-sighted and on long-term thinking, but in a crisis like this, it is far too long-term for the people to swallow.
The right move — the only ethical move — would be to dismiss all talk of an election altogether. Even tabling the bill would be out of the question. The government must emphasize saving lives and salvaging the economy. It must show the people that it places the people first — both their lives and their livelihoods. Even the Opposition cannot fault them for this.
The government can revisit the issue of the election in December, even January or February. Perhaps earlier if the outbreak clears by then. If, in the worst case scenario, Covid-19 is still rampant by January 2021, the government may then be able to talk about emergency measures for elections. Including declaring a state of emergency until the crisis passes.
Which, I should point out, rather conveniently leaves the PAP in power for the duration of the emergency.
The PAP could have chosen to stay silent about the elections. It could have focused its messaging on saving lives and the economy, and reaped the rewards later. Instead, it chose to talk about elections now, at a time when it would benefit the most — even if it means risking the lives of the citizens.
What does this say about the 4G leadership?
Fortunately, Singapore isn’t in any danger of experiencing truly dirty politics anything soon. To see how bad a dystopian society can truly get, check out my cyberpunk action horror novel BABYLON BLUES here!
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