Thursday, 16 July 2020

GE2020: Lessons learnt from Singapore's first true Internet election

Online engagement, authenticity are vital, but may not always translate into votes
By Hariz Baharudin and Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 15 Jul 2020

While physical rallies were absent during the hustings for the recently concluded general election, some politicians did not seem to need them.

By the midpoint of the campaign, Progress Singapore Party (PSP) chief Tan Cheng Bock was able to reach out to 12,000 followers with each Instagram post - thrice the capacity of Clementi Stadium, where rallies for West Coast GRC were held in past elections.

The veteran politician wooed younger voters online by posting videos of himself responding to their attempts to educate him on slang terms like "woke".

Dr Tan, who now has over 70,000 Instagram followers - more than local celebrities like TV personality Denise Keller and rapper Sheikh Haikel - was among the politicians who thrived in what experts have dubbed Singapore's "first truly Internet election".


Political parties have traditionally relied on mass rallies to rouse the electorate and drum up support. But this time, restrictions on large gatherings due to COVID-19 measures saw the battle for hearts and minds take place mostly in the digital realm.

Some observers have argued that an Internet campaign benefits the opposition parties, as it enables them to raise their profiles quickly, affordably and widely.

And even though the Internet had been around during the past three or four elections, it was the current social distancing restrictions that necessitated the use of online campaigning by parties and candidates, said Associate Professor Eugene Tan from Singapore Management University's School of Law.

"For many voters, it was their only means of finding out information about parties, their candidates and their policy platforms," he added.

AN ONLINE ADVANTAGE?

In lieu of physical rallies, parties held talk shows - such as Straight Talk by the People's Action Party (PAP) and the Hammer Show by the Workers' Party (WP).

These programmes allowed parties to engage with voters on a more intellectual level than at physical rallies, where voters can be moved by emotion, noted Prof Tan.

The Singapore Democratic Party and Peoples Voice also featured candidates' speeches on their Facebook pages.



All 11 parties in this year's general election had their own e-rallies and participated in televised constituency political broadcasts.

Such efforts gave voters a better sense of the parties' ideas, said former Nominated Member of Parliament Lim Sun Sun, who is head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

"Unlike public rallies where candidates tend to engage in histrionics and grandstanding, the e-rallies and public broadcasts were calmer and more measured, thereby enabling voters to concentrate on the substance of the issues and the strength of the arguments," she said.

Dr Natalie Pang, a senior lecturer in the communications and new media department at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said the online hustings gave voters opportunities to hear from more parties and candidates, compared with the past, when there was a limit to the number of rallies they could attend.

But the glut of content also resulted in "information overload", said NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser, with netizens finding it hard to follow all the political discussions online.



Dr Felix Tan, an associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said political parties could have missed out on engaging some segments of society, such as senior voters who are tech-averse.

Another disadvantage of e-rallies instead of physical ones is that parties lose opportunities to connect emotionally to voters, said experts.

Parties also lose the opportunity to raise funds by selling merchandise or appealing for donations at physical rallies, said Prof Eugene Tan.

The PAP was returned to power after winning 83 of 93 seats with 61.24 per cent of the votes, down from the 69.9 per cent vote share it received in the 2015 General Election.

Notwithstanding the vote swing against the ruling party, political watchers reckon the absence of physical rallies this time round could have hurt the performance of some opposition parties at the polls.



The setting of a physical rally, which involves a candidate speaking before a large crowd, has a more performative element than the more sober tone of Internet campaigning, said Professor Ang Peng Hwa from Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

This would have allowed opposition party candidates - who typically attract larger crowds at rallies - to appeal to voters on an emotional level and sway them, he said.

Agreeing, Prof Eugene Tan said physical rallies could possibly have affected some of the outcomes in closely fought constituencies - narrow wins by the PAP could have become marginal losses.

WHAT WORKED ONLINE?

Videos that appealed to viewers' emotions and came across as being authentic were some of the best forms of online campaigning material, and experts said the WP did especially well in this regard.

NTU Adjunct Professor Hong Hai, a PAP MP from 1988 to 1991, said the WP's strategy - stressing the need to deny the PAP a blank cheque - rode on voters' grievances over issues ranging from inequality and Central Provident Fund withdrawals to housing and the high cost of medical services.

"The ruling party has an inherent disadvantage in such discourses as all it can reasonably offer is more of the same, and that does not tug at the heartstrings," he said.

Prof Ang added that the WP was able to make up for the lack of the "performative" element of rallies by connecting to viewers online.

He cited a video by the WP where it introduced some of its new candidates. The 15-second teaser, released soon after Parliament was dissolved on June 23, featured WP members looking at the camera while making movements like sitting down, smiling and adjusting their appearance. It has been shared more than 2,000 times.

"(The video) is done in a very casual way, it appeals to the average person," Prof Ang said.



Personalities like PSP's Dr Tan, WP's Nicole Seah and Jamus Lim, as well as the PAP's political office-holders helped parties drum up interest in their campaigns.

Professor Lim Sun Sun noted that Ms Seah and Dr Tan used their Instagram accounts to notify supporters about where they would be, and engaged them by resharing their posts or stories, which built a "virtuous circle of more supporters posting content endorsing them".

As for the PAP, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's strong Facebook following of more than 1.6 million users boosted the ruling party's social media reach, said Prof Ang.

During the hustings, videos about PM Lee's walkabouts and the PAP's outreach efforts in various constituencies were shared on the Prime Minister's page. "Quite clearly, a lot of effort had been put into (PM Lee's) Facebook page, which is amazingly well done," said Prof Ang, noting that compared with those of other Singaporean politicians, the page has the largest following.

But the PAP's social media presence, which was in line with the party's "business-like and task-oriented" image, did not help it to stand out online, experts said.

Data from media monitoring platform Meltwater, which tracked political parties' pages from July 1 to 10, found that while the PAP made the most Facebook posts, it did not drive the most engagement to its page.

During this period, the PAP made 121 Facebook posts, and its party page saw about 131,000 interactions - likes, comments, reactions and shares on Facebook.

This is much less than the almost 300,000 interactions the WP had on its Facebook page that were largely derived from 78 posts. The PSP saw about 122,000 interactions on its Facebook page, from a total of 54 posts.



WERE VOTERS SWAYED?

While the WP far surpassed the PAP in terms of the level of engagement on Facebook, observers said such engagement does not necessarily translate into actual votes.

Associate Professor Terence Lee, who researches Singapore media and politics at Murdoch University, said such data sheds light only on whether a particular person or post attracts viewership or virality.

A case in point is Reform Party candidate Charles Yeo, who spawned a series of viral posts following his Mandarin speech during the constituency political broadcast for Ang Mo Kio GRC.

"You will find a lot of online 'noise' generated, but very few would have gone on to cast a vote for him," said Prof Lee.

Data on social media engagement is also less meaningful when no further analysis is conducted to measure whether these are positive or negative reactions, said Prof Ang.

Rather, a party's or candidate's dominance on social media must first be based on some substance - a policy position or strength of an argument - before it can translate to positive outcomes, added Prof Lee.

Agreeing, Dr Pang said whether social media posts translate into a vote depends on both the persuasiveness of the message as well as how effectively it was put out.

"The WP's dominance on social media has been a combination of the two," she said, noting that the party was able to put out carefully crafted, clear and coherent messaging in very well-designed forms.

Prof Ang said that theoretically, closed platforms used predominantly for interpersonal communication, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, may have a larger impact on the vote share than platforms that are more public, such as Facebook.

He cited the two-step flow theory of communication, which proposes that interpersonal interaction has a stronger effect on shaping public opinion than mass media.

According to this theory, opinion leaders - people who are active media users - pick up information from the media, which is then interpreted and diffused to less-active media users. Such opinion leaders may exist in family chat groups, for instance.

This merits further study, said Prof Ang, given that the number of users transmitting information on channels like WhatsApp has grown with the rise of smartphones, compared with previous elections.



GENERATING ONLINE BUZZ

Adjunct Professor Kevin Tan, a law professor at NUS, said the lack of rallies focused more attention on the live television debates on Mediacorp, which raised the profile of WP's Jamus Lim. Most people "couldn't be bothered" to watch such live debates in the past, he noted.

Prof Lee made the point that many voters were also relying on videos, posts and messages shared by their friends and family members, which do not register in Facebook interaction data.

Dr Pang also noted a rise in the number of influencers, opinion leaders, civic groups and citizens using digital platforms to engage others during the election.

They took the time and effort to put out content to educate their peers on things like the group representation constituency system and how it has evolved. "This gave citizens many opportunities to engage in dialogue and discussions about the election," she said.

Other Singaporeans and public figures with followings online also voiced their political views on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. They included writer Amanda Lee Koe and NUS associate professor Ben Leong, who wrote in his personal capacity.

This may have had an impact on voters, said Dr Pang, as people who follow these figures would read or watch what they wrote or created and form an opinion.

"The sense of authenticity and trustworthiness of a candidate (something that voters look for in political candidates) is not something that is simply developed by what a candidate says about himself... but also what others, especially public figures and intellectuals, say," she said.

Prof Lee agreed that such views may have an impact if voters perceive that the writers contributed them entirely of their own volition, and not under any direct or indirect influence. "(While) they are unlikely to sway anyone's final decision... they may play a part in affirming one's political views."

Pro-PAP and pro-opposition Facebook pages and groups kicked into high gear during the campaign period, sharing memes, articles and other content to a growing base of followers.

While such groups add to the "noise and heat", they play a negligible part in impacting election results, said Prof Lee. "It seems quite apparent that these sites largely preach to the converted, so their impact is limited to having their followers attempting to influence their own contacts by sharing them to others."



E-CAMPAIGNING HERE TO STAY

While the election is over, the various forms of online campaigning are here to stay, said experts.

Prof Eugene Tan called this election a "revelation" in illustrating how political parties can exploit the Internet and social media.

"The question now is: If the next election has none of these restrictions, will parties go back to what they are familiar with? I suspect there will be a mix of both online and offline campaigning, but we'll have to see whether innovations from this GE are one-off or implemented in future GEs," he said.

For many citizens, politics will no longer just be something that they participate in once every five years at the ballot box, said Dr Pang.

Even ahead of the next election, parties will need to be open and engage voters in an authentic manner on social media, and be interactive and responsive to ground sentiments, she said.

Associate Professor Netina Tan from Canada's McMaster University said that in preparing for future online election campaigns, candidates and parties will need to learn to be timely in their responses and not sound defensive in refuting falsehoods and online accusations.

Prof Lim said: "The e-rallies and public broadcasts were actually valuable. In an age where there is a high degree of audience fragmentation, they helped to create a national agenda that complemented and focused online discussions to an extent."










Political parties' online campaigning efforts
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 15 July 2020

PEOPLE'S ACTION PARTY (PAP)

The PAP held daily talk shows during the campaign period.

