The results of 2020 General Election were a bolt from the blue for the People’s Action Party (PAP) – the party called the election in the middle of a global pandemic and indicated that it needs to get the election over with so that it could rally everyone together.
The PAP specifically asked the people to give it a strong mandate so it could better focus on overcoming the challenges in the uncertain future that lies ahead – ruling party Ministers even indicated that the people need not worry about an opposition wipe-out and should give their votes to the PAP because of the controversial NCMP scheme.
Instead, the PAP suffered a massive blow when it received its second-worst election result in Singapore’s history as an independent nation.
Even though it managed to retain the vast majority of seats in Parliament and continues to have the ability to pass bills unilaterally since it controls more than two-thirds of seats, the Workers’ Party (WP) managed to capture another Group Representation Constituency (GRC) – only the second GRC that has ever been won by the opposition – and now has a record 10 elected members of parliament.
Besides losing another GRC, the PAP saw a hefty swing of votes against it in nearly every single seat. While some socio-political analysts have said that the results of the latest election may provide a glimpse into what the results of the last election might have been – if it was not abruptly held in the year of Singapore’s 50th birthday and months after founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew passed – others feel that the results of GE2020 signals the people’s rejection of the PAP’s fourth-generation (4G) leaders.
Singaporeans’ rejection of the PAP’s 4G cohort cannot be more apparent than in the contest at East Coast GRC. Heng Swee Keat – the leader of the PAP’s 4G, who is expected to become Singapore’s next Prime Minister – anchored the ruling party team at East Coast.
Instead of achieving a better result with the involvement of the PM-in-waiting, the PAP’s East Coast team suffered a worst result than it did in the watershed 2011 General Election.
Heng Swee Keat and his East Coast teammates barely made it into Parliament, with 53.41 per cent of the vote. This is the worst PAP performance in the ward since East Coast GRC was formed nearly thirty years ago, in 1991.
The PAP’s weak performance at East Coast GRC was especially pronounced since the PAP team – which comprised of four political office-holders including Mr Heng – faced off against a slate of WP candidates that had never contested East Coast GRC before. The fight was so close that people have been speculating what might have happened if Mr Heng was not returned to Parliament.
The people’s lack of faith in the PAP’s 4G could also be seen in the nearby Sengkang GRC, which was newly carved out ahead of GE2020. Four political newbies from the WP defeated four PAP candidates – including three political office-holders – in a stunning upset.
The WP’s victory at Sengkang GRC ousted 4G leader Ng Chee Meng from Parliament – a significant outcome since Mr Ng was the PAP’s labour MP and since the PAP’s main message to voters this election was focused on saving jobs.
Mr Ng, who was a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, is the second PAP Minister who was denied the opportunity to return to Parliament in the history of Singapore after ex-Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo was unseated by the WP in the 2011 election.
Perhaps indicating that the results of the latest election – particularly the upset at Sengkang GRC – have undermined the confidence of the 4G leadership, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called his party’s defeat at Sengkang GRC a “significant loss to the 4G team” during this time. PM Lee, who had personally lent weight to the Sengkang GRC team’s campaigning efforts, added that the result constitutes “a major loss to my team”.
Other prominent 4G ministers also saw a swing of votes against them during the election. The PAP’s team at Tanjong Pagar GRC, which includes Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing and Minister from the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah from the 4G, saw a hefty 14.58 per cent swing against it from the last election.
The PAP, which has won Tanjong Pagar by walkover in the 1991, 1997, 2001, 2006 and 2011 elections, saw its first contest in the 2015 election where it coasted to victory with over 77 per cent. This election, it only received 63.13 per cent of the vote against a team of political novices from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) even though Mr Chan and Ms Indranee have been in the ward for the last three election cycles.
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, another 4G leader, was the anchor minister at Sembawang GRC after ex-Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan retired from electoral politics. His team 67.29 per cent of votes, compared to the 72.28 per cent of votes it received in the last election. Mr Ong’s Sembawang team, which included three political office-holders, saw a dip in votes even though many residents said that they did not see the opposing National Solidarity Party on the ground much.
Nearby at Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, the PAP team won with 63.18 per cent of votes. It saw a swing of over five per cent compared to the last election, even though the PAP team was led by National Development Minister Lawrence Wong – a prominent 4G leader who is the co-chair of the Government’s COVID-19 taskforce.
The taskforce’s second co-chair, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, saw a very startling 18.25 per cent swing of votes against his team at Chua Chu Kang GRC even though he has been at the ward for nearly a decade, since it was formed in the 2011 election. The PAP team, under Mr Gan’s leadership, garnered 58.64 per cent of votes in the contest against new candidates from the PSP, which included a 23-year-old law undergrad.
None of the 4G ministers who have been featured in this article went up against opposition giants like Chee Soon Juan, Paul Tambyah, Sylvia Lim, Pritam Singh, or Tan Cheng Bock – they all faced off against fresh candidates or the smaller parties in the opposition. Yet all of them suffered a worst result than the 2015 General Election. Some even performed worse than they did in the 2011 General Election, that saw the PAP’s worst electoral performance in Singapore’s history.
The results of the election suggests that the people are not too fond of the PAP’s 4G leaders – who have been described in several quarters as “old wine packaged in a new bottle”.
The shaky support for the PAP Government, in a crisis election nonetheless, shows that top-down leadership may not fly especially when in the midst of a new generation of voters who may feel as though the Government does not accord them the respect they need.
Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the leader of the PAP’s 3G, saw a notable dip in votes in his Ang Mo Kio GRC stronghold – a significant outcome since his opponent Kenneth Jeyaretnam was on Stay-Home Notice for most of the election campaign.
As the ruling party embarks on some much-needed soul searching, perhaps they can take the advice of veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon who said in the beginning of 2019 that the PAP Government needs to “regain lost moral authority and trust” and that this “requires a new type of 4G leadership, not the same old defunct “people are digits” types.”