Prominent historian Michael Barr has rebutted Singapore diplomat Tommy Koh’s view that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) won an “outstanding victory” at the 2020 general election, after Prof Koh criticised Prof Barr’s election analysis in a newspaper article.

Prof Barr, who serves as an Associate Professor teaching International Relations at Adelaide’s Flinders University, has written and commented extensively on Singapore politics and history. He has published several books on Singapore’s ruling elite and continues to take a keen interest in Singapore politics.

The historian analysed the results of the latest Singapore election in an article that was published by the East Asia Forum. While the PAP won 83 out of 93 seats, Prof Barr pointed out that the results of GE2020 were the PAP’s second-lowest national vote since independence and that it was “only 1.1 per cent better than the train-wreck 2011 election.” 

Prof Barr wrote: “Individual swings against the ruling party of up to 27 per cent and typically 6–15 per cent were insufficient to defeat well-entrenched PAP candidates who enjoyed a multitude of unfair advantages. If the result is not recognised as a disaster, the government is in denial.”

Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Professor Tommy Koh did not agree with Prof Barr’s assessment. Prof Koh asserted that he was “quite shocked” by election result analysis by foreign observers like Prof Barr, in an opinion piece for the Straits Times.

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Pointing out that Prof Barr described the outcome as a “disaster” for the PAP, Prof Koh asserted that the PAP’s performance was an “outstanding victory” when compared to the results of victors in elections in Australia, the United Kingdom and India. He wrote:

“When we compare the PAP’s electoral performance to those of the winning parties in these three countries, any fair-minded person would conclude that it was an outstanding victory. It was certainly not a “disaster” or a “humiliating defeat”.”

In a post on his personal Facebook page, published on Friday (17 July), Prof Koh reiterated that it was “wrong for Professor Michael Barr to describe the result of the election as a disaster for the PAP.”

Prof Barr has rebutted the views Prof Koh expressed in his opinion piece. Quoting Prof Koh, who had written that the election outcome would be regarded as outstanding in any democracy and that it is important to remember that Singapore is a democracy, Prof Barr said: “The fairly obvious fault in Tommy Koh’s logic is in that last sentence – pretending Singapore is a democracy.”

Asserting that the system in Singapore is nothing like that in Australia and that it is unfair to make comparisons between the two nations, Prof Barr wrote: “Does he really want to start comparing Singapore’s ‘democracy’ and freedoms with those in, for instance, Australia? We have an independent Elections Commission that announces its redistribution for public discussion a year or more ahead of elections.

“No permanent secretaries wielding a POFMA. A free academia and press that is happy to tackle and expose government malfeasance and stupidity head on. State funding of political parties, including opposition parties. A high level of transparency with raw government data that enables outsiders (opposition, civil society, business, unions, academics, journalists) to seriously interrogate government ministers.

“An active system of parliamentary committees that routinely put government ministers through the wringer on national television. Rarely a police report issued during an election campaign. Relatively little institutional bullying or threats against civil society or opposition groups. And we don’t have a prime minister who uses parliament and Cabinet committees to settle scores with his brother and sister.”

Prof Barr added that the PAP’s election result also pales in comparison to Australia’s ruling coalition’s performance in their 2019 federal election.

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Prof Koh had pointed out that Scott Morrison’s coalition won 77 out of 151 seats and secured 41 per cent of the popular vote and suggested that this is less impressive than the PAP’s 61 per cent of the popular vote. Prof Barr, however, had a different view. He said:

“Does Tommy Koh really want to start comparing the PAP’s electoral “victory” with that of Scott Morrison’s? The PAP lost another two ministers and came within a whisker of losing two more. This is what a disaster looks like. I am no fan of Scott Morrison or his government, but give them credit, they managed to win without losing any ministers – which is the usual case in victory.”

He added: “I don’t apologize for referring to the 2020 GE as a ‘disaster’ for the PAP. Given all the advantages they held (and still hold), that election should have been a walk in the park.”

Prof Koh had also criticised academic Bridget Welsh’s analysis of the Singapore election. Dr Welsh also took issue with the way Prof Koh’s characterised her views and rebutted his response. In a forum letter published by the Straits Times, Dr Welsh said that the words she used were taken out of context and that her analysis was misrepresented.

“PAP govt is in denial” — Historian Michael Barr reflects on GE2020