These shows, which were streamed on Facebook, were centred on policy issues such as jobs, improving public housing and support for the vulnerable. PAP candidates addressed challenges faced by Singaporeans in these areas and how the party is working to help them.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the party's secretary-general, held his trademark lunchtime rally online. The various PAP teams also held e-rallies where they detailed future plans for their constituencies.

Video clips of new candidates' introductory speeches at press conferences were uploaded and shared online as well.

WORKERS' PARTY (WP)

Before Nomination Day, the WP released a silent teaser video which unveiled some of its new candidates for the first time.

It also held a talk show - called the Hammer Show - almost every night. Episodes of the show delved into issues such as the challenges faced by young people, support for seniors, as well as policy proposals from the WP on matters like ensuring economic sustainability.

The WP also produced videos featuring candidates in more relaxed settings. Former WP chief Low Thia Khiang delivered his trademark Teochew rally speech on video.

PROGRESS SINGAPORE PARTY (PSP)

PSP chief Tan Cheng Bock built up a significant following on Instagram by making an effort to learn and use slang terms favoured by millennials.

He also invited followers to send him content, which he then shared on his own Instagram page.

In addition to e-rallies and talk shows that featured its candidates, the PSP produced videos that were critical of issues such as Singapore's employment policy, including a skit that featured the use of dialect.

SINGAPORE DEMOCRATIC PARTY (SDP)

The SDP took part in "AskMeAnything" sessions on Internet forum Reddit, where members took questions posed to them by netizens. These included questions on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, and why the SDP proposed introducing a capital gains tax.

In addition to online rallies, the party recorded videos that hit back at the PAP's criticism of the SDP.

Party chief Chee Soon Juan also had regular broadcasts of his walkabouts on Facebook Live.

OTHER OPPOSITION PARTIES

Parties such as Peoples Voice, National Solidarity Party, Red Dot United, People's Power Party and Reform Party held e-rallies or Facebook Live sessions where candidates detailed their plans to address local issues, or to reform national policies.














Singapore GE2020: Signs of young voters' crucial role in election outcome
February, post-GE polls show incidents during hustings may have caused youth swing towards opposition
By Clement Yong and Jean Iau, The Straits Times, 15 Jul 2020

The first signs that young voters might have been crucial in the outcome of last Friday's general election came early on Saturday morning as the results were still sinking in.

Asked at the People's Action Party's (PAP) press conference if the ruling party had lost the youth vote, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said young people have "very significantly different life aspirations and priorities". He had just seen a nearly nine-point vote swing against his party, with a record 10 opposition candidates winning seats in Parliament.

From analysts to politicians, many have since portrayed the swing against the PAP - almost every win came with a reduced share of the vote - as an indication of the need to better incorporate younger perspectives.

Former MP Inderjit Singh, in a Facebook post on Sunday, said millennials were the group who most likely voted against the PAP. He estimated that more than half of young voters had cast their ballot for the opposition.

A day earlier, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, touching on Singapore's approach to race relations, said a new framework might be needed to take into account "how (young) people feel that there's a different way of discussing these things beyond the traditional".



Yet, a poll conducted by The Straits Times in February found little hint of young voters turning away from the ruling party in the months leading up to the election, suggesting that the swing against the PAP in this age group might have been caused by events closer to Polling Day.

Voting patterns among a sample size of 400 first-time voters in February were somewhat similar to how their parents may vote. Between February and March, the poll found that bread-and-butter concerns - the cost of living, as well as job and housing prospects - dominated respondents' list of worries.

More tellingly, 36.5 per cent of them said they were inclined to vote for the PAP, more than double the 15.5 per cent who said they were leaning towards the opposition; about half were undecided.

A sample of the same voters were contacted again after Polling Day and many said they had changed their minds, and backed the opposition.

Their reasons included specific incidents that occurred during the hustings and a comparison of party manifestos, which led them to rethink what they valued and hoped to see in Singapore's future. Most said they were not voting opposition for opposition's sake.



Marketing executive Callista Khoo, a 22-year-old first-time voter, ended up voting for the Workers' Party (WP) in Marine Parade GRC despite her admiration for Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, who anchors the PAP team there.

"I respect the way Mr Tan articulates his thoughts and interacts with people. Then I saw the WP candidate from my GRC recite a pantun," she said, referring to WP candidate Fadli Fawzi's speech on Nomination Day, in which he recited a Malay poem calling on his audience to "light the fires in your will".

She respected his nod to traditional Malay poetry as she felt there was a heavy emphasis on Chinese values in society here.

Ms Khoo then found Mr Fadli's Twitter account and was impressed by the newcomer's views and professionalism. She said: "I realised I needed to give WP my vote because they deserve a chance for more voices in Parliament.

"How else will voters make an informed decision about credibility if the opposition lacks the equivalent of the PAP's opportunities and platforms to prove themselves?"

Ms Zhang Feng Fang, a politics and economics undergraduate, said she was quite frustrated during the nine days of campaigning as many in her circle had swung towards the opposition. The PAP supporter said: "The opposition had a much better social media game but I also think a lot of youth had their own echo chambers for opposition online."

Ms Zhang, 22, said she did not make any public comments online in support of the PAP because she feared that she would be seen as not supportive of her friends from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.

In the end, she voted for the team helmed by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC when her parents told her not to "bite the hand that feeds you".



For East Coast GRC resident Gerald Sim, 23, several events during the campaign pushed him towards the opposition.

He cited the verbal slip-up by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat during his Nomination Day speech as one thing which raised doubts about whether he should be voting for the PAP leader.

The intern at a local museum also said he was put off by the PAP's demand on July 6 that the WP state its position on Sengkang GRC candidate Raeesah Khan's Facebook posts. Ms Raeesah is now under investigation for allegedly promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race.

The incident, he said, was "a show of political mudslinging".

"It undermines my trust in the incumbent party even more when it resorts to delivering low blows by blowing out of proportion comments made by Ms Raeesah as a private citizen," he added.

More than 6,000 like-minded individuals joined a Facebook group called "We Stand Behind Raeesah!", while an online petition made the rounds, saying: "Let Raeesah Khan campaign in peace. Conduct any investigations after the elections." It garnered more than 19,000 signatures before Polling Day.

Young voters and observers believe the PAP's targeting of Ms Raeesah, 26, who has been an activist for the rights of the marginalised since she was 17, backfired on the party for its perceived high-handedness.

Mr G. Kiran, 25, who recently graduated from the Singapore Management University's law faculty, said: "Some young voters might have empathised with the difficult position Ms Raeesah was caught in because of the similarity in age, and the nature of social media, which has provided platforms for users to pen brief and candid thoughts.

"Younger people may have been concerned about freedom of speech and expression when the police said they were investigating her over her alleged online comments."

Others pointed out that systemic inequalities do exist in the country and that Ms Raeesah was courageous to point them out.

Apart from push factors, there were also pull factors for younger Singaporeans to vote opposition. These included the WP's proposals to tighten employment pass approvals and lower the age from 35 to 28 for singles to apply for Build-to-Order Housing Board flats.

Undergraduate Martyn Danial, 25, a Choa Chu Kang resident, said he was attracted to the WP's policies, although it did not contest in his GRC. He said: "The WP's manifesto resonated with me because it would have directly affected those around my age group who are about to join the workforce."

For Mr Sim, it was the tone of the WP team's "simple message of kindness", which he said gelled with his values. "I don't want to be extremely successful and rich while down the ladder, there are people who have difficulty putting food on the table."



CHOOSING BETWEEN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL ISSUES

Although the Elections Department does not release figures for the number of first-time voters, there were 229,900 Singapore citizens aged 20 to 24 as of June last year, according to the Government's Population in Brief report.

They likely reached the voting age between the 2015 election and this one, making up nearly 10 per cent of the 2.65 million Singaporeans eligible to vote this election.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim, in a recent interview with Bloomberg news agency, weighed in on whether the youth vote was a key factor in the swing towards the opposition.

She said that although in Sengkang, the 26 to 44 age range of the WP team matched the profile of voters there and likely contributed to her party's win in the GRC, "nationwide, I'm not able to say right now whether the younger voters tipped the balance overall".

All voters, young or old, will make their own calculations, she added.

"I don't think they will, in general, vote just as a protest, but they will also look at what is at stake, who is providing the alternative and whether they think they can accept that person as their MP," said Ms Lim.

Young voters who spoke to The Straits Times echoed this view. Many of them said their decision was never a toss-up only between who they thought could provide "jobs, jobs, jobs" - a PAP election slogan popularised by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan during a televised debate - and which party could facilitate other sociopolitical goals like greater equality.

Rather, they rejected the idea that they had to choose between economic issues and issues like social inequality, and instead, leaned towards candidates from whichever party that had plans for both areas.

Public relations trainee Yogesh Tulsi, 25, said he is anxious about jobs and getting Singapore out of its economic slump but thinks climate crisis and civil liberties are also, if not more, pressing concerns.

"Climate change is an existential problem that I want to see a lot more planning for," he said.

For some millennials, the Government's largely successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was not enough to guarantee their votes.

Ms Nur Dyana Abu Bakar, 25, who works in the hard-hit aviation sector, said the Government has been largely efficient in handling the COVID-19 outbreak - and is glad to hear friends overseas praise Singapore for it. But issues such as the pace of development, the rising cost of living and transparency of government data are her top priorities.

She said: "We should be able to know how much of taxpayers' money is going where, or what the Government is focusing on. I don't mind higher taxes if I know that the money is going towards something good for Singapore."

However, there are young voters who agree with the PAP's focus on economic policies. Law undergraduate Clement Lim, 24, said he supported the ruling party's emphasis on jobs and skills upgrading because it is "about encouraging people to be independent and not depend on government handouts".

The PAP Youth Wing member, who volunteers in Jurong GRC, added that the PAP still has many "MPs and leaders who genuinely care about society and its people".

Mr Lim said: "I often see MPs who go the extra mile to ensure that the needs of their residents are taken care of. Regular dialogue sessions are held where ministers try to understand societal concerns, and explain the Government's approach to dealing with them."

For him, the election results meant that the PAP should rethink its strategy for engaging younger voters, rather than embark on a directional overhaul.



SOCIAL MEDIA APPEAL

With restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, this election took place largely online - a milieu in which digital natives like millennials are very much at home.

The social media presence of candidates acquired greater weight, and how eloquent and presentable they were played a greater role. The personalities of individual candidates also came under more scrutiny than they would have in past hustings.

Several PAP politicians, such as Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, 51, have earned plaudits for their online outreach efforts.

Mr Tan became a local Twitter sensation earlier this year for responding or "clapping back" at a netizen who confused him with Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing. The netizen said: "Hello sir! I stan!" Mr Tan replied: "Hello. I Tan." Stan is slang for an overzealous fan.



Public relations and events executive Joel Lim, 27, said it was important for candidates to reach out to young voters online. He said: "A large majority of (first-time voters) are active users of digital platforms, which are also where they have their discussions with their peers and, more importantly, obtain information."

Mr Lim posted bite-size political analyses on his Instagram account and gained more than 11,000 new followers during the election campaign. The first episode of his series, called Political Prude, drew more than 10,000 views.

