In the final stretch of an election campaign that was meant to showcase Singapore’s next generation of leaders, the ruling People’s Action Party banked on its veterans to shore up voters’ confidence in its brand.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s two former deputies were suddenly prominent in the national media, reinforcing Lee’s assurance on Monday that they would be by his side to pull Singapore through the coronavirus crisis.
Their chosen successors, fourth generation or “4G” ministers in Lee’s cabinet, have been fronting the government’s health care and economic response to the crisis, winning qualified approval both domestically and internationally. But they were less conspicuous in the media on the final day of campaigning, which has been more bruising than most predicted. Singaporeans go to the polls on Friday, with campaigning permitted until midnight on Wednesday.
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The nine-day campaign has been dramatically different from previous polls as physical rallies were banned and house-to-house visits limited to teams of five, turning the internet into the main venue for communicating positions and cornering opponents.
Against the heightened anticipation, comments by former deputy prime minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam were the subject of seven articles in the pro-establishment The Straits Times newspaper. A highly respected former finance minister, Tharman emphasised the PAP’s pledges to improve social mobility and ensure financial security for workers.
The website Channel NewsAsia, run by national broadcaster Mediacorp, featured as its top story former deputy prime minister Teo Chee Hean’s call for a strong government. Like Tharman, Teo was moved to a senior minister position last year to make way for the upcoming 4G leaders, including Heng Swee Keat, who as the sole deputy prime minister as well as finance minister is in line to succeed Lee.
Lee, 68, had previously said he would like to step down by the time he reaches 70, which is two years away. But in his lunchtime rally speech on Monday, he hinted the coronavirus crisis might compel him to delay the handover.
“You have my word: together with my older colleagues like (Senior Ministers) Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, as well as the 4G ministers, I will see this through,” he said at an online rally.
“I am determined to hand over Singapore, intact and in good working order, to the next team.”
The PAP’s 93 candidates are up against 99 challengers (of whom 98 belong to opposition parties, and one is an independent). They are contesting 17 multi-seat constituencies meant to ensure the representation of ethnic minorities in majority-Chinese Singapore, and 14 single seat constituencies.
The PAP has governed Singapore continuously since self-rule in 1959. In the last parliament, it held 83 out of 89 seats. Analysts expect it to win a large majority again, with a clean sweep of all 93 parliamentary seats possible if voters opt for stability.
The PAP’s closest rival, the Workers’ Party (WP), also reminded voters of its long history of service. It released a seven-minute video featuring former party leader Low Thia Khiang. Low, who is Singapore’s longest-serving opposition parliamentarian, is not contesting this election.
Low made a final appeal to the party’s core base of Mandarin-speaking voters to vote for an opposition presence in Parliament. Speaking in Mandarin, he pledged to remain involved in politics to groom younger opposition candidates.
WP’s younger candidates have been making waves. One is the economics professor Jamus Lim, 44, whose performance in the only televised debate during the campaign gave rise to memes and “fan cam” videos, which are mash-up videos of candidates with background music based on a trend in K-pop.
Lim was among three opposition politicians who faced Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, a debating champion in his schooldays.
Kenneth Paul Tan, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, called it a “David and Goliath moment”.
“David emerged strong and beautiful, against the odds, able to persuade voters that they should want to see more of him ” and others like him ” challenging the lumbering PAP orthodoxy in Parliament,” said Tan.
The attention on one of Lim’s team members, Raeesah Khan, 26, was less flattering. Two Facebook posts by the minority candidate are under investigation by the police for “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race” and flouting laws put in place to guard against racism. Khan, facing the media with WP chief Pritam Singh by her side, apologised and said she would cooperate fully with investigations.
Political scientist Bilveer Singh of NUS said Khan’s posts were “unacceptable by Singapore standards” but said the party had handled the crisis well.
“WP has done extraordinarily well in this regard to minimise the damage. It is not clear that there’s any vote-loss damage at this stage,” said Singh.
Lim and Khan are standing in the closely watched group constituency of Sengkang.
