Asia-Pacific, Economy & Trade

Singaporeans Opt for Continuity in Polls: ‘Strong Mandate’ for Government, but ‘no Blank Cheque’!

SINGAPORE, Jul 21 2020 - Singaporeans went to polls on Friday the 10th of July. It was a crisis election, seen as the most significant since the country’s independence in 1965, given the backdrop of the COVID 19 pandemic and its massive negative impact on the economy on this small but wealthy island republic. Out of a population of nearly 5.85 million on election day, the number of registered voters stood at 2.65 million. It was no surprise that in a nation with a reputation of unmatchable discipline, the voting was an orderly process. In conformity with rules each voter was masked, safe distancing was scrupulously maintained, and their hands were sanitized as they entered the booths. The elderly, who needed it, were provided assistance. The electorate returned what has been assessed as a sophisticated, calibrated and mature outcome. It re-elected the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) to power with a sufficiently strong enough mandate to help it pull the nation out of the crisis. At the same time, it also created a diversity in the legislature that would ensure that the government did not have a blank cheque for unrestricted authority.

Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury

The PAP, led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong won 83 of the 93 seats contested, with its popular support showing 61.24 percent, 8.7 points down from its 69.9 per cent share in the 2015 elections. However, it must be remembered that 2015 was a jubilee Year for Singapore, which also saw the death of the ever-popular founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, father of Lee Hsien Loong, a fact that gave the PAP a sentimental bump in the polls. But the current result for the party was better than its showing in 2011 elections when it had only 61.1 per cent of the votes, its worst ever performance. The PAP, it must be noted, has ruled Singapore continuously for six decades, seen the country through a number of crises but most importantly, raised the island state from the third world to the level of a first world nation , one of the world’s richest. Indeed, today Singapore’s economy is generally ranked as the most open in the world, one of the least corrupt, with low tax rates, and with the third highest per capita gross domestic product the globe in terms of purchasing power parity.

One critique, that surfaced during the campaign, however, was the question of inequitable wealth distribution. This was a major thrust of the principal opposition platform, the Worker’s Party (WP), led by Pritam Singh, a bright and urbane political luminary, with impressive academic and leadership credentials. The PAP has consistently maintained that the Progressive Wage Model, currently mandatory in many sectors, works well for Singapore. The WP on the other hand has pitched for a national minimum wage, arguing that it ensures a baseline level of income for all, and signals the inherent dignity of labour in Singapore. Singh also insisted that the government becomes more responsive to people’s concerns when it loses seats. While for a variety of reasons the PAP’s return was a certainty, the key element was with what numbers. Singh’s WP contested for 21 seats, and secured 10, the best performance by any opposition party in Singapore’s electoral history. It was obvious that some of the points of the opposition had resonated with the electorate. Two other parties participated in the hustings: the Progressive Singapore Party (PSP) of the veteran opposition politician, Tan Cheng Bok, and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) of Dr Chee Soon Juan. They put up a nail-bitingly close fights in several constituencies, but in the end failed to win any.

The campaign itself was conducted on-line, with well -organized structured debates, and avoiding crowds in line with current public health guide- lines. There were some interesting debates. The PAP positioned itself as the best party to lead the country out of the Covid crisis, as they had done in the case of other adverse situations before. They referred to the massive governmental fiscal injections of amounts totaling S $ 92 billion across four budgets to help the recovery process, tapping the country’s war-chest of reserves. Yet due the lock-down jobs were lost, and many companies folded. The PAP might have paid some price for it. Also, the government received some flak for the large number of infections in foreign worker’s dormitories, 45, 000 cases in total, as also for the pre-existing unsatisfactory living conditions there. What went in the PAP’s favour was the low number of deaths, only 26 in all, and the medical servicing, undoubtedly one of the best in the world. An interesting debate that drew some attention was an SDP claim that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, Lee Hsien Loong’s successor down the line, had publicly toyed with the idea of raising the island’s population to 10 million by bringing in more foreigner. The government quickly reacted by denying it. During the campaign WP projected itself as a moderate and rational entity, and largely desisted from criticizing the government’s role in the handling of the Covid issue, which, given the complexity of the crisis, reflected a pragmatic line of thinking. The WP’s success in bagging the largest number of seats for any opposition party in Singapore’s electoral history, doubling its number of 5 from the last polls to 10 in this one, seemed to be a result of prudent politics.

Singaporeans have no doubt that their government is better able to deliver in terms of good governance than most others around the world. Yet they have some concerns that they needed to demonstrate to the government, which they did by clawing back on some support. Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong took note. Viewing the results as a renewal of “a clear mandate”, he nevertheless, saw them as reflecting “the pain and anxiety the Singaporeans feel in this crisis”, also resulting in” a desire for more diversity”. Lee offered Singh the official designation of ‘Leader of Opposition’ another first in Singapore politics. Singh accepted with thanks, and also displayed all intentions of helping make the Parliament a robust forum for constructive deliberations.

With the elections behind him, which was a constitutional requirement time wise, and now armed with a fresh mandate, Lee will turn to addressing issues on hand largely unimpeded. Singapore has a unique system of transferring leadership from one generation to another, priming the new- comers for the responsibilities for a period of time. His own generation is called ‘3 G’ or the third generation of leaders, and Heng Swee Keat and his team, a younger lot, ‘4 G’, or fourth generation. There would be no need for any other election for Lee to seamlessly transfer the baton to Heng, who has proved himself a sharp intellect , efficient manager and a tireless worker despite a health hiccup some time ago,, but it will not happen just yet. This came through when Lee said to at a post- polls press briefing: “I will use this mandate responsibly through the crisis to deal with Covid 19 and the economic downturn and to take us safely through this crisis and beyond”. This could mean the transition might need to wait another one and half to two years. The time will most certainly be well used.

So, politically and economically, Singapore is on a post-Covid path to recovery. It will organize itself domestically to prepare to re-engage the outside world, with which this free-economy is so interconnected, when the others begin to open up as China has. Even prior to the pandemic, Asian economies were on the rise. The manner in which Covid19 has impacted on the US and European economies, and revealed some of their structural weaknesses, with Asia ( particularly South-East and East Asia) doing a much better job handling it, the crisis is like to provide even a greater fillip to Asia in the future. There will be an obvious role for Singapore for it, notwithstanding the current technical recession. A possible scenario beyond the rim of the saucer is ‘a flying geese’ paradigm for Asian economies, with China in the lead, and others like Singapore closely following. Of course, there are existing intra-mural political and security issues among them, which will require some deft diplomatic handling.

Singapore will also look out for new partners in other regions including in neighbouring South Asia. Bangladesh has the potentials for being one such. While the Pandemic is still a huge issue which Bangladesh is grappling with at this point in time, there will still be an afterwards. The fundamentals in Bangladesh are perhaps stronger than most other countries in the region. Singapore has vast experience of China, and China has huge investments in Bangladesh, with more in the pipeline. Logically Singapore could be an effective learning and functioning conduit between the two, both between companies and governments. Singapore also has large sovereign funds looking to potential investments. Bangladeshi businesses must learn that Singapore is much more than just a medical-tourism destination. During a visit to Singapore two years ago, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina offered lands for a Special Economic Zone for Singaporean investors. It is now time to resuscitate that project.

John F Kennedy used to say that in Chinese the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, the one representing ‘danger’ and the other ‘opportunity’. He was wrong, for it does not. But what is right is that human efforts can actually create the correlation. Properly handled, the kite does rise against the wind.

Source: UNB United News of Bangladesh

This story was originally published by Dhaka Courier.

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