Opposition candidates also performed well.

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman Paul Tambyah, an infectious diseases expert, was among those whose credentials were lauded on social media by young voters, who felt opposition candidates like him were equal in calibre to those fielded by the PAP.

Others, like Progress Singapore Party (PSP) chief Tan Cheng Bock, got young assistants to help him better tap the online psyche of millennials. The 80-year-old experimented with millennial and Gen Z slang such as "hypebeast" - a person in tune with the latest trends - and became an unlikely Instagram hit for his "hypebeast ah gong" persona.

A day before Cooling-off Day, SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan mixed jokes with appeals for more democratic rights in an interview with online personality Preeti Nair, better known as Preetipls. The video was widely circulated.

Still, it is not clear how much candidates' social media appeal translated into votes - Prof Tambyah, Dr Chee and Dr Tan all lost by narrow margins.



Also, young voters said keeping an online presence was not everything, and that on-the-ground efforts mattered.

MacPherson resident Soh Jun Ming, 27, said his MP Tin Pei Ling is popular for the effort she takes to be present on the ground.

He said: "We occasionally see her jogging around the neighbourhood to greet some of the residents, and she has also impacted the lives of several of my neighbours, especially during this trying period."

The financial consultant added: "Some of my neighbours also said it is hard to vote for opposition members if we don't see them contributing to the neighbourhood."

Ms Tin, 36, romped home to victory for the second time in the single seat, sweeping up 71.74 per cent of the votes in a contest against the People's Power Party secretary-general Goh Meng Seng.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said of the youth vote: "Whether or not they constitute a significant proportion of voters, their votes are important - more so if there's a close contest."

In West Coast GRC, the PSP lost to the PAP by just 3.4 points. If more credible opposition candidates jump into the fray, the gap may continue to narrow, and this election could be a hint of what is to come.

Additional reporting by Olivia Ho and Clara Chong













Singapore GE2020: Young voters and women power
Young voters sent a message to the PAP, and women candidates did very well. And while some external observers see the GE as a defeat for the PAP, they are wrong.
By Tommy Koh, Published The Straits Times, 17 Jul 2020

On July 10, the People's Action Party (PAP) won 83 out of 93 seats and secured 61.2 per cent of the popular vote in the 2020 General Election. In any democracy, such an outcome would be regarded as outstanding. It is important to remind ourselves that Singapore is a democracy and not some other form of government.

EXTERNAL VIEW

I am quite shocked by the comments of some foreign observers. Professor Michael Barr from Flinders University in Australia described the result as a "disaster" for the PAP. Professor Bridget Welsh from the University of Nottingham Malaysia and National Taiwan University described the outcome as a "humiliating defeat" for the PAP.

Are these fair assessments?

Let's compare the PAP's electoral performance to those of the winning parties in Australia, the United Kingdom and India.

In the 2019 Australian federal election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison's coalition won 77 out of 151 seats and secured 41 per cent of the popular vote.

In the 2019 general election in the UK, the Conservative Party won 365 out of 650 seats and secured 43.6 per cent of the popular vote.

In the 2019 Indian general election, the Bharatiya Janata Party won 303 out of 542 seats and 37 per cent of the popular vote.

VICTORY FOR PAP AND WP

When we compare the PAP's electoral performance to those of the winning parties in these three countries, any fair-minded person would conclude that it was an outstanding victory. It was certainly not a "disaster" or a "humiliating defeat".

At the same time, the outcome of the election was a victory for the Workers' Party (WP). There was a doubt, before the election, whether it would be able to retain its seat in Hougang SMC and its five seats in Aljunied GRC. WP not only retained those six seats, and with increased majorities, but it also won a four-member group representation constituency, Sengkang, defeating three PAP office-holders on the opposing slate.



LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION

I applaud Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's decision to appoint WP chief Pritam Singh as the official Leader of the Opposition. As Leader of the Opposition, Mr Singh will be given staff support and resources to carry out his responsibilities, PM Lee has said, although it is not clear what level of support he will be given and whether he will be paid a salary. In Britain, the leader of the opposition draws a salary equivalent to that of a Cabinet minister.

By appointing Mr Singh as the Leader of the Opposition, PM Lee is acknowledging that the WP is here to stay and is likely to grow stronger in the coming years.

I agree with Straits Times Opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong's comment that we may be seeing the emergence of a two-party state in Singapore. (July 11, "A result that could please voters from both sides".) She wrote that the election result showed that "a two-party system in its infancy is taking shape, as the WP now has the clout to attract good candidates, run a good campaign and put up alternative policy proposals. It will be tested in town council and constituency management next".

I also agree with Singapore Institute of International Affairs chairman Simon Tay's comment that the correct reply to the question of who won the election is that Singapore won the election.

On his Facebook page, Associate Professor Tay posted: "If Singaporeans want to signal that we have concerns but are not panicked, that we have trust in a PAP government but not blind faith, and that we will want diverse perspectives and voices of hope to be heard, even as we listen to our leaders in responding to this crisis, our message was sent.

"Who won the 2020 General Election? Singapore won."

TIMING OF THE ELECTION

Singapore is in the midst of two crises: a health crisis and an economic crisis. The conventional wisdom is that an election during a crisis will benefit the incumbent. Why didn't the PAP benefit more from the crisis?

I think the reason is that many voters felt that holding the election in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic was too opportunistic. Many doctors had feared that it could lead to a second surge of the virus outbreak.

TAKE THE HIGH ROAD

I think the electorate was sending several messages to the political parties. One message was to urge the parties to take the high road and not the low road.

The second message was for them to focus on the issues instead of attacking their opponents. Character assassination is frowned upon by the electorate.

For this reason, the following attacks were not well received:

• An attempt to use local playwright Alfian Sa'at as a stick to beat Mr Singh.

• An attack on Ms Raeesah Khan, a young WP candidate for Sengkang GRC, for her social media posts on race issues.

• An attempt to brand Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief and Bukit Batok SMC candidate Chee Soon Juan as a liar.



• The use of Pofma (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) over statements made by SDP chairman and Bukit Panjang SMC candidate Paul Tambyah.

INTERNET ELECTION

This is Singapore's first Internet election. Because of Covid-19, physical rallies were not possible. Political parties concentrated their activities on home visits, meeting voters at hawker centres, and campaigning online via e-rallies and virtual talk shows.

My impression is that all the parties did a good job using the Internet to connect with voters and to disseminate their messages. The PAP and WP were particularly effective in this respect.

WOMEN POWER

A wonderful aspect of the 2020 election was the large number of women candidates - 39 in all.

It is also significant that the PAP women candidates in single-member constituencies, such as Dr Amy Khor, Ms Tin Pei Ling, Ms Sun Xueling and Ms Grace Fu, won their seats by large majorities.

I am very pleased to see more women joining politics and entering Parliament. We need more women in Parliament and in the Cabinet. My dream is that one day, Singapore will have a woman prime minister.



SENGKANG GRC

WP's victory in Sengkang GRC was a big surprise. It brings back memories of the loss of Aljunied GRC by the PAP to the WP in 2011.

How did the young WP team of Ms He Ting Ru, Associate Professor Jamus Lim, Mr Louis Chua and Ms Raeesah succeed in defeating the older PAP team, which included three office-holders - Mr Ng Chee Meng, Dr Lam Pin Min and Mr Amrin Amin?

Mr Ng as labour chief was a Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, Dr Lam was Senior Minister of State for Health and Transport, and Mr Amrin was Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and Health.

I don't know the answer. Some experts think that it was due to the special character of the constituency, with its higher percentage of younger voters, and to the star power of the WP candidate, Prof Lim. Others think the PAP's strong criticism of Ms Raeesah swung young voters over in a sympathy vote.

Sengkang GRC is a new constituency carved out of previous wards. Most of its voters live in Housing Board flats and it is a constituency with many young voters and young families. Do young voters have a different world view and aspirations than older voters?

I think the answer is yes. Young voters want the Government to be more consultative and less paternalistic. They are more liberal and accepting of alternative views and lifestyles. They are less race-conscious and do not agree that Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister.

Young voters are also more socially conscious and want to see a radical reduction of poverty and inequality. They want a fairer Singapore. They are more environmentally conscious and want Singapore to grow greener.

They have sent several messages to the PAP Government with the vote and I sincerely hope the PAP is hearing them. I hope the Government will consider them with an open mind and not brush them aside.

In conclusion, two things bear repeating.

First, the outcome of the 2020 election was a victory for the PAP. It was not a disaster or a humiliating defeat.

Second, the WP has made a major breakthrough by retaining Hougang SMC and Aljunied GRC, and winning Sengkang GRC. It is now recognised as a credible opposition, and Singaporeans will expect it to oppose the Government in areas where it disagrees but always be loyal to Singapore.

Professor Tommy Koh is rector of Tembusu College, National University of Singapore.









After GE2020, a time for soul-searching
Many commentators have shared their analyses of the 2020 General Election. Here are edited excerpts from two.
The Straits Times, 17 Jul 2020


THE PAP NEEDS TO REDOUBLE EFFORTS TO HELP WORKERS
CALVIN CHENGFormer Nominated MP and an entrepreneur

There is a danger that in its soul-searching, the PAP wants to be everything to everyone.

It must not.

As a centre-right, conservative party, the PAP's rival is an alliance of two distinct groups.

The first is the progressive, liberal demographic whose views are now trending on social media.

They now believe that the improved performance of the opposition is due to their power in rejecting what they perceive to be conservative, authoritarian policies of the PAP. They perceive the incumbent to be unfair and anti-democratic.

Their opposition to the PAP is ideological.

They want alternatives and diversity in Parliament, even if they acknowledge the PAP has governed well on bread-and-butter issues.

The second pillar of the opposition alliance is the working and middle class who have been left behind economically.

They are angry that even as the country prospers, their dreams are thwarted. They believe that foreigners have unfairly stolen their jobs. They are worried about their CPF and rising costs of living.

Their objection to the PAP is practical, not ideological.

The Internet world would have you believe, without a shred of evidence, that it is the first group that swung a better result to the opposition.

But let's leave that aside, because this post is not about analysing psephological trends, but what the PAP should do.

The temptation is to now try to court the young ideologues, and the pseudo-Western liberals.

I would caution against this.

Is this group saying that if the PAP had been gentler on Ms Raeesah Khan, if Pofma (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) is repealed, and if the ELD (Elections Department) is made independent, etc, they would vote for the PAP?

Come off it.

The main desire of this group is for Singapore to become more like Western democracies, to have a two-or multiple-party system, and to have more alternatives in Parliament.

The only thing that the PAP can do to fulfil this desire is to intentionally lose, or to gift seats to the opposition.

This is of course ludicrous.

In its soul-searching, the PAP should regard this faction of opposition supporters to be a lost cause. Instead, it should focus on the second group.

Thankfully, the PAP is one of the most adaptive and efficient parties in the world in solving bread-and butter issues.

