Think Centre on the GE2020 during a Covid-19 pandemic
9 July 2020 3:46 pm

Think Centre on the GE2020 during a Covid-19 pandemic

Exactly 5 months after the first recorded Covid-19 case on 23 January, the Prime Minister dissolved the Parliament on 23 June to call for the 14th Singapore General Elections to be held from between 30 June to 10 July. The PAP is calling for a strong mandate to lead Singapore out of the Covid-19 crisis. Even though this current election can be held by April 2021 at the latest.

The 2020 General Elections is an important one. It marks the full passing of the first generation of political leaders. With the exception of Lee Hsien Loong, many of the second-generation leaders are retiring. Now, a new batch of fourth generation political candidates are being proposed for the electorate. What prospect for change can we envision after GE2020?

PAP’s total dominance

This is the first time an election is held amidst an ongoing pandemic in Singapore. But the pandemic is not the first global crisis that the incumbent has used to ensure its enduring stranglehold on power. It has a blank cheque to time elections with events such as September 11th and the death of Lee Kuan Yew to elicit a sense of crisis in the electorate.

PAP’s decades of supremacy at the polls and uninterrupted dominance has enabled it to shape the political landscape to its advantage. Political opponents have to face institutional obstacles at each and every step on the way to enter Parliament: Group Representation Constituency, hiking of election deposits, unfavourable coverage and near total shutout by state-controlled media, shifting political boundaries, and highly restrictive laws on the rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

The lack of challenge in the parliament also means any inherent weakness of the Singapore system continues to go unchecked. Even as cracks show up and widen in the form of social and economic inequalities, the ruling party and its stalwarts continue to maintain that they are their own best check, and they demand citizens trust the institutions based on their track record.

Combined with a total control over the media and use of restrictive laws, Singapore’s original vibrant political culture regressed into one controlled by fear which have kept the electorate ignorant on details of issues. Only during the age of the internet did we see a sliver of hope for the arising of a more democratic space.

Think Centre’s founding in 1999 coincided with the surge of internet access in Singapore. As a human rights organisation, we have been consistently calling for greater freedom of expression and speech, assembly, right to information, better social economic rights toward decent work in the form of minimum wage (living wage), non-discrimination and a better social safety net.

Public advocacy on these issues could only go so far without them being taken up in the parliament. Within those 20 years, it was only after the Workers’ Party’s breakthrough GRC win in the landmark 2011 election, that we see a grudging shuffle to the left in the incumbent ruling party’s policies.

Covid-19 impact: a new normal?

Covid-19 affects everyone regardless of status but existing inequalities ensure that everyone experienced the pandemic differently. The vast majority of the 45,140 cases as of 7 July comprise migrant workers residing primarily in purpose-built dormitories. As the most affected group, they are also the most disenfranchised in the way they are being managed during the pandemic, and they have no say at all. Even overseas Singaporeans who are eligible to vote are deprived of the chance due to either travel restrictions or when the electronic system glitches.

Rather than developing innovative and humane ways to persuade people of the measures’ necessity, work permits were revoked without means of appeal while hefty fines were leveraged on Singaporeans as well.

The pandemic has also exposed some old myths. With the Circuit Breaker in place, Work-From-Home has become the default norm. Services workers are now seen as very important to upkeep the sanitation and essential to keep the operations of supermarkets running. Even as cheers and claps for health care workers are replicated here, heroes being made out of food delivery workers and cleaners, there is a lag and gap in the national conversation to redress them through better wage structures and policies.

What is clear is that many challenges cannot be tackled by the current ruling party going alone. The pandemic has seen many reports of independent initiatives reaching out to all vulnerable segments of the society. This demonstrates the creativity and ability of Singaporeans responding together as a whole.

Hopes from a muzzled GE2020

There are well-founded concerns over the prospect of a 14th Parliament with no real alternative voices given the giant four-budget packages and the PAP’s deep institutional support. Nonetheless, Think Centre questions if Singaporeans should continue to be held hostage through the politics of fear. Members of the parliament are elected to represent and voice the concerns we have over government policies and the broader direction the country is going. Without a greater diversity of voices and representation to clarify the options, it is a dull possibility for Singapore to emerge stronger from the Covid-19 crisis.

However as feared and predicted, the GE2020 has seen an uptick in the use of POFMA or the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act against political opponents, social critics, independent social media, and even ordinary Singaporeans posting on their social media accounts. The rampant use of the POFMA orders have the effect of shoring the perception that the PAP and the government as one inextricable entity. We are hampered by a lack of an equivalent Freedom of Information Act to find the necessary information and to make judgement on the efficacy of policies and performance of the government.

Think Centre thanks all candidates standing in this unique and highly restricted election. In particular the alternative parties’ candidates having to overcome both the structural political obstacles and personal challenges to stand forward.

Regardless of the results, in the next parliament, we hope that due attention can be paid toward better social protection for all to address social inequality, including that of migrant workers, and for greater space to discuss issues of discrimination without police reports being made flagrantly.

Think Centre hopes that the GE2020 will lead towards a chance to build a “new normal”, one that allows us to build a system that respects human rights and democratic participation – with dignity for all. The foundation must be basic rights for all – not some basic rights for citizens and even less for non-citizens. Built upon that must be more benefits for our citizens.

On a broader basis, we also hope that it will lead us to re-think the adequacy of our current political system and prepare for reforms such as a proportional representation system to tackle a different generational challenge. Hard choices need to be made through a free and robust discussion to overcome the civilisational crisis of climate change through a different economic system of production and distribution.

Majulah Singapore!