The 13th post-independence general election held last month on 10 July marked a remarkable and historic milestone in Singapore’s political development. Remarkable as it was held amid an ongoing global pandemic, historic for the largest voter turnout, the largest number of political parties contesting, and a respectable number of votes for alternate parties…. Singaporeans need to re-think about the adequacy of our current political system and prepare for discussions for reforms that will enable us to build a “new normal” that respects human rights and democratic participation… We should revert to single constituencies to allow each individual MP to achieve the mandate required to make it into the legislature… The welfare of workers both local and foreign which once had taken a backseat to the interests of shareholders and business owners became so bad that it could no longer be ignored. Migrant workers residing, or more correctly now, trapped, in dormitories were the hardest hit… The neglected segment of the workforce now contributes more than 94% of the total number of infections… The calls for electoral and political reforms are not made in a vacuum. Better political institutions and practices will almost always lead to better decisions that affects the daily socio-economic pressures Singaporeans face.
The 13th post-independence general election held last month on 10 July marked a remarkable and historic milestone in Singapore’s political development. Remarkable as it was held amid an ongoing global pandemic, historic for the largest voter turnout, the largest number of political parties contesting, and a respectable number of votes for alternate parties culminating in another group representative constituency (GRC) won by the Workers Party.
The extraordinary election was however marred by scenes of long queues of voters due to the safe voting measures leading to an unprecedented decision to extend voting hours to accommodate voters who were not able to vote earlier in the day. Thankfully, concerns over the possibility of infections spiking due to the election did not come to pass. The election’s aftermath saw Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong introducing a new slate of officeholders comprising a mix of newly elected members of the parliament and 3rd generation political leaders. All eyes are on the new parliamentary term expected to open on the 24 August with a renewed focus on managing the immediate impact of the pandemic.
Building a new political normal
Expectations are high for the forthcoming 14th Parliament as more alternative voices have been voted into the legislature. However, much more is needed to improve the state of democracy and freedom of expression for the benefit of Singapore’s political maturity. Singaporeans need to re-think about the adequacy of our current political system and prepare for discussions for reforms that will enable us to build a “new normal” that respects human rights and democratic participation. The bright spot from the election this time is that Singaporeans are beginning to show that they are unappreciative of the usual intimidating tactics and illiberal laws deployed to oppress candidates from alternative parties. This encouraging trend and results of the GE2020 is an opportunity for us to recall several longstanding recommendations to improve the state of democracy in Singapore.
These include the removal of the Election Department (ELD) from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to be staffed by independent civil servants and including broader representation from all walks of our society such as representatives from professional associations, civil society groups, non-government organizations, voluntary welfare organizations. An independent Election Department would bolster Singaporeans’ trust and confidence that the institution would be neutral and objective in the drawing up of future electoral boundaries, and would disabuse notions of conflict of interest between the incumbent ruling party and the department.
The GRC system is proving its potential as a political double-edged sword that is detrimental to Singapore’s political development. We should revert to single constituencies to allow each individual MP to achieve the mandate required to make it into the legislature rather than riding on the coattails of more popular politicians. Furthermore, the current GRC system is illogically and unfairly tied in with the running of town councils. Past criticism and events have proven that this arrangement holds the Singaporean voter hostage and strengthens the politics of fear.
Such perceptions are not unfounded. They are evident in the blatantly unfair political practices that follow every election. Funds for wards won by alternative parties are not always managed by its elected MPs. Grassroots organizations related or run by the People’s Association (PA) always deferred to the designated representative from the PAP rather than the elected MP. There is also a strange duplication of work which sometimes conflicts with those of the elected MPs through the Mayor positions appointed through the PA. It is a waste of taxpayers’ money and their job scope too vague to warrant the amount spent on them and their office. In short, it would do Singapore better for the current People’s Association to be disbanded and replaced by a more politically neutral organization.
Coping with COVID-19 social challenges
The calls for electoral and political reforms are not made in a vacuum. Better political institutions and practices will almost always lead to better decisions that affects the daily socio-economic pressures Singaporeans face. Many are grappling with the new ways of getting about life during a so call COVID-19 new normal. The safety measures so necessary to keep everyone safe have also become new stressors that compound whatever challenges we used to face. Economically, many places of entertainment are closed, places of worship and refuge are forced to reduce capacity, transportation, service and retail industries are also hard hit by the pandemic due to the restriction of movement and physical absence of customers.
Problems that once were conveniently ignored have reared their ugly heads. The welfare of workers both local and foreign which once had taken a backseat to the interests of shareholders and business owners became so bad that it could no longer be ignored. Migrant workers residing, or more correctly now, trapped, in dormitories were the hardest hit. Calls for attention, from even way before the COVID-19, to their crammed and insalubrious environment and surroundings were ignored. The powder keg has finally ignited and blew the once well-contained disease among the population. The neglected segment of the workforce now contributes more than 94% of the total number of infections of 54,254.
The pandemic refocused public discourse on the poorest in the country which also happens to be the world’s most expensive city to live in along with Osaka and Hong Kong. Many economists and senior statesmen have advocated for a minimum wage to allow all citizens to lead a life of dignity and decency but all appears to have fallen on deaf ears again. We need better access to healthcare, including mental wellbeing, and remove the systemic discrimination between migrant and local workers by ensuring their protection under equitable labour laws that are in line with the ILO's decent work agenda.
With the increasing pressures, it is not surprising that some would reach their breaking point. Recent figures on suicide revealed that there was an average of over one suicide a day with a total of 400 last year continuing an upward trend since 2017, with those aged 20-29 being the highest compared to other age groups. For a country that is struggling with declining birth rate, more should be done to address the dislocation and alienation felt by youths and children. It is not an exaggeration to think that the pandemic could contribute to a worsening of these worrisome figures if something is not done about it.
New social contract needed
Recalling the address of the UN’s Secretary General to the General Assembly, how “inequality damages everyone”, the solution to the new normal is a new social contract where economic and social justice must be guaranteed along with respect for human rights. For only then can everyone live a life of dignity. We hope fellow Singaporeans will join us in reflecting and thinking about the new ways we can collectively grow as a united people to truly achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.
Think Centre wishes everyone a safe and happy National Day!
 Ministry of Health, 5 August 2020 Daily Report on COVID-19. https://www.moh.gov.sg/docs/librariesprovider5/local-situation-report/20200805_daily_report_on_covid-19_cabinet.pdf
 CNN (2020, 19 March), World’s most expensive cities to live in. https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/worlds-most-expensive-cities-2020/index.html
 Samaritans of Singapore (2020 August), No Drop in Total Suicides in 2019. https://www.sos.org.sg/pressroom/sos-media-release-2020
Image used: parliament.gov.sg, 5 August 1965, Proclamation of Singapore. https://www.parliament.gov.sg/images/default-source/default-album/proclamation-of-independence.jpg