Focus on fulfilling the promises in its manifesto.

Create jobs.

Help the poor and struggling.

Empower Singaporeans to compete effectively in a globalised economy.

Redouble efforts to uplift the 40-to 60-year-old PMETs in most danger of losing their jobs in the upcoming recession.

In other words, continue doing what it has done well that made it one of the longest-ruling parties in the world.

This is in fact the strategy successfully taken by right-of-centre parties across the world, in eviscerating their left-liberal rivals.

The alliance between the champagne socialists and the struggling working class is an inherently unstable one.

If the PAP can show its competence in helping the working class, the alliance will break.

The liberal ideologues by themselves cannot win elections.

In Britain, the Conservatives annihilated a Labour Party taken over by Momentum, mostly young, progressive ideologues.

How? By winning over the traditional vote bank of Labour, the working class.

Like in business, political parties must know their core competency. Trying to be everything to everyone will fail.

If the PAP sticks to its strengths and continues to focus on solving bread-and-butter issues, it can slow and maybe even reverse losses in future elections.

This will leave mainly the intelligentsia, the well-to-do progressives, and the young idealists as the main supporters of the Workers' Party.

The Workers' Party will become the party of the liberal elite.

And, in a great piece of irony, conversely, the only thing that can strengthen the PAP, is to help the workers: the PAP must become the workers' party.




MAJOR TURNING POINT
MANO SABNANI, Former editor of The Business Times and TODAY

We have arrived at a major turning point in our political development. Since independence in 1965, Singapore has not had a situation where our Parliament has featured a party, other than the PAP, that could play a substantive role in the management of the country's affairs.

We are now at the cusp of that.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has been quick in offering the official role of Leader of the Opposition to Mr Pritam Singh, leader of the resurgent Workers' Party which will have 10 sitting members in the new Parliament.

The WP considers itself loyal to Singapore and always working in the interests of Singaporeans. It does not oppose for the sake of opposing and has also supported the Government on many issues, internal as well as external.

The PAP is more welcoming of this sort of responsible opposition and some voters have taken their cue from that, backing the WP strongly in all its contests and enabling it to achieve a good 50 per cent popular vote in the 21 seats that it contested.

As Opposition Leader, Mr Singh will be given resources to research and develop policies and offer more sound alternatives.

I think it also means the WP will have more clout to make the Government more transparent and accountable. If this happens, it will be a major breakthrough for alternative parties which have been pushing on this front.

The breakthrough, if it comes, will not be a moment too late. It has been a key grievance in GE2020, especially among young, educated voters whose numbers are growing and their effect evident in the latest results.

We are not yet at the stage where Singapore has a two-or three-party democracy. But we are getting there.

Besides the WP, there is the fledgling Progress Singapore Party (PSP) which scored an average of 40 per cent of the popular vote in GE2020, in the 24 contested seats.

That is an astonishing achievement even though the PSP ended up with only an offer of two Non-Constituency MP best-loser seats.

PSP leader Tan Cheng Bock has promised the party will be rejuvenated, hopefully with more younger leaders, and work in contested seats for the next general election, likely in 2024/2025.

The PAP, on its part, retains the super-majority it has held in Parliament since 1965. It will rule with 83 out of 93 seats in the new Parliament. It can amend the Constitution of the country at will, as it has in the past.

But it needs to do some soul-searching on its part.

Specifically, should the party continue to impose the Whip to bring all its MPs in line on important resolutions? Up to now, PAP MPs speak up on parliamentary motions and sometimes offer contrarian views. But when the time comes to vote, they have no choice. The PAP, for its own good, needs to allow its MPs, especially younger ones, to manifest their youth, energy and creativity. Let them vote as they wish on issues and get a real gauge of ground sentiment.




GE SPECIAL: POST-GE2020




Singapore GE2020: A return to the norm, or start of a new normal?
GE2020 saw the PAP returned to power with 83 out of 93 seats, but with a drop in its share of the popular vote and the opposition winning a second GRC. How should we read the results? Insight reports.
By Zakir Hussain, News Editor, The Sunday Times, 19 Jul 2020

A general election called amid a pandemic and as a recession looms would normally be expected to result in a flight to safety and a surge in vote share for the ruling party. But the outcome of GE2020 held nine days ago confounded that.

A significant vote swing of 8.7 percentage points against the People's Action Party took its overall vote share to 61.2 per cent.

The PAP saw its vote share sink further in Workers' Party-held Aljunied GRC, and lost a second GRC, Sengkang, to the WP, which saw a record 10 MPs elected.

The ruling party's share of the national vote came as a surprise to many activists and observers.

Some called it the worst-ever election result - with 10 elected opposition constituency MPs - that had to be regarded as a disaster for the Government, as well as its fourth-generation leadership that has been playing a greater role in running the country and the election campaign.

However, a closer look at the swing and vote share nationwide going back to the 1970s suggests that GE2020 marks a return to the norm of the mid-1980s and 1990s, when the PAP got between 61 per cent and 65 per cent of the votes.

There was a swing back to this norm in GE2011, which some analysts described as the start of a "new normal" vote range for the PAP.

GE2015 upended that with a vote share of nearly 70 per cent.

The question is: Does GE2020 mark a return to the norm of the low-to mid-60s range, or might it be the start of a "new normal" where the PAP's vote share isn't a given and could even go below 60 per cent?

Insight looks at five factors.

SHARP SWINGS IN THE PAST

The 8.7 percentage point swing is not the most significant downward dip in the ruling party's 61 years in power. That was in GE1972, which saw a 16.3 percentage point drop in the PAP's vote share to 70.4 per cent.

Granted, the election before that, in 1968, was an anomaly with the main opposition party, Barisan Sosialis, boycotting the election and only seven out of 58 seats contested.

And in the two elections after that 1972 result, the PAP managed to reverse the slide, getting 74.1 per cent and 77.7 per cent of the national vote in GE1976 and GE1980 respectively and ensuring a clean sweep of all the seats.

However, the roll-out of one controversial policy after another in 1984 - from steps to favour graduate mothers to a report that proposed raising the retirement age from 55 to 60, then 65 and consequently pushing back the age when people could withdraw their Central Provident Fund savings - caused significant disquiet.

As controversial was the introduction of the Non-Constituency MP scheme, which would guarantee a minimum of three opposition members should there be fewer than that number elected. Critics saw it as a salve to younger voters' wish for some opposition presence in the House to check the PAP.

These contributed to a 12.8 percentage point drop in the PAP's vote share in GE1984 to 64.8 per cent. For the first time since independence, the PAP lost two seats to the opposition in what was called a "watershed" election.

Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers' Party retained Anson with 56.8 per cent of the votes, up from 51.9 per cent when he first won it in the 1981 by-election. And Mr Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Party won Potong Pasir with 60.3 per cent of the votes.

While the PAP retained 77 out of 79 seats (30 of them were walkovers), the disappointment on the faces of many of its leaders - used to clean sweeps - was palpable. A headline capturing the mood as votes were tallied read: "Night the winners felt like losers... while their opponents exulted in their gains".

That downward swing saw the candid admission by younger party leaders that the PAP's election strategy was wrong in a confidential post-mortem report on GE1984, made available to the authors of Men In White, a history of the party published in 2009.

The report said the party had to revamp its image, engage people emotionally, and stop harping on the quality of its candidates as this reinforced the perception that its super-achievers were too removed from the ground.

Crucially, it also said the PAP had to accept that "the opposition is here to stay" - and the party should try to maintain a large and stable majority rather than eliminate the opposition altogether.



THAT TWO-THIRDS CEILING

The stage for a 61.2 per cent vote share was set 36 years ago.

GE1984 marked the start of a new trend where the PAP would struggle to get more than two-thirds of all valid votes cast. This proved to be the case in seven out of nine general elections, including that year's.

Conversely, the opposition could generally be assured of getting at least one-third of the votes - provided it did the groundwork.

GE1988 and GE1991 saw further slides in the PAP's vote share to 63.2 per cent and 61 per cent.

One factor cited for the 1991 outcome was the by-election strategy adopted by the opposition to increase its vote share by contesting less than half of all seats, thereby returning the PAP to power on Nomination Day.

The thinking was this: Voters would be more willing to support the opposition as there is no danger of inadvertently voting the Government out of power. They could then have their cake and eat it - a PAP Government, as well as an opposition that would be a check and balance on the dominant ruling party.

The strategy seemed to work.

In Potong Pasir, Mr Chiam got a record high 69.6 per cent of the votes in GE1991, and the PAP lost three more seats - the WP's Mr Low Thia Khiang won Hougang with 52.8 per cent of the votes, the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) Mr Ling How Doong won Bukit Gombak with 51.4 per cent of the votes, and the SDP's Mr Cheo Chai Chen won Nee Soon Central with 50.3 per cent of the votes.

But these wins were not irreversible.

Infighting within the SDP and mismanagement of estates by Mr Ling and Mr Cheo saw the PAP win back both their seats convincingly at the next election.

GE1997 also saw the PAP increase its vote share to a level above 1984 - 65 per cent - partly a nod to second prime minister Goh Chok Tong's more consultative style of governance. Improvements on the ground and linking priority in estate upgrading to the level of support for the PAP also played a part.

However, Hougang bucked the trend. Mr Low saw his share of the vote rise to 58 per cent, whereas in Potong Pasir, Mr Chiam's vote share slid to 55.2 per cent.

Mr Ling managed 28.4 per cent, while Mr Cheo got 38.7 per cent.

The elections of the 1980s and 1990s showed that the opposition could be assured of at least between 25 per cent and 30 per cent support.

And while the PAP could be assured of around 40 per cent, at best, under two-thirds of the electorate were prepared to give their backing.



OUTLIERS IN THE 2000S

Two atypical elections within the last 20 years may have coloured expectations of what a strong mandate is.

GE2001, called in the wake of the Sept 11 terror attacks in the United States and in the middle of a global recession, saw a flight to safety, with voters giving the PAP 75.3 per cent of the votes. However, only 29 of the 84 seats were contested that year, with the WP contesting two.

The other unexpected result was GE2015, which followed a targeted effort by the Government to address hot-button issues in the wake of GE2011.

The surprising 69.9 per cent vote share that year has been pinned down to the feel-good effect of SG50 celebrations, and the death of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew giving many pause to reflect on the PAP and the role it played in keeping Singapore successful.

In a way, both high scores had energised an opposition seeking to deny the ruling party a clean sweep. The latest hustings saw various parties raise the spectre of a wipe-out of opposition constituency MPs, which helped swing undecided voters round.

The aftermath of GE2001 saw a reinvigorated opposition, with the WP under Mr Low's leadership and the SDP stepping up its walkabouts in constituencies they were targeting to contest, and coming up with policy proposals and a manifesto.

GE2006 was the first time in four elections that the PAP was not returned to power on Nomination Day, with 47 out of 84 seats contested.

Ahead of the May polls, former PAP chairman Tony Tan - who would go on to be President from 2011 to 2017 - said: "Normally we will get between 60 and 65 per cent and that will be a very good result."

