Singapore, and its ruling party the PAP has long prided itself on pragmatism. How pragmatic was it to hold an election in the midst of a pandemic?

The thinking behind it, at least according to leaked audio recordings of Chan Chun Sing, is that the electorate will flee for safety and into awaiting arms dressed in starched whites — a view also shared by respected academics like Bilveer Singh

The ground was ripe for another landslide election; oh how sweet the generous handouts are and how treacherous the economic climate looks like from here.

Yet the electorate handed the PAP a humiliating rebuke. While the ruling party has held on to 83 seats — some barely — it garnered only 61.24 percent of the total vote share — a hair’s breadth from the 60.14 percent in 2011.  In the words of Bukit Panjang SMC contender and leading infectious disease specialist Paul Tambyah, holding an election during a pandemic was “reckless and opportunistic”, not helped by images of long voting queues and reports of disorganisation.

There’s now a record 10 elected opposition MPs in parliament — the most ever since the days of Barisan Sosialis in the 1960s prior to Operation Coldstore.

Barisan Sosialis, Singapore’s biggest opposition in 1960s, formed by a breakway leftist faction of the PAP

The air feels different this time. 2011 was an angry election where the PAP was punished largely for its arrogance, uncalibrated immigration, and obscene ministerial salaries. The voters in Aljunied GRC handed the Worker’s Party its crown and sent well-liked former foreign minister George Yeo packing.

2020 in contrast has been marked by issues that actually concern democratisation. A new generation of voters who grew up with social media also had a political awakening hot on the heels of violent Hong Kong protests and racial justice behind Black Lives Matter. This demographic doesn’t read nor pay heed to government-controlled mainstream media.

Instead, it is one that is plugged into the currents of global affairs and the seamless movement of ideas. What this means, is that while social media is largely seen as an echo chamber, it is also a barometer for a large, younger swathe of the electorate (#byeboomers).

In the intense days of campaigning, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram became a battleground for hearts and minds. Memes and even regional tourism advertisements ridiculing Prime Minister-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat’s East Coast Plan went viral — nevermind that the ruling party has had a long history of persecuting those who create political cartoons.

While whether a meme is a political cartoon is debatable, the spirit behind it is the same.

Image credit: Tourism Malaysia

The party also got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. Ivan Lim was a massive gaffe — nobody wants to see another arrogant elite step into parliament, as was the shoddily written op-ed on the PAP website that took on a patronising tone against minorities who speak up against racial injustice.

Indeed, racial injustice became a major flashpoint these elections. As right wing factions sought to weaponise the police against MP Raeesah Khan for her left-leaning values, it angered minority voters and turned off Singaporeans who took a stand during the BLM protests. The ruling party’s press statement on the investigations was also deemed petty, and possibly nailed the coffin shut for Sengkang GRC.

Here was a well-spoken minority woman speaking up about class and racial injustice only to be gagged and shut down. This is not the first time that state organs were used against minority persons for speaking up about racism in the name of “racial harmony” and “not sowing discord”.

Contrast this with the bad press that associated Heng Swee Keat with the belief that older Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese PM. Now that his vote share is a miserable 53.41 percent, while Tharman Shanmugaratnam prevailed at 74.62 percent, will the party adopt a morally upright stance? Most importantly, will it adapt to the new paradigm of racial harmony where minorities can seek appropriate redress?

Illustration by @Nasuhadarke on Instagram

Two other aspects of democratisation come to the fore. Firstly, there was a loud chorus on the need for greater diversity in Parliament on social media. Infographics showing voting records and representations on parliamentary seats shone the spotlight on the voting monolith that has characterised Singapore politics for decades, post-independence.

For once, Singaporeans woke up to the fact that having an overwhelming one party presence in parliament deemed it pointless.

Phrases like “supermajority” were bandied about in a way it was not in 2011 nor 2015 — indicators that voters have become a lot more complex in the decision-making process as compared to the late 90s and early 2000s where concerns were largely municipal.

Secondly, the ruling party has formally conferred the title Leader of The Opposition to Pritam Singh — and this means that state resources will finally be rendered to him and his party in formulating arguments and policies for parliamentary debates.

This in effect legitimises the opposition as having a rightful place in the national conversation — a far cry from the days where critics are run down, sued, exiled or thrown behind bars. 

Democratisation, at least in Singapore, seems to go two ways: The people will want more, and the ruling party will cede more. The party may have kept 83 seats in parliament, but its vote share of 61.24% lacks political capital to push through anymore heavy handed legislation that seeks to silence critics.

The POFMA office sits on eggshells; its clueless trigger happy ways and issuing directives right left and centre on trivial matters are said to have been part of the party’s poor showing.

In other words, the ruling party has no choice but to heed the people’s wishes or risk further alienating the electorate.

And therein is what lies ahead for the PAP. The party is in dire need for ideological reform — a call that George Yeo issued nine years ago but has not been listened to. What has worked in the past will no longer resonate with younger voters and that trend will continue with Gen Z, raised by millennials with a different set of values, coming of age in the next election.

For all of this talk of democracy, and greater entrenchment of the opposition in parliament, none of this would’ve been possible had parties not fielded stellar candidates — a sign that the climate of fear surrounding opposition politics is now a thing of the past. Jamus Lim certainly wouldn’t have been out of place in the PAP. Opposition parties that put up well-known and eloquent candidates were handsomely rewarded, garnering over 40% of the vote share in their respective wards.

Singapore’s political system has always been that of an illiberal democracy, and a democracy is more than a political system. It is a behaviour. It takes time. The results ring clear that plurality and checks and balances is what the electorate wants because it is a pragmatic safeguard.

Holding an election during a pandemic is the last thing from being pragmatic. And for that, the people have given the ruling party a whipping.

The message is loud and simple: change or be changed.

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