Reuben Wong, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, said other wards to watch included the WP stronghold of the Hougang single-seat ward, which it has held for close to three decades. Low, the veteran politician, represented it from 1991 to 2011 before handing it over to a party member so he could lead the team that fought for the multi-seat constituency of Aljunied in the May 2011 election. In 2015, the WP team retained Aljunied by a whisker of 2,616 votes.
Singh, who was flanked by Low as he spoke to reporters after a walkabout in the constituency on Wednesday said: “The PAP … is a very well resourced party, and has a very deep bench, and it’s not surprising that they have rolled out the heavyweights to fight the campaign. It’s what one ought to expect.”
He said his party equally had to do its best, pointing out that Low had joined the campaigning effort even as he continued his recovery following a serious fall in May. “Everybody is giving it their best shot.”
Also being closely watched is the new Progress Singapore Party (PSP), founded by 80-year-old Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP stalwart. The prime minister’s estranged brother Lee Hsien Yang has been campaigning for the PSP.
Tan is contesting in the West Coast group constituency, which included his former ward of Ayer Rajah, where he won six elections. He drew 88 per cent of the vote there in the 2001 polls before he retired from parliament in 2006. He shocked the establishment in 2011 when he decided to run for the presidency ” an elected, but largely ceremonial role ” against the PAP’s preferred candidate, a former deputy prime minister.
Speaking to reporters on the last day of the campaigning period, Tan said: “I hope, I think we have a good chance (to win),” he said.
“That’s all politicians … we always fight to win, not fight to lose,” he added.
Commenting on how the PAP had brought out its veterans for the final stages of the campaign, he said:
“(Veterans) are the leaders of the party. I would be surprised if they don’t come out and campaign. And that means they cannot depend on their 4G leaders alone… I always say that such a good man like Tharman, who should actually be a potential prime minister, has been left out. But now they realise they need him, they call him back ” that’s my assumption. So like any political party, closer to any election, at the end of it, you bring whoever you have, that will harness all the votes.”
Attention will also be focused on the Bukit Panjang single-member ward, which is contested by renowned infectious diseases doctor Paul Tambyah, who was last month elected as the president of the prestigious US-based International Society of Infectious Diseases.
Tambyah, who is chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party, is contesting a solo ward for the first time, having run unsuccessfully in a group constituency in 2015.
Wong said Tambyah was likely to improve on his 2015 performance. Bukit Panjang is a new ward, which means that Tambyah is not up against an incumbent. “He is also somebody who is eloquent and can talk sense and he is funny at the same time,” said Wong.
Three members of the PAP’s fourth-generation or 4G ministers ” Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, labour chief Ng Chee Meng and Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee ” jointly held a press conference to provide an update on the economic outlook and the government’s response in terms of financial measures and social safety nets.
Finance Minister Heng was not at the meeting, instead focusing on meet and greet sessions with voters in East Coast constituency, where the PAP emerged from one of its closest fights in 2015, scoring 60.7 per cent of the vote against the WP.
Heng, 59, was dispatched to defend the seat from another constituency where he coasted to victory in earlier polls, a move analysts said was aimed at showing the former central banker had the political chops to lead the party and country.
Wong of NUS said the stakes were high as the PAP’s game plan was for Heng to strengthen the team there.
“If he does not pull up the percentage, it’s not going to be good for him or the party. There will be questions raised on how much credibility … Heng has, to take over if he has a narrow margin of victory.”
Heng, who suffered a stroke four years ago during a cabinet meeting but made a rapid recovery to return to government, will lead a team to face a group from the WP featuring Nicole Seah, a second-time candidate who rose to prominence in the 2011 election.
Then with another opposition party, Seah was part of a team that went up against Singapore’s second prime minister Goh Chok Tong in a constituency he had held for more than three decades, scoring 43 per cent of the vote.
Ahead of voting that begins on Friday morning, Thursday has been designated a cooling-off day with no campaigning allowed, for voters to mull over the issues.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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