When the votes were counted, the PAP's vote share was 66.6 per cent - above this range, but a downward swing of 8.7 percentage points nonetheless, and the same swing from GE2015 to GE2020.

Dr Tan noted that while the PAP Government's performance had put it in a favourable position with voters, "there's a mood for change in Singapore - which is not bad".

"Some people are restless, some of the younger people would like to see more competition, perhaps controversy and more exchange in Parliament. So this will be helpful to the opposition. But this is one part of an evolving society and we have to take the changes as they come."

GE2011 saw even greater contestation, as the opposition attempted to fight all 87 seats but did not manage to get the paperwork submitted in time to have a team stand in Tanjong Pagar GRC.

But a cocktail of grievances, including issues over housing, transport and immigration, in the lead-up to the general election saw the PAP get its lowest share of the popular vote since independence - 60.1 per cent - in the 82 contested seats, and the loss of Aljunied GRC to the WP.

The result was still - just - within the 60 per cent to 65 per cent range. But it saw the Government redouble efforts to address hot-button issues such as housing, transport and immigration, and engage citizens more widely - moves that helped explain the surge in support for it in GE2015.

A DISTINCT GROUNDSWELL

That 2015 surge in support, analysts believed, was not sustainable. But neither was the previous slide in support lasting.

The PAP's vote share in GE2020 - 61.2 per cent - is a whisker higher than that in GE1991, making it the third lowest to date.

The loss of a second GRC - on the back of greater support for the WP in Aljunied GRC and Hougang - is also significant. What should one make of the outcome?

The result is not unexpected, given the groundswell of anxiety and anger that emerged in the lead-up to GE2020 over the decision to call an election while the Covid-19 pandemic is still raging, as well as concerns over jobs and competition with immigrant PMETs, and the desire for checks and balances in Parliament.

Activists note that the sharpest swings in support away from the PAP took place in private housing estates where 20 per cent of the population live. Many dwellers are professionals facing disruption and competition for jobs, or who run small and medium-sized businesses that were badly hit by Covid-19.

Several single seats that were made up largely of HDB estates such as MacPherson, Radin Mas and Yuhua, in fact, saw the PAP get above 70 per cent of the votes - suggesting that heartland voters remained a key base of support.

In a lecture last Wednesday, veteran diplomat Chan Heng Chee noted that the electoral result was a vote on the last five years, the last five months and the last nine days.

Voters were looking at PAP predominance or the "super majority" and how governance and parliamentary debate had been conducted in the past term of government. They did not approve of the way the changes to the elected presidency and policies like the fake news law, officially called the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, or Pofma, were introduced.

As for the last five months, Professor Chan, who is the Institute of Policy Studies' S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore this year, said the vote was also on how the Covid-19 pandemic was handled, citing a lack of clarity and micromanaging of rules and protocols for businesses. There were also growing fears and anxieties about jobs.

And in the last nine days of the campaign, it was about messaging, communicating and the online presence and savviness of the parties.

Some would argue that the PAP has done well in retaining its share of the votes at a minimum of 60 per cent for 36 years, despite a much stronger opposition, a more questioning electorate, and a more challenging global environment.

Yet many activists and supporters are concerned about the 8.7 percentage point swing, perhaps with good reason.

One common view is that it could have been wider had the PAP not made late tactical deployments to its East Coast GRC and West Coast GRC slates.

While the East Coast PAP team led by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat - who moved from the safer seat of Tampines GRC - got 53.4 per cent of the votes, activists believe the GRC could have swung to the WP had it been helmed by another minister.

Likewise, the 51.68 per cent win by the West Coast PAP team led by Minister S. Iswaran against the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) team led by former PAP stalwart Tan Cheng Bock might have been slimmer were it not strengthened by a second minister, Mr Desmond Lee, who came over from Jurong GRC.

To set things in context, a further slide of 8.7 percentage points in the next election could see the loss of four GRCs - East Coast and Marine Parade, West Coast and Chua Chu Kang - and three SMCs: Bukit Panjang, Bukit Batok and Marymount.

That would see a total of 32 opposition MPs in Parliament, assuming the WP retains Aljunied, Sengkang and Hougang - enough to deny the PAP the two-thirds majority required to amend the Constitution.

It is a prospect that might alarm longstanding PAP activists and supporters, but one a growing number of voters appear willing to accept.

TOUGHER CONTESTS AHEAD

A look at the closest contests in GE2020 suggests that core support for the PAP in various constituencies has been on the decline, and may continue on this trajectory.


Traditionally, at least 40 per cent to 50 per cent of voters in a seat tend to back the PAP, with about 25 per cent to 30 per cent rooting for the opposition - though this can be higher if established parties like the WP are contesting.

The swing voters in the middle - many of whom tend to be younger but include middle-aged voters - were critical in the WP's winning Sengkang GRC, holding on to Aljunied GRC and Hougang by stronger margins, as well as in single seats such as Bukit Batok, Bukit Panjang and Marymount which saw sizeable swings away from the PAP.

The largest swing was in West Coast GRC, as large as 27 percentage points from GE2015. Seen against the GE2011 result, this is down to 15 percentage points.

Bukit Panjang SMC, where a popular backbencher new to the seat, Mr Liang Eng Hwa, was up against the SDP chairman, infectious diseases specialist Paul Tambyah, saw a 14 percentage point swing. This was whittled down to 12.5 percentage points when compared with the GE2011 result.

But the picture is not even across constituencies - and local factors could play a part.

Take the new Sengkang GRC, where the WP has been active on the ground and won a decisive 52.12 per cent of the votes against a PAP team with three office-holders, two of whom were fairly new to the area. The larger proportion of young voters, and the absence of a woman candidate on the PAP team - the WP team had two - likely affected the outcome.

Still, demography is not destiny.

Nearby Punggol West, with a similar demographic make-up to Sengkang, saw one-term MP Sun Xueling win 61 per cent of the votes against WP challenger Tan Chen Chen.

While Singapore's opposition party landscape is fragmented, three main players are expected to continue getting support from voters - the WP, PSP and SDP.

The WP and SDP have been doing regular outreach on the ground in seats they have contested in between elections, and the PSP has said it will do so, too. This is a strategy that increases their familiarity with voters and their concerns.

The question that arises is whether 61.2 per cent or thereabouts will become the new normal for the PAP's vote share in future, as the opposition entrenches itself?

Could GE2025 see a slide below 60 per cent, and to the mid-50s after that?

Much depends on whether the PAP can win the hearts and minds of voters all over again, the way it did in the early decades of Singapore's post-independence history.

After the slide of 1984, it took the PAP three elections to halt, then reverse, the trend of decline. This time round, the forces against it - a stronger, growing opposition and a changing electorate desiring greater political pluralism - appear stronger than before.

The WP, in particular, has seen a surge in popularity, winning more than 50 per cent of the votes on average in constituencies it contested for the first time, and has seen its appeal to young and middle-aged voters grow.



The move by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to officially designate WP chief Pritam Singh as Leader of the Opposition in Parliament is seen as a nod to the permanence of an elected opposition presence.

GE2020 saw an estimated 229,000 first-time voters, based on the number of people aged 20 to 24 as of June last year - about 8.6 per cent of the 2.65 million eligible voters.

Voters in their 20s and 30s make up about one-third of the electorate. As cohorts of millennials and younger voters become eligible to vote in future elections, their aspirations for more checks and balances in the political system could sway votes in close contests.

It remains to be seen whether such voters will switch parties as their life circumstances change.

"I expect our millennials will continue to support diverse voices and an opposition in Parliament as a good thing, even as they age," said Prof Chan. "The incumbent party will have to understand this group better to win back their vote."

But it has to also win back the votes of the middle-aged and middle-income residents it lost in GE2020, who will remain a core voting bloc for some time yet.

PAP activists have said that they start preparing for the next election right after the previous one.

As opposition party activists do the same, closer contests are expected to be more common at the next election.

From now till then, all parties will have to fight for every vote, make themselves known and liked, and engage and build trust with voters.






Singapore GE2020: Population debate should not be about picking a number
What population Singapore can support turns on how it prepares
By Vikram Khanna, Associate Editor, The Sunday Times, 19 Jul 2020

In 1980, when Singapore was still a developing country, its population was 2.4 million. Suppose the government of the day had announced a target for the population to more than double to 5.7 million by 2019, what would the public reaction have been?

More than a few people would have been horrified. How would Singapore, with its limited space, be able to accommodate such an increase, it would be asked. How would the public transport system (then comprising mainly buses) cope? Where would the additional people be housed? What would happen to jobs and wages? Wouldn't average incomes go down?

Development experts might also have raised concerns. It was the received wisdom that population growth, especially in developing countries, was one of the biggest causes of poverty. A few years earlier, Mr Robert McNamara, then president of the World Bank, had pronounced: "To put it simply, the greatest single obstacle to the economic and social advancement of the majority of peoples in the underdeveloped world is rampant population growth."

As we know, Singapore's population did indeed increase from 2.4 million in 1980 to 5.7 million by 2019. But over the same period, per capita income rose from about US$4,900 to US$65,000 (S$90,500), a level higher than Australia, Britain and Japan, among other countries that were previously richer.

In other words, while population increased by around 2.4 times, the average income per head rose by more than 13 times, and Singapore transitioned from the developing world into the ranks of the advanced economies. It maintained close to full employment for most of the 40-year period, other than brief recessions in 1985, 1998, 2001 and 2008, and even had labour shortages from time to time.

Singapore was not the only country that experienced rising prosperity as its population rose. While it is a particularly striking example - even more so if we go back to the 1960s - the same is true of much of Europe and the Americas as they became more prosperous, and large parts of Asia. Even relatively poor and allegedly overpopulated countries like India and Indonesia have seen increases in per capita income that have far exceeded their population growth, which has now slowed to around 1 per cent.



AGGLOMERATION EFFECTS

It is also no accident that some of the world's densely populated economies - such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea - are relatively wealthy, while many with sparse populations are relatively poor. This is also true of regions within countries. Economic research has shown that dense populations create what urban economists call "agglomeration effects" - that is, clusters of economic activity, synergies and knowledge spillovers.

Of course, all of this does not mean that further increases in population would be sufficient to guarantee greater prosperity - other conditions would also need to be met. But it does suggest that we should not think about population growth mechanically, in terms of the amount of land or physical capital per head or under the assumption that such things as land use and infrastructure remain frozen in time, or that technological change doesn't exist.

It also suggests that we should not extrapolate that the future will be like the present, only with more people. That is not how economic reality turns out.

Those who were around in 1980 would remember that Singapore's infrastructure was far behind what it is today. Large parts of the city were undeveloped - there were still pig farms in Punggol, rubber estates in Sembawang and Tampines had just started being transformed from forests and sand quarries into a residential estate. Many of today's HDB towns didn't exist.

