2019 national budget may reveal whether or not PM Lee will call for early elections

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Photo: Facebook screengrab/ Lee Hsien Loong

Speculations abound as to whether Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will call for early elections. One writer believes that this year’s national budget, to be rolled out on February 18, may reveal whether this will be so.

The next General Elections must be held by January 15, 2021, but many have suggested that PM Lee may call for early polls—considering that his party, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) may enjoy an upward bump in popularity this year, the 200th year since Britain’s Sir Stamford Raffles landed on Singapore’s shores, marking this year as the nation’s bicentennial.

2019 is also PAP’s 60th year in power.

Should he call for early polls, Lee will be able to make good on his intention to see his successor become Prime Minister as well as step down in 2022, when he turns 70.

In November, Lee’s apparent successor was announced to be Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s Finance Minister, who was chosen by the newest generation of PAP’s leaders.

On the economic front, this year might also be ideal for holding the next general elections, with PM Lee announcing in his message for the NewYear that this year’s GDP growth is expected at 1.5 to 3.5 percent.

Bhavan Jaipragas, writing for the South China Morning Post (SCMP) posits that 2019 may be a good time for PAP to hold elections, rather than at a later time when the economic outlook may not be so rosy.

The SCMP quotes Garry Rodan, a professor of politics at Murdoch University and a longtime observer of Singapore, as saying, “With no resolution to incipient trade wars in sight, there is a real possibility that slowing growth projections for Singapore in 2019 might be worse the year after.”

Others seem to agree with Rodan’s speculation. If “elections were held today … [the PAP] would feel comfortable about achieving a fairly solid result,” the owner of the Singapore-based Blackbox Research polling firm, David Black, told SCMP.

Worsening global economic conditions such as China’s downturn and the slump in the US stock market, plus the effect of trade tensions between the two economic giants, may also work in PAP’s favor, with people looking toward leadership that they can trust, Black also said.

PAP has a history of doing well at the polls during troubled times, as seen in its triumph after the 9-11 attacks.

However, the biggest indicator, SCMP says, of whether early elections will be called may well be this year’s national budget, will be revealed by Finance Minister Heng on February 18.

The paper reports that since Singapore’s constitution necessitates for the administration to either spend surpluses from its term or save it in financial reserves, it’s possible that the ruling administration may opt for an “election budget.”

Professor Eugene Tan of Singapore Management University said, “We can expect goodies in the budget given that a general election could take place in 2019. Even if [the election] does not take place in 2019, budget goodies will help in getting the feel-good factor going for the PAP.”

However, PAP must also contend with discontent over income inequality and rising costs of living, as these factors could affect electoral results. According to Black, Singaporeans are concerned over a number of issues, including the aforementioned inequality and cost of living, plus employment, housing, insurance, and others.

“Of these, cost of living is easily the most pressing for Singaporeans and the one that the government has to tackle on various fronts as it is multifaceted and nebulous,” Black said.

The pollster said that satisfaction over the cost of living is currently at 58 percent, a figure lower than in the previous year.

Another possible matter that PAP may contend with is the possibility of PM Lee’s brother Lee Hsien Yang joining the opposition. Relations between PM Lee and his younger brother are strained. The younger brother was photographed last year with Tan Cheng Bock, formerly of PAP, but now in the opposition.

However, the opposition remains largely disunited. According to an analyst of Singaporean politics, Bridget Welsh, “An evolving concern is the reformulation of the opposition which involves both Lee Hsien Yang and Tan Cheng Bock. New figures are creating excitement but fragmentation remains a problem for the opposition as a whole.”

In the midst of all this, the figure to watch remains Heng Swee Keat, who will most likely be a central figure leading up to the next general elections. Experts expect that Heng will play a leading role to prove his mettle if he is to take the highest position in the land.

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PM Lee: Students need “intangible but essential values” along with good education and training to ensure Singapore’s success