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Singapore GE2020: Tactical surprises signal keen contests as parties vie for votes

One would have thought an election campaign held in the midst of Covid-19 would be calmer. The run-up to GE2020 so far has been anything but that.

The major parties had kept their cards close to their chest, leaving candidate introductions till after Parliament was dissolved and the Writ of Election issued.

Restrictions on mass campaigns have made social media a key battleground in what some see as an Internet election. One of its first casualties was People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate Ivan Lim, who withdrew his candidacy last Saturday, following a concerted online campaign against him over his alleged past behaviour.

Since then, several other candidates, from both the PAP and the opposition, have come under criticism for their past comments and actions.

In a departure from the past few general elections, the PAP did not publicly confirm its line-ups in constituencies where it expects a tough fight – till it was time to file nomination papers yesterday.

Many voters take national issues into account at the ballot box, and this time round, the pandemic as well as concerns over jobs and the handling of the economy will remain on top of voters’ minds.

But representing neighbourhoods matters as well – explaining why the PAP strengthened certain line-ups and kept its cards close to its chest to prevent any late switchovers from its opponents.

It kept its key masterstrokes till the very end: In East Coast GRC, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat helms the PAP team against a team from the Workers’ Party (WP) which has – as a party – been targeting the GRC since GE2006.

In West Coast GRC, Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran is joined by Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee as they face a challenge from former PAP stalwart Tan Cheng Bock, who was MP for Ayer Rajah from 1980 to 2006 and is adept at electoral campaigning.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in a post-nomination press conference at PAP headquarters: “These are tactical deployments which we do have to keep to ourselves until we judge the moment is right.”

The PAP was not the only party to do so.


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressing voters with his Ang Mo Kio GRC team – (from left) Mr Darryl David, Ms Ng Ling Ling, Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin and Mr Gan Thiam Poh – at the Deyi Secondary School nomination centre. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

The WP, traditionally the largest opposition player, did the same with the 21 candidates it fielded in four GRCs and two single-member constituencies (SMCs), announcing only its Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC line-ups before yesterday.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which fielded 11 candidates in two GRCs and three SMCs, similarly kept its late switches a secret – moving chairman Paul Tambyah to Bukit Panjang single-seat, as well as more recognisable members Benjamin Pwee and Tan Jee Say to Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC and Holland-Bukit Timah GRC respectively.

Dr Tan’s Progress Singapore Party (PSP) was registered last year but is the opposition party that is fielding the largest number of candidates this election – 24 – in four GRCs and five SMCs.

It also announced where it is contesting in advance, although questions were raised over whether Mr Lee Hsien Yang would eventually be fielded. He wasn’t.

The stakes are high – for both the ruling party and the opposition parties.

Yes, during a crisis there can be a flight to safety, PM Lee noted.

But the PAP is aware that this is not the happiest of times, he added.

“People are feeling the pain and the uncertainty because of the crisis, some acutely. The opposition is making the most of that,” he said.

“They’re well organised and prepared and will not roll over or go away. The PAP will have to fight for every vote and win every heart.”

WP chief Pritam Singh made a similar point to reporters in the party’s Hougang stronghold yesterday, saying: “The WP is always up against an opponent which is much more well resourced, and which always fights hard in every election. Obviously I want our candidates to do well, and to fight equally hard.”

Several other opposition leaders have said the crisis could see votes swing in favour of the PAP.

Mr Singh had, in launching his party’s manifesto on Sunday, also spoke of the risk of a “wipeout” of an elected opposition presence in Parliament.

Others have therefore sought to argue on the need for checks and balances, and one call making the rounds – on social media – is “32 seats to save Singapore”, referring to the number of opposition MPs needed to deny the government a two-thirds majority, which is required to amend the Constitution. It is also a figure that could alarm voters in the middle.

For its part, the PAP is keen to drive home the point that there will be a guaranteed minimum of 12 opposition MPs through the Non-Constituency MP scheme – with full voting rights, including on motions of confidence.

PM Lee stressed yesterday: “Whatever happens… there’s no possibility of the opposition being shut out from Parliament.”

Expect this to be an argument reiterated – as well as countered – over the coming days, with the possibility of further tactical surprises.

On the one hand, a strong government has enabled Singapore to respond swiftly to Covid-19 and marshal close to $100 billion over four Budgets to manage the healthcare response and save jobs.

On the other, more alternative voices and checks will help strengthen Singapore’s resilience and response to future crises like the present.

This will be the first election without physical rallies. But expect the messages to be driven home with vigour – whether on nightly TV programmes starting with party political broadcasts tomorrow and constituency political broadcasts over five days starting from Friday, or over online rallies by parties making their pitch to voters.

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