Singapore elections: if not in the year’s first quarter, could polls be as late as September?
- Four months after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a panel to review election boundaries, there is no clear indication when Singaporeans will be voting
- While the ruling People’s Action Party may still spring a surprise with the date of the polls, the Lion City’s opposition says they will not be caught off guard
Opposition leader Pritam Singh, from the Workers’ Party, tried to force an answer this week by asking the government if the report by the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) was ready. Previous elections have been held less than two months after the release of the report.
But for anyone hoping for a concrete date or even a useful hint, trade and industry minister Chan Chun Sing gave little away. In a written reply, Chan said the committee was still deliberating and when it had completed its work “the report will be presented to this House and released to the public”.
His answer indicated that the window for polls to be held in the year’s first quarter appears to be closing. Elections have to be held by April 2021, but the People’s Action Party (PAP) – which has governed the Lion City for 61 uninterrupted years – rarely waits until the end of a five-year term to get a new mandate.
Analysts said there were other considerations that could result in the election being delayed until the second half of the year, as the government tries to align its priorities.
For now, the trade and industry minister’s response suggested the PAP still needed time to make the necessary administrative preparations to inform voters and get its own party machinery ready for the boundary changes, said Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
Felix Tan, an associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, suggested the longer-than-usual time taken by the EBRC could mean there might be some “major redrawing” to be done.
In past elections, the government accepted the redrawing of electoral boundaries because of major population shifts, though opposition parties have accused the ruling party of doing so to its own advantage.
Over the years, the government has pledged to ensure elections remain contestable, and since 2006 has announced the formation of the EBRC before the polls – unlike previously, when this was not made public.
For the coming election, Prime Minister Lee has tasked the committee with reducing the average size of multi-seat wards, known as group representation constituencies, and increasing the number of single-seat wards.
Even so, Tan from SIM Global Education said he would not rule out the PAP taking a “political gamble” to try and give as little time as possible to the opposition. “[The PAP] can still give the shortest time frame and notice for the opposition to get ready to engage in the constituencies that the report would stipulate,” he said.
But Eugene Tan, a law professor at the Singapore Management University, disagreed.
He said the committee would be sensitive to concerns of favouring the ruling party and would be even-handed. It would also tread especially carefully over opposition wards, he said, such as the Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and Hougang Single Member Constituency, both held by the Workers’ Party.
But these northeastern wards are next to constituencies where new housing has emerged since the 2015 elections. Law professor Tan conceded: “The areas where boundaries can be redrawn more so than others would probably be in the north and northeast of the island, where there have been new estates.”
He was, however, confident the longer time taken by the EBRC actually showed the committee was carefully deliberating its changes.
Political analyst Loke Hoe Yeong said opposition parties had always been “disadvantaged” by the timing of the polls as they were given little advance notice, but they could also pull off some unexpected moves.
“Just as the EBRC could spring surprises with redrawn constituency boundaries, opposition parties could also spring surprises on the PAP as to where it will field its star candidates,” said Loke, who is the author of The First Wave, which detailed Singapore’s history of opposition politics.
For example, in the 2011 general election, the Workers’ Party staged an audacious bid for a five-member group representation constituency by having their elected top leader leave the security of his single-seat ward of Hougang. The gamble paid off and the party won Aljunied GRC.
The Singapore People’s Party (SPP), one of a scattering of small opposition parties in the Lion City, said instead of focusing on the timing of the election – which was beyond its control – it had focused on walking the ground in all the areas it was keen on contesting and connecting with residents there.
That would mean that even if wards were redrawn, the party would be familiar to voters. “This way, whenever the elections may be called, we will not be caught off guard,” said SPP assistant secretary general Ariffin Sha.
The party said, however, that it was “ready anytime”, regardless of when the election was called.
Political observers said it would make sense for the opposition to remain geared up even if elections were not held in the first quarter. Those interviewed by This Week in Asia remain confident that polls will be held in April or May, with a handful saying the possibility of an August or September election – similar to the one in 2015 – cannot be dismissed.
Chong from NUS said issues such as the school holidays, which fall in mid-March and June, could affect the logistics of an election.
The ruling party would also avoid the Islamic month of fasting, from April 24 to May 23, as it could be seen as insensitive to call for election then, said Eugene Tan from Singapore Management University.
It would also make “total sense” for an election to be called in May, suggested political analyst Loke, after sweeteners are given out as part of the country’s budget, due to be delivered on February 18. However, the sticking point could be that the campaign period would be during the fasting month and that might not go down well with some Muslim voters.
An August or September election would suit the ruling party because August 9 is Singapore’s independence day and celebrations are always a high point for citizens, capped by the prime minister’s National Day Rally speech later that month in which he sets the direction for the country.
Eugene Tan from Singapore Management University added that even though a longer lead-up would seem to benefit the opposition as they could afford to slowly select their candidates and go on their walkabouts, it would also give the ruling party more time to consolidate its policy achievements.
He noted how PAP ministers had come forward to explain certain policies, such as transport upgrades and housing measures, in recent months. “There is no doubt that the ruling party has already started campaigning in earnest and on the other hand, the opposition is still struggling to get their act collectively together.”
There is also the danger that the opposition machinery might not be able to stay fully oiled for a long period given their much smaller pool of volunteers.
Another factor that suggests elections might not be held in the first quarter and could be pushed to as late as September is that a piece of legislation the government had said it wanted to introduce has yet to be tabled before Parliament, said Chong from NUS.
Home affairs and law minister K. Shanmugam had made the case for a foreign interference bill last year on the grounds that foreign powers had historically sought to intervene in other countries’ domestic affairs throughout history.
Eugene Tan said he was convinced the bill would be passed before an election was called, but plans could have been delayed in a bid to “spread out policy measures” rather than congesting the legislative agenda.
Chong said another issue that would deserve close scrutiny would be how Singapore’s controversial anti-fake news law, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) was used in the run-up to the election and during campaigning.
Since it came into effect in October, it has been used four times, three of which were on opposition figures or entities.