Singapore election: At halfway mark, campaign presents choice between reliability and diversity in Parliament

PHOTO: The Straits Times

With four days left in a nine-day campaign period, Singapore’s July 10 election may boil down to a stark choice between the “reliability and security” offered by the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) and the diversity represented by the opposition, according to a prominent pollster.

David Black, founder of the Singapore-based Blackbox Research, said that although bread-and-butter issues will guide voters’ decisions in the extraordinary pandemic-plagued polls, the simple binary question looms largest.

This continues a similar trend from past elections in Singapore, which has been governed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s PAP since 1959, Black told a local radio station on Saturday.

Ultimately the campaign has been framed by “this idea of … vote for what you know, the kind of idea of reliability and security, versus this other issue of voting for a kind of wider representation,” he told Money FM.

“So I think you’re seeing that play out on top of the issues as well … sometimes I think observers tend to go, ‘voters are going to be voting about this issue or that’ when often in campaigns it boils down to kind of simple choices.”

Lee has also sought to paint the contest between his party and its key rival, the Workers’ Party (WP), as a clear-cut choice, saying the WP represents “PAP-lite” as its platform is largely based on the ruling’s party’s plans.

“I tell you, why do you want to settle for PAP-lite? The real thing is much better,” Lee said during an e-rally on Saturday.

Earlier in the campaign, WP chief Pritam Singh rejected that criticism, saying the “proof of the pudding was in the eating”. Singh said: “If that was the case, I hope the PAP takes up all our manifesto points and introduces them into their agenda.”

Asked by This Week in Asia on Saturday for his views on voters’ key concern at the halfway mark of the campaign, Singh said he had heard from many voters about anxieties over jobs.

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“Rather than challenge the PAP on that, because they have got a very difficult job in that regard and they are going to form the government – I think our role as the opposition is to make sure that when we represent the people in parliament, we are bringing their voices into parliament on that front,” Singh said.

During his online rally, Lee said “the opposition parties all say they want to help workers … but they have no plan to deal with the crisis”.

Such exchanges between the two parties have been a feature of the first five days of the nine-day hustings sprint.

The PAP is contesting all 93 seats, fielding candidates in the country’s 17 group representation constituencies (GRC) and 14 single seat constituencies.

The WP – the sole opposition group in the last parliament – is contesting 21 seats and is considered likely to challenge the PAP in precincts in the east and northeast of the city state such as Sengkang GRC. Lee campaigned for the ruling party’s candidates there during Saturday’s online rally.

The WP is the incumbent in the five-seat Aljunied GRC and the single-seat ward of Hougang.

The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) – which was founded by former PAP stalwart Tan Cheng Bock and counts Prime Minister Lee’s estranged brother Lee Hsien Yang among its supporters – is contesting 24 seats. Eight other opposition parties are also contesting the election.

Mass rallies have been banned due to the pandemic, ensuring much of the political sparring has occurred through the media and online.

Immigration, the PAP’s plans to increase the goods and services tax and the WP’s claim that the country risks a “wipeout” of alternative parliamentary voices have been among the flashpoints. The unusual nature of the campaign has also been discussed.

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Black told Money FM that the PAP’s digital campaigning came across as “glossy”, formal and authoritative. The WP appeared to have a “mastery of all the big issues and the main topics so that they kind of portray themselves as a kind of match to the PAP”, he said. The PSP’s online presence, while not as slick, was “homespun” and “heartfelt”, Black said.

Also talking to Money FM, former PAP lawmaker Inderjit Singh said social media chatter did not offer a complete picture of voter sentiment. He said the country’s so-called Pioneer Generation – those aged 71 or older – are likely not privy to conversations online, where many appear to back the opposition .

“So while we think that the social media is giving a balanced view of the PAP and the opposition, I think the ones who are not being reached may be entrenched in their belief that the PAP is the right party,” said Singh, a ruling party MP from 1996-2015.

Younger voters will have worries about jobs squarely on their minds, he said. Many so-called Gen X and Gen Y voters, or those currently 40 or younger, are “not so sure that they can get the jobs they would like to do,” Singh said. These voters also want to see “greater debate [and] greater discussions before policies are being formulated,” he added.

Similar anxieties exist among the “sandwiched and squeezed” Baby Boomers who are anxious about job security and having enough resources to “support their children to also have a good life,” Singh said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.