There was no MRT, no Marina Bay, no Raffles City, no suburban malls to speak of. Expressways such as the AYE, CTE, BKE, TPE, KPE, SLE and KJE hadn't been started. Changi Airport's solitary terminal was in the final stages of construction. Many of today's popular tourist attractions like the integrated resorts, Gardens by the Bay, the Night Safari, Boat Quay and Clarke Quay were not even dreamed of. International restaurants were relatively few and far between, and the arts scene was a shadow of what it is today.

Among industries, Singapore had not yet moved into electronics or pharmaceuticals, which were later to become the mainstays of the manufacturing sector. Jurong Island, which became the heart of Singapore's chemical and energy industries, was nowhere on the horizon and nobody talked much about R&D. Tourism - measured by visitor arrivals - was about one-eighth of what it was in 2019.

The external environment was also quite different. Notably, China was still a poor country - its economic reforms had only just started, India suffered from low growth and the economies of Asean were not as dynamic as they later became.

The economic transformation of Singapore would not have been possible without an increase in population. Without Singapore being able to provide the requisite workforce - both local and foreign, companies (both local and foreign) would not have been able to invest in Singapore or expand or upgrade their operations here, and this is true of every industry and almost all services. In other words, without the increase in population, Singapore would not have been able to move into the ranks of advanced economies. This is worth remembering.



A HOT-BUTTON ISSUE

The question now is where we go from here. Population has been a hot-button issue, especially after the release of the Population White Paper of 2013, but much of the debate has been about numbers. During the recent election campaign, some members of the opposition accused the People's Action Party (PAP) of "toying with the idea" of a 10 million population, forcing the PAP to point out that it had done no such thing.

For many Singaporeans, a population of 10 million in the future sounds scary - probably even more scary than a population of 5.7 million would have sounded in 1980 - which is perhaps one reason why some politicians decided to raise the issue.

But fixating on a number - any number - is misguided. The only sensible answer to the question "how many people can Singapore support?" is "it depends".

As the past has demonstrated, it depends on Singapore's capacity to expand its health, education and transport infrastructure as well as its housing stock, its ability to continue attracting investments, the nature of those investments, the kind of industries that come up in the future, the extent of automation and innovation, the state of technology and external market conditions.

It also depends on the demographic profile of the population, society's readiness to tolerate greater diversity and what trade-offs people are willing to accept - for example, in terms of rising prosperity on the one hand and the dilution of identity on the other.

In short, it's a complicated question with no easy answers. Singapore's planners in 1980 did not set any population target - it was business-friendly policies, economic growth, changes in the external environment, the influx of investments and the expansion of infrastructure that both necessitated and accommodated the more than doubling of the population between then and now.

The challenges of the future will of course be different from those of the past. The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a global recession. But looking beyond, economies will recover, and technological changes are likely to accelerate - which Singapore is well positioned to deal with.

Singapore can also take some comfort in the fact that it is at the heart of what will remain the fastest-growing region of the world. These developments, as well as domestic policies and politics, will determine what Singapore's labour needs will be.

THE DEMOGRAPHIC CHALLENGE

But there is one issue that looms large, which was absent in the 1980s, and that is demographics.

Those who propose easy answers to the population issue by stipulating a number at which a population should be "capped" - especially at a level not far from where it is today - have an obligation to explain how they plan to raise the fertility rate (the average number of children born per woman) which has been falling since 2014 to 1.14 last year, which is well below the replacement rate (the rate required to maintain the population at a constant level) of 2.1 and how fast they will be able to do it.

Meanwhile, they must explain how they will deal with the issue of the decline of the working population from this year onwards - some 900,000 baby boomers are expected to retire between now and 2030. How do they plan to plug such a huge gap in the labour force, especially if they frown on immigration? None of these issues was raised in the context of the population debate during the campaign by those who cited big, scary-sounding numbers.

The population issue will not go away even if its brief moment as an election campaign issue is over. It will need to be discussed, and when it is, the discussion will hopefully be about more than picking a number.





Singapore GE2020: Race - New views and conversations on an age-old societal divide
Singapore's ethnic diversity has been viewed both as a strength and a fault line to be navigated. Time to be more open about it?
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 19 Jul 2020

Singapore's vision of a multiracial society is enshrined in its national pledge: "One united people regardless of race, language, or religion."

Even though the Republic has made significant progress in realising this vision, the recent general election put the spotlight on long-held assumptions about race and language in politics and campaigning. Younger voters also signalled greater openness towards discussing race issues, in a way that generations before them would have considered taboo or polarising.

In a country that has four official languages, eyebrows were raised when the Workers' Party (WP) did not send a representative to a televised live debate in Mandarin - given that former party chief Low Thia Khiang was known for his fiery Teochew speeches that had attracted its traditional Chinese base in the first place.

The WP, Singapore Democratic Party, National Solidarity Party and Reform Party also did not send Tamil-speaking representatives to the party political broadcasts, in part due to the general lack of new Tamil candidates and speakers fluent in that language.

WP candidate and now Sengkang GRC MP Raeesah Khan came under investigation after two police reports were made against her for Facebook posts in which she suggested that the authorities discriminated against minorities. Her case drew the ire of younger voters who felt she was unfairly targeted.

The WP, led by Mr Pritam Singh, picked up a second GRC in Sengkang, while a minority-heavy WP slate in Aljunied did not prevent it from scoring a hat-trick, after having wrested the constituency from the People's Action Party (PAP) in 2011.

Meanwhile, in Jurong GRC, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam's team won a thumping 75 per cent of the vote - the highest GRC vote share for the PAP this year - leading some to ask why the popular politician had not been considered as a potential prime minister.

The issue of race in this GE even led to a police report being filed against Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat for remarks he made last year, that Singapore was not yet ready for a non-Chinese prime minister. The police later said it had consulted the Attorney-General's Chambers, which advised that no offence had been made.

THE GENERATION GAP

Singapore has seen race riots in the past - from the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, to clashes between Chinese and Malays in the 1960s.

For decades, the official narrative has been: Race relations are highly sensitive and must be carefully discussed in public. Preserving racial harmony is essential to Singapore's stability, which in turn ensures investor confidence and creates jobs.

"Whether (the instability) came from communalism, from the left or any sort of instability, we cut down on that in order to achieve certain goals for society," explained Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam at a dialogue on race last year.

While many Singaporeans still tiptoe around discussing race publicly, surveys have shown that young Singaporeans are more willing to have difficult conversations on this issue.

Acknowledging this, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an online rally on July 8 that while the country has emphasised racial tolerance and harmony so far, it can do better and go beyond that.

"But we should do it carefully, and we should discuss between the young ones and the older ones so that we gradually get a meeting of minds," he said.

Analysts say generational differences may have to do more with approach than substance.

"All understand the importance of healthy inter-racial and inter-religious ties in Singapore. Where they differ is on how to achieve such outcomes," says Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan.

He says the older generation, having experienced the race riots in the 1960s, regard race and religion as highly sensitive topics unsuitable for "mass consumption".

"On the other hand, younger Singaporeans who live in relative calm and stability feel such issues should be more openly discussed, because that is how better understanding can come about."

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser says the divide also has to do with education.

He thinks that because the younger generation are more likely to have attained at least post-secondary or tertiary education, they would have encountered broader perspectives on race issues.

"They would be more open to recognise the presence of racial prejudice, discrimination and inequality in Singapore," he says.



A QUESTION OF LANGUAGE

Political parties paid varying degrees of attention to language representation during the hustings.


Explaining the PAP's approach, Mr Shanmugam had said it takes all four official languages "very seriously". While not all parties fielded Tamil speakers, the PAP did so to show the Tamil population that they are respected and valued, he added.

But analysts do not think language was a deal-breaker.

Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Mathew Mathews says that while some do want official speeches to be made in a language they are familiar with, they may overlook this if they have other concerns, such as having more opposition voices in Parliament.

Also, he says, more is expected of the incumbent than the opposition. "The status of the four official languages is something that the Government has tried to ensure since independence.

"If the PAP in its campaign did not show its support by ensuring that it had speakers of all languages, there might have been much more unhappiness."

Dr Nazry Bahrawi, a senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, says Chinese Singaporeans seem to be more forgiving of the candidates' less powerful command of Mandarin, perhaps because many themselves struggle with it.

"So when Mr Pritam Singh apologised to voters for not fielding a candidate for the Chinese debate because 'the quality of the proficiency required to participate in a live debate is of a higher order', this probably resonated with voters".

But expectations were different for the Malay candidates, he says, noting that WP candidate Fadli Fawzi was widely praised by the Malay community when he read a pantun (Malay poem) on Nomination Day, while linguistic faux pas from PAP candidates like Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah were turned into memes on social media.

TOWARDS RACE-BLIND POLITICS?

For some, the strong showing by ethnic minority candidates in the election is proof that Singaporeans look beyond race when casting their vote.

Pointing to the minority-dominant Aljunied team, IPS' Dr Mathews says that with its members having served in Parliament for a while, voters may identify more with the opposition platform that they run on than their race, having seen them debate policies in Parliament.

"Voters seem to appreciate a diversity of political opinions rather than a diversity of ethnicity, which could be superficial. This suggests a level of maturity on the part of Singaporean voters," says Dr Nazry.

Dr Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University's School of Social Sciences, says Mr Singh and Mr Tharman champion issues at the national level and rarely ever talk about "Indian issues".

"That is perhaps why they are viewed favourably across the board.

"This does not mean that race completely does not matter in voting - but it does call into question how much," he says.

What about the incident involving 26-year-old Ms Raeesah?

Dr Nazry thinks the issue was not race per se, but the PAP's response.

"We need to consider that she was WP's youngest fielded candidate.

"The police reports that were filed against her angered some voters not because of her critique of Singapore's race relations, but because they were incensed by what they considered gutter politics," he says.

He adds that some voters may have swung to the WP in Sengkang because they perceived that she was being "bullied".

RE-IMAGINING RACE CONVERSATIONS

Dr Walid says one must not automatically assume that conversations on race are divisive.

"The Government would do well to understand that people do want to engage in such conversations," he says.

"When people cross the line a little, the first instinct should be not a tough sanction, but rather, to advise and generate more conversation as to why a particular action or speech is wrong."

Dr Nazry notes that younger Singaporeans, in particular, did not like how the Government came down hard on those who asked difficult questions - rightly or wrongly - about whether certain races or groups of people are treated differently under the law.

He referred to local YouTuber Preeti Nair, known as Preetipls, and her brother Subhas, who last year were given a conditional warning by the police over their controversial online rap video, made in response to a "brownface" advertisement featuring Mediacorp actor and DJ Dennis Chew.

As for Ms Raeesah, the older of her two Facebook posts was written two years ago, leading some to question the close timing of the police report to Polling Day.

"The case of Raeesah Khan is instructive here, but so too were the examples of Preetipls and Subhas. Going hard on these people sends the message that the 'victimised' are to be punished further," Dr Nazry says.

Schools are a good starting point to evolve the conversation on race, says SMU's Professor Tan, but teachers must be adequately trained to handle such conversations.

