Asia Politics

5 reasons why Singapore's upcoming general election is worth watching

Key Points
  • Singaporean voters will head to polls on July 10 as the country continues to battle the coronavirus outbreak that could drag its economy into recession. 
  • The Southeast Asian country is not the first to hold a national vote in the middle of the pandemic. South Korea in April held parliamentary elections that resulted in a decisive win for President Moon Jae-in's party.  
  • But the election is gearing up to be interesting in many ways: It could be Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's last poll before stepping down, and his younger brother Lee Hsien Yang has joined an opposition party.
Singaporean voters queue at a polling station to cast their votes in the general election on Sept. 11, 2015.
Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images

Singapore is set to hold its general election on July 10 — a little more than a month after the country started easing restrictions aimed at containing one of Southeast Asia's largest coronavirus outbreaks.

Singapore's ruling party, the People's Action Party, has never lost an election before and has governed the city state since 1959, before the country's independence in 1965.

The upcoming election is gearing up to be different from the previous ones before. Here are five reasons why Singapore's next election is worth watching.

Coronavirus cases are still climbing

The Southeast Asian country is not the first to hold a national vote in the middle of the pandemic. South Korea in April held parliamentary elections that resulted in a decisive win for President Moon Jae-in's party.  

While the South Korean government was largely praised for its handling of the virus at the time of its elections, Singapore's response — which was initially seen as a success globally — lost some of its shine due to an outbreak within dormitories that house migrant workers.

Those workers — usually men from other Asian countries working in low-wage, labor-intensive jobs — account for more than 90% of nearly 44,000 confirmed infections in Singapore, according to the health ministry's data.

The total number of new cases reported daily still hovers in the hundreds. However, a decline in infections outside the dormitories led the Singapore government to ease much of its partial lockdown measures last month, paving the way for the election to be held.

Still, some observers warned that infections in the wider community could climb in the lead-up to the July 10 vote.

"Any surge in community cases ... to the polling day might lead to criticism on the government's decision, and will, therefore, backfire (on) its approval rating," consultancy The Economist Intelligence Unit said in a note last week.

Economic crisis looming

The coronavirus pandemic hit Singapore at a time when its open and trade-dependent economy was already feeling the effects of the U.S.-China trade war.

Singapore is forecasting its worst economic recession since independence in 1965. The economy is expected to shrink by between 4% and 7% this year, according to official estimates.

In the past, times of crises helped the ruling party to score larger electoral wins as voters preferred a steady hand to lead the country. In the 2001 general election — which was held soon after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. — the party received 75.3% of the votes.

But such "flight to safety" often occurred at the onset of a crisis, not in the middle of it, said Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University.

"I think now Singapore is in the eye of the storm, and how the government has handled the crisis so far, I think that's going to come under very robust scrutiny during the campaign period," Tan told CNBC's "Squawk Box Asia" last week.

"I don't think it's all clear that this is the general election that will favor the ruling party, the odds are that it would, but we shouldn't exclude the possibility that voters may take a different view," said Tan, a regular commentator of Singapore politics.   

Changing of guards

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had previously said he was ready to step down by the time he turns 70. Lee, who has held the top job since 2004, is now 68 which means the upcoming election could be his last as prime minister.  

Lee is only the third prime minister of Singapore since independence. He's the son of the city state's widely respected founding prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew.

Singapore's ruling party to focus on jobs in general elections campaign, says foreign minister
Singapore's ruling party to focus on jobs in general elections campaign, says foreign minister

Current Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat is tipped to succeed Lee. Heng and a group of cabinet ministers — dubbed the fourth generation, or 4G, leaders — have been at the forefront of the country's response to the coronavirus outbreak.  

Those ministers are expected to play a bigger role in leading the ruling People's Action Party, or PAP, in the upcoming election.

Opposition politics

For only the second time since Singapore's independence, all 93 parliamentary seats that are up for grabs in the election will be contested. The ruling PAP is the only one that has fielded candidates for every seat.

The PAP has won every election since independence — often even before polling day, because opposition parties sometimes fielded candidates for only a handful of seats. The last election in 2015 was the first time that every parliamentary seat was contested.

Last week, the prime minister's younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, joined an opposition party. Although the younger Lee is not contesting in the election, he is expected to help rally support for the opposition. 

Lee Hsien Yang, the son of Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and younger brother of current premier Lee Hsien Loong, joins the opposition Progress Singapore Party.
Suhaimi Abdullah | Getty Images

"I am involved through speaking up, by supporting candidates and parties I believe in, by contributing my time, ideas and resources to causes I support, and by seeking an open and independent media," he said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

"I do not seek power, prestige or financial rewards of political office. I hope to be a catalyst for change," he added.

The siblings were embroiled in a public rift in 2017 when the prime minister came under attack by his brother and younger sister Lee Wei Ling, who released a statement accusing the prime minister of abusing his power and exploiting their father's legacy for political gains.

Singapore general elections: No 'all-clear' yet for ruling party win given coronavirus crisis
Singapore general elections: No 'all-clear' yet for ruling party win given virus crisis

Their father, Lee Kuan Yew, co-founded the ruling party and was Singapore's longest serving prime minister from 1959 to 1990. He was widely credited for the development of Singapore — a former British colony — from a third-world country into the advanced city state that it is today.

Safe campaigning and voting

An election in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak means political parties will have to do away with the traditional way of campaigning. Chief among those is mass rallies — one of the most common methods for candidates to reach out to voters.

Door-to-door campaigning and community walkabouts are still allowed, subject to rules such as limiting each group to five people, mask-wearing and keeping a safe distance, according to guidelines issued by the Elections Department.

To make up for the lack of physical rallies, political parties will get more airtime to campaign on free-to-air television channels, the guidelines said. Candidates can also live-stream online rallies, it added.

On voting day, temperature screening and other hygiene measures will be carried out at all polling stations, the department said. To avoid crowding, there will also be more polling stations, and voters will be allocated a recommended two-hour time slot to cast their ballot, it added.