During the debate on the ministries' budgets in March this year, it was announced that secondary schools would engage students on contemporary issues - including race and religion - fortnightly.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Thursday that the Ministry of Education is training more teachers who can specialise in this and can facilitate such discussions.

Prof Tan also asks whether the GRC system ought to be reviewed. Set up in 1988, GRCs seek to ensure that the minority races in Singapore will always be represented in Parliament. At least one of the MPs in the group representing a GRC must belong to a minority racial community.

"But the notion of a hyphenated-Singaporean is increasingly seen as outmoded, especially for younger voters," he explains, referring to the country's longstanding Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others framework, which officially classifies people according to their ethnicity.

As PM Lee had said in his online rally, it would not be realistic to treat one another in a completely colour-blind way - what some Western academics term a "post-racial" society.

At the same time, Singaporeans are still reminded of their racial identity in their daily interactions, from the imprint on their identity cards to job applications.

It is in this context that Singapore could aspire towards a "post-racialised" - rather than post-racial - society, says Dr Nazry.

"It means that we should not make race our primary identity marker that dictates the way policies and laws are made. It also means we must tackle racial discrimination."

Says Prof Tan: "We may never attain a post-racial society, but that should not stop Singapore and Singaporeans from coming as close as possible to nurturing a state of affairs where conversations on race and religion are no longer taboo and seen as divisive."









Singapore GE2020: Minimum wages or progressive - Which will help more?
The opposition has called for a national minimum wage. But the Government says its progressive wage model is better, as it is not just a payout, but also a ladder for a continued career. Insight relooks this longstanding debate.
By Joanna Seow, Assistant Business Editor, The Sunday Times, 19 Jul 2020

In the lead-up to polling day on July 10, one of the issues that resurfaced in opposition party manifestos and campaigns was a call for a minimum wage and redundancy insurance.

The Workers' Party (WP), for instance, proposed a national minimum take-home wage of $1,300 a month for full-time work, the amount an average four-person household in Singapore needs to spend on basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter each month.


The party also proposed a redundancy insurance scheme for workers, under which they pay $4 a month, matched by employers, into an Employment Security Fund which pays out 40 per cent of their last-drawn salary for up to six months if they are retrenched.

The payout would be capped at $1,200 a month, with a minimum payout of $500 a month for low-wage workers.

Workers can receive more payouts only if they actively seek a new job or go for retraining.

Other parties, such as the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) also called for a minimum wage, with SDP chairman Paul Tambyah, who contested in Bukit Panjang SMC, saying that a minimum wage must apply to foreigners as well as locals so that qualified people come to work here and are not exploited by being made to work at a lower salary than others.

But Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said at a live talk show on July 7 that Singapore's progressive wage model is better than a minimum wage because it is a ladder, of which a minimum wage would be only the first step.

The model sets out minimum salaries for local workers in various roles along a career and skills progression framework.

Mr Tharman said that the model, which is compulsory in the cleaning, security and landscaping sectors, will be spread across all sectors.


He added that the Government's approach of providing jobs for everyone and improving jobs over time requires a step-by-step approach, "not a sudden or drastic approach that risks people losing their jobs, but a steady approach that gives people confidence that they are improving in their jobs, and gives employers confidence that the Government is going to work with them to help them to upgrade productivity".

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also addressed the issue in his online Fullerton election rally on July 6, saying that calls for a minimum wage or a universal basic income are "fashionable peacetime slogans, not serious wartime plans", referring to the Covid-19 crisis.

He said that a minimum wage would add to employers' costs and pressure them to let even more workers go.



LONG-TIME DEBATE

The calls for a minimum wage and unemployment insurance are not new.

For example, in the lead-up to the 2001 General Election, SDP chief Chee Soon Juan called for a minimum wage of $5 per hour.

He also said the Government should pay retrenched workers their last-drawn salary for six months, half the last-drawn salary for a further six months and then a quarter for a further six months. During the 18 months, the worker should be allowed to reject only three job offers.

Dr Chee has also said in the past that the Workfare Income Supplement scheme, which tops up the incomes of lower-income workers aged 35 and above and earning up to $2,300 a month, reinforces a master-servant arrangement both economically and psychologically.

In 2006, in the WP's first manifesto since 1994, it called for the minimum wage in collective agreements between unions and companies to be strictly enforced, and for unemployment insurance with payouts starting at 75 per cent of last-drawn pay. Singaporeans in dire straits should be allowed to draw on their Central Provident Fund savings, it said.

The issues have also come up between elections, such as during Budget debates.

Economist and former Nominated MP Walter Theseira, during the supplementary Budget debate in April, suggested that all Singaporeans receive $110 a week for 12 weeks amid the Covid-19 crisis, funded through a temporary personal income tax hike of 4.25 per cent, paid next year when the economy is expected to have recovered.

Under his proposal, dubbed the Majulah Universal Basic Income Scheme, the less well-off will benefit more, while the high-income will help to finance it.

The WP also launched an online paper in December 2016 proposing an unemployment insurance scheme.

PM Lee had said in his May Day Rally speech earlier that year that Singapore has a better approach in which the Government funds programmes to support workers making the effort to get back into a job and upgrade their skills to make themselves more valuable.

The Government has rolled out schemes such as professional conversion programmes, which fund part of the course fees and the salary or training allowance for mid-career professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) entering new occupations or growth sectors.

It launched the Career Support Programme in 2015 to provide salary subsidies to employers who hire retrenched or long-term unemployed Singaporean PMETs, as well as a hiring incentive this year for employers who hire local workers through certain reskilling and training programmes.

THE EXISTING MODEL

The progressive wage model was first rolled out by the National Trades Union Congress in 2012, under then labour chief Lim Swee Say, in sectors such as cleaning, transport and education.

At the start, the wage benchmarks were recommendations, but they later became compulsory as part of licensing conditions for the cleaning, security and landscaping sectors. They are compulsory for lift maintenance firms in order to be awarded government contracts.

Accordingly, they function as sector-specific minimum wages for workers of various skill levels.

The model is also updated so that the wages rise over time.

For example, when the model became compulsory for full-time resident cleaners under new contracts in September 2014, those in offices and hawker centres had to be paid basic monthly wages of at least $1,000, while town council cleaners had to be paid at least $1,200.

From July 1, their basic wages must be $1,236 and $1,442 respectively.

Supervisors had to be paid at least $1,600 in 2014. Now, the base salary is $1,854.

Mr Tharman said in his July 7 speech that the model has helped workers in the lower-income group, around the 20th percentile of the income ladder, see their wages rise by close to 40 per cent in the last 10 years in real terms, or after inflation is taken into account.

In nominal terms, the pay of the 20th percentile worker has risen from about $1,500 10 years ago to $2,500 now, he said.

He added that the Government also provides Workfare and the Special Employment Credit - a wage subsidy for employers of older workers - which come up to an extra 40 per cent on top of what employers pay the workers.

Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad also told Parliament in March that between 2013 and 2018, the real median monthly gross wages of full-time cleaners, security officers and landscape workers grew cumulatively by around 30 per cent, 31 per cent and 32 per cent respectively. This was faster than the growth of 16 per cent at the median over the same period, for residents in full-time work.

However, WP's newly elected Sengkang GRC MP Jamus Lim said in a Facebook post on July 14 that as the progressive wage model ties wages to job function, it gives too much room to employers to cut corners, without redressing power differentials.

"It also leaves those who simply cannot upskill in the lurch, and earning below a living wage," he said.

Dr Chee has in the past referred to the progressive wage model as an instance of the ruling People's Action Party copying SDP's proposed universal minimum wage, but in piecemeal.

"(They) call it by another name, but it's still the minimum wage for selected industries," said Dr Chee in the lead-up to the 2015 General Election.

DISCUSSION CONTINUES

Even after the July 10 General Election, the debate on the need for a minimum wage continues, which many have said is a good situation.

Associate Professor Lim's Facebook post also said that minimum wage "is not unabashedly good policy", but it would not have to cost the Government as most minimum wage models have no fiscal impact, with three quarters of the burden borne by higher prices consumers pay, and one quarter by firms.

Some people criticised him for not having talked about the cost increase previously, which former Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong, who was in the WP team which contested in Marine Parade GRC this year, sought to address in a separate Facebook post in which he cited a recent survey commissioned by The Sunday Times which found that eight out of 10 Singaporeans are willing to pay more for essential services such as cleaning and security if the extra amount goes to the workers themselves.

Mr Tharman, who is Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, had himself said at the talk show earlier this month that as wages rise for lower-income workers, some costs will go up, such as costs of conservancy in condominiums and cleaning of offices.

But in keeping with his promise in an earlier national broadcast last month that the Government will provide greater support for lower-and middle-income Singaporeans and build a fair and just society, he added: "All of us as Singaporeans will have to pay slightly higher costs. But that is a small cost to pay for building a fairer and more equitable society, where everyone is moving up together."















Singapore GE2020: The long view on CECA and other free trade agreements
The fear of losing jobs to foreigners is valid, but it needs to be addressed with facts, balanced reasoning and empathy
By Ravi Velloor, Associate Editor, The Sunday Times, 19 Jul 2020

Leading up to this month's general election, one issue that won traction was that of the large presence here of foreign workers, particularly the PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) - who are thought to compete with locals for jobs.

Last week's retrenchments at Resorts World Sentosa - and reports that Marina Bay Sands will likely follow suit - have added grist to that mill. An easy target of suspicion are the two dozen or so free trade agreements (FTAs) that Singapore has signed, particularly ones where services trade have been explicitly written into the deals, such as with India and Australia.

As with millions around the world caught in this pandemic-accentuated economic crunch, Singaporeans are asking: What will become of me? Are the deals we agreed on to widen market access hurting my job prospects?

It is a valid fear and one that needs to be addressed with facts, balanced reasoning and, above all, empathy. But to get there, you need to know why Singapore pursued FTAs in the first place and why they remain perhaps even more relevant today, when the multilateral trading system supported by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is semi-paralysed and stressed by the insurgent behaviour of the United States.

In December 1996, when Singapore hosted the inaugural Ministerial Conference of the WTO, the air was one of optimism about the future of free trade and globalisation. World merchandise trade had grown 10 per cent per annum from a mere US$50 billion in 1947 to US$5.6 trillion in 1995.

As barriers to the free flow of trade and investments continued to fall, the expectation was that countries could capitalise more fully on their comparative strengths and look beyond national and regional frontiers.

Opening the trade summit, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong spoke of standing at the threshold of a golden age of global economic growth.

Three years later, when trade ministers convened in Seattle for their third summit, the mood had darkened. Indeed, the Seattle conference failed to make progress on the next round of trade negotiations.

It was against this background of stalling trade liberalisation and a shift from goods towards services trade that Singapore and like-minded nations thought of FTAs as a useful way to keep trade expanding, while they waited for the rest of the world to catch up.

That led to the Agreement between New Zealand and Singapore on a Closer Economic Partnership (ANZSCEP), Singapore's first bilateral FTA.

Its merits came into view instantly; after the FTA was implemented on Jan 1, 2001, Singapore's exports to New Zealand rose 54 per cent on-year in January and February. Today, there are 25 bilateral and plurilateral FTAs involving Singapore and more are under negotiation.

The Ministry Of Trade and Industry estimates that in 2018, FTAs helped Singapore companies benefit from about $1.2 billion in tariff concessions when selling to overseas markets and widened its services sector's market access opportunities in a range of sectors including financial services, education services, health, logistics and transport services, in the process creating good jobs for Singaporeans. They also provide a cushion against the vagaries of geopolitics that increasingly impact trade, including Singapore's food security.

For all its reliance on FTAs as a strategy, each of them, including the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with India that has drawn the most noise lately, has to be a careful judgment call.

When Singapore went for CECA, it was because it could not wait for WTO to finish its work to gain entry into the promising Indian market. Tortuously negotiated over two years, the nearly 740-page document was agreed on after vexed negotiations over the finer details of a financial services and double taxation avoidance agreement by which Singapore-registered companies enjoyed zero capital gains in India. To the last, sections of Indian industry and some political parties were sceptical of its benefits.

Today, there is no denying that both sides gained. If you look past visuals of the large number of Indian faces at lunchtime in areas like Marina Bay Financial Centre and the IT-concentrated Changi Business Park, CECA has delivered for Singapore. Official data on Statlink shows bilateral trade rose from $16.6 billion in 2005 to $24.3 billion last year. Singapore companies' investments in India, a mere $1.3 billion in 2005, rose to $60.9 billion by the end of 2018.

The figure expands if you include global companies routing their foreign direct investments through Singapore. Confederation of Indian Industry - India Business Federation, a grouping of big Indian companies here, says cumulative FDI routed from Singapore into India from April 2000 to September 2019 amounts to US$91.02 billion, or a fifth of total inflows into India. What's more, it notes, more than 80 per cent of listed offshore bonds by Indian issuers are listed on the Singapore Exchange and Singapore-based investors have assets under management in India valued in excess of $100 billion.

CECA also helped pave the way for Singapore to prise open a sector that governments tend to obsessively protect: banking.

DBS Bank, whose attempt to expand in some big Asean markets has been thwarted, operates 34 branches across 24 Indian cities, a footprint among foreign banks that ranks only behind Standard Chartered and Citi, which have operated there from 1858 and 1902, respectively. In the Indian financial year that ended in March, DBS' net India revenue rose 24 per cent to 14.44 billion rupees ($272.3 million) while net profit rose more than sixfold.

Much of the Singaporean misgivings about CECA stem from its listing of 127 professions under the Temporary Movement of Natural Persons chapter. Two other FTAs - with Japan and the US - also include commitments on professionals. While CECA has the longest list, it has the shortest duration - just a year - committed.

Nevertheless, this has raised fears of a flood of Indian professionals arriving to steal well-paying jobs at a time when PMETs, at 58 per cent, decisively dominate the local job market.

However, temporary movement of natural persons is not unusual in trade agreements and also figure in the other FTAs Singapore signed, for instance, with Australia and New Zealand. None of them confer unfettered right of entry for foreign professionals.



I was in the room in June 2005 when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his then counterpart, Dr Manmohan Singh, signed CECA and at the press interactions that followed, senior Singapore officials consistently made clear that whether it was access to Singapore's financial services market or in professional services, anything agreed would be "subject to local Singaporean regulations".

In fact, this was indeed the first line of a multi-layered range of safeguards built to prevent an influx, as I realised subsequently. For instance, there are more than 540 medical colleges recognised by the Indian Medical Council. Yet, as of Jan 1, Singapore recognises degrees from a mere two of these institutions, and that's down from seven earlier. Besides, the Indian doctors who find jobs here have to get local certification as well.

Similarly, where intra-company transfers are involved - a foreign line manager who might seek to pull in a loyal underling, for instance - the scrutiny levels have tightened before an Employment Pass (EP) is granted.

Another threshold, and one which draws a lot of complaints, is a minimum salary requirement for foreigners in various categories, usually set above the median to prevent undercutting of local salaries.

One route available for Singaporeans to address specific grievances is the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF), which is meant to protect against discriminatory hiring practices.

FCF requires companies to advertise professional, managerial and executive posts for at least 14 days before the firms can apply to the Ministry of Manpower for an EP for a foreigner. As of March, there were some 1,000 companies that had been placed on the FCF watch list, including those with an exceptionally high share of PMETs compared with their industry peers, or high concentration of single nationalities.

The threshold for monthly salaries exempted from FCF advertising requirements has also steadily increased over the years and now stands at $20,000. In January, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo announced several updates to give more teeth to the FCF.

The better companies, whether they are the global banks or Indian conglomerates, realise they need to do their part and indeed have moved to do so.

India's US$113 billion Tata group, for instance, has 20 operating companies and 28 entities in Singapore, employing a total of 3,300 staff. At its flagship Tata Consultancy Services, its software services arm, the percentage of local residents employed has doubled to nearly 40 per cent over the past five years, says Mr K.V. Rao, resident director of Tata Sons, the holding company.

Of the 1,500 TCS employees on the island, many serve regional functions. They include head of telecoms for Asia-Pacific Jimmy Tan, human resources head for Singapore and South Korea Seow Li Dwen Hwee and the marketing head for Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan Lee Shu Shan.

TCS Asia-Pacific president Girish Ramachandran says he would hire more Singaporeans except that many locals seek to be project managers and analysts "from Day 2" rather than work their way up. Besides, he says, many of TCS' big clients on the island are still on mainframes whereas the young do not like to work on old technologies.

For sure, all FTAs, CECA included, are always a balance of interests and subject to periodic review. But renegotiation cannot be without costs and who knows the reciprocal action may even adversely impact the 40 per cent of the job market that do not come into the PMET pool but do benefit from the good that FTAs bring. Over the two decades past, the FTAs we have signed cover economies that represent more than 85 per cent of global GDP and account for more than 90 per cent of its trade.

There is also the question of whether Singapore produces enough of its own to serve the economy's expanding needs; last year alone, the Economic Development Board attracted investment commitments of $15.2 billion in fixed asset investments and a projected $9 billion in total business expenditure per annum as companies spend on banking, travel and legal issues. When the projects are fully implemented, they will create nearly 33,000 jobs.

This issue of foreigners competing for PMET jobs will not go away. Indeed, the next periodic jobs report will surely bring it into focus again as retrenchments proceed. But if ever there was a time for cool minds and a long view, it is now.





Singapore GE2020: Economic pain and desire for diversity of voices are two key messages from voters, says Shanmugam
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 28 Jul 2020

The deep economic pain being felt by Singaporeans due to Covid-19 and a desire for diversity in Parliament are the two key messages voters sent the Government in the recent general election, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said.

While the nearly $100 billion package across four Budgets has helped to blunt some of the impact of the pandemic, segments of the population - including those aged between 40 and 60 as well as small businesses in sectors like construction - are hurting very badly, said Mr Shanmugam in an interview with Money FM 89.3's Claressa Monteiro broadcast yesterday.

That is why apart from short-term "blood transfusions", the Government is focused on saving Singaporean jobs. And where that cannot be done, it has to "try and save every Singaporean - try and train them, give them other options to tide through this period".

"We cannot by ourselves wave a magic wand and create economic growth in the context of a global deep recession, but we can tide through and help our people," said the minister.



In a conversation billed as a look at hard truths from GE2020, Mr Shanmugam said the People's Action Party (PAP) is keenly aware of voters' desire for diversity of representation in Parliament.

He disagreed with some commentators' view that the 27 new faces the PAP introduced at the recent hustings were perceived as capable but boring, or that they did not have the same appeal as some of the candidates who were put up by the opposition.

"I would say it's a difference between perception and reality," said the minister, who entered politics in the 1988 General Election.

"If you look at the PAP candidates in the eight elections that I've been in, this is probably the best slate of young candidates - fresh, full of energy, full of ideas, they want to do things."

Mr Shanmugam cited as examples the two new members of his Nee Soon GRC team.

Ms Carrie Tan came from humble beginnings, took on a corporate job and gave it up to start a non-governmental organisation that helps underprivileged women.

Mr Derrick Goh grew up in a three-room flat in Balam Road, put himself through university and worked in global financial centres like London and New York, before returning to Singapore to take charge of POSB and revamp it. He is now a managing director at DBS.

"It tells you the world of possibilities for all our kids, and the new candidates from the PAP symbolise that," said Mr Shanmugam. "It may be that because there are so many of them, that not all of it comes through."



While the PAP's candidates do not attract as much attention because the party has been in power for the living memory of most Singaporeans, he said: "If people look at them, they will see passionate young men and women who want to create a better Singapore."

He also acknowledged the party needs to think about how to present its candidates better so people know what they have done and their vision for Singapore.

Asked if the PAP was shifting its search for candidates away from its traditional grazing grounds of the civil service and the military, he said the party's underlying principle is to choose people it thinks can best serve residents, and "not start with preconceived ideas that military is bad or military is good, civil service is bad or civil service is good".

While talent has traditionally gone into the civil service and the military, today's private sector holds a substantial talent pool too, and the PAP looks for people of quality across different sectors, said Mr Shanmugam, who was a lawyer in private practice before he joined politics.

"The essentials you look for are the same: the person, does he have energy? Does he have the heart to serve? Is he willing? Is he capable?

"Those questions are fundamental and they don't change," he said. "Where you find them, as society changes, you also have got to change the way you look for people, because the people you bring in have got to fit the needs of a changing population."

On the issue of political succession, he said the fourth-generation leadership team has to forge its own way both in working with a new generation of Singaporeans who have different expectations from their parents and grandparents, but also to emerge from under the shadow of "an extremely formidable and popular Prime Minister and two senior ministers who have very large footprints".

In that sense, the challenges they face are no different from when the 2G team under Mr Goh Chok Tong was emerging from the shadows of the "towering generation" that was the founding fathers, or when the 3G team under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had to emerge from their shadows.

Yet, in the Singapore style, each generation as it emerges will be helped by the previous generation of leaders, said Mr Shanmugam.

"It is, as we have indicated, a work in progress started some time ago, and they have to both get the confidence of the population and a changing electorate, and at the same time carve out their own roles and work with each other in a changing international context with many new challenges."

On whether GE2020 showed that young and first-time voters want the PAP to move towards a more liberal and populist style of governance, Mr Shanmugam said he did not think that was the case.

"They were, in my view, no different from younger voters of previous generations - they want fairness, they want justice, they want to feel that they are part of a system where people are able to express themselves, and they want good governance and they want the party in government to produce results," he said.

"And, you know, it's not an unfair expectation."




Related
GE2020 results: PAP wins 83 of 93 seats; WP takes two GRCs
Singapore GE2020: PAP spells out reasons vote fell below expectations
GE2020 shows a new political culture of a 'kinder and gentler politics' is emerging, says Chan Heng Chee

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