Singapore election: PM Lee Hsien Loong signals he and senior leaders will stay until Covid-19 abates
- Lee says he will hand over the country ‘intact and in good working order’ as he appealed to voters to give the ruling PAP a strong mandate
- Issues of race and religion, fake news and the government’s Covid-19 response are in focus as the campaign enters final stretch
During an online rally on Monday, Lee said he was “determined to hand over Singapore, intact and in good working order, to the next team”.
In particular focus is an escalating row over remarks on social media about race and religion made by Raeesah Khan, a 26-year-old candidate in the election standing on the opposition Workers’ Party ticket, with police investigating after a report was filed.
Lee did not address this side plot, but reserved sharp criticism for the 10 opposition parties contesting the polls.
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The PAP chief delivered the remarks at noon via his Facebook page, saying earlier that he wanted to emulate the so-called Fullerton rally held by the ruling party in the central business district during previous elections to directly address white-collar workers.
This time, however, mass rallies are banned due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Lee claimed the 10 opposition parties were “talking as if we can just keep to our old ways, and the current crisis doesn’t exist”.
“They show no recognition that we are facing the crisis of a generation,” he said.
He assured voters that along with himself, his top two lieutenants Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Teo Chee Hean, both senior ministers, would “see [the current crisis] through”.
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Since Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat was designated as Lee’s successor in 2018, expectations have been that the prime minister – in power since 2004 – would hand over the reins at some point in the next electoral term.
He is currently 68, and had said he hoped to step down before he turned 70.
“What I did not expect – what no one expected – was to meet this overwhelming crisis in the last stretch of my premiership,” Lee said.
He also touched on his personal track record, and described “dramatic changes” that had taken place in the island nation since he first entered politics in 1984. His father, independence leader Lee Kuan Yew, was then prime minister.
“Covid-19 … is more complex and more dangerous than any previous crisis,” he said. “But we must have the same unshakeable will to marshal all our energies and resources, to fight it together, prevail and emerge stronger.”
Lee choked up at one point as he wrapped up his speech imploring voters across generations to give his party a strong mandate.
Bridget Welsh, a veteran Southeast Asian politics observer, said the prime minister was “using his appeal to undercut some of the questions being asked about the 4G leadership, and to reaffirm that the country is safely in Lee’s hands”.
She said Lee was also “taking a risk in making this campaign more about his continued leadership rather than his departure”.
Eugene Tan, a Singapore Management University law professor who closely tracks local politics, said while Lee’s “handing over the reins of power may be delayed … I don’t expect the delay to be inordinately extended”.
“The Covid-19 downturn and battle may last for years. But it will leave grave doubts about the 4G leadership if the handover is delayed until the economy recovers and for it to boom,” Tan said. “As such, I anticipate that once the economic situation stabilises, we can expect the leadership handover.”
Much of the attention online, meanwhile, was on the controversy surrounding the remarks made by Khan from the Workers’ Party. The activist is being fielded in the four-seat group representation constituency (GRC) of Sengkang, which is seen as one of the precincts where the PAP may face a stiff challenge.
The Workers’ Party late on Sunday said it stood by Khan after she apologised for the posts she described as “insensitive”, but the PAP on Monday challenged the opposition party to state its stance on her remarks.
“She has admitted to making highly derogatory statements about Chinese and Christians. Why does the Worker’s Party still consider her worthy of consideration as an MP?” the ruling party asked in a statement.
In one of her posts, made in February 2018, she referenced a high-profile embezzlement case at the local City Harvest Church, and claimed the church leaders walked free while “Singapore jails minorities mercilessly [and] harasses mosque leaders”.
All six church leaders implicated in the case were found guilty and served varied jail terms.
In another post from May this year, she discussed the gathering of crowds in the Robertson Quay area – an upmarket spot frequented by expatriates and locals – while strict partial lockdown rules were in place.
Khan questioned whether “the law [was] different for these people”, and if it was “because they’re rich Chinese or white people”.
In June, seven foreign nationals pleaded guilty for breaking social distancing rules in the area, and were fined. Six of them had their work passes revoked.
Online reaction has been largely slanted in Khan’s favour – with many asking all sides to move on given her apology. Some commenters, however, expressed concern about the underlying thinking behind the Workers’ Party candidate’s posts.
“She needs to explain herself. And my first question would be: does Raeesah believe that the law treats minorities differently and why? If so, what will she do to correct this if she is elected into parliament?” former journalist Bertha Henson wrote in a commentary.
“This is not a case in which people can say, ‘Let’s move on’. It is about a potential MP’s views on something fundamental to Singapore’s body politic: equality before the eyes of the law.”
Also causing a stir on social media was authorities’ decision late on Sunday to invoke the country’s fake news law to order five outlets, including national broadcaster CNA, to include a correction to reports that carried remarks by opposition candidate Paul Tambyah.
Tambyah, a world-renowned infectious diseases specialist, had remarked in a forum on Friday that the Lee administration – without consulting medical professionals – might have discouraged Covid-19 testing among migrant workers in February, when infections remained low in the city state.
They later exploded, after clusters formed in the densely packed dormitories where the workers live. At present, the total number of infections in the country stands at 44,983. Most of the patients – the majority of whom have been discharged – were residents of these dormitories.
The correction orders were issued by Aubeck Kam, the permanent secretary for the Ministry of Manpower. Top civil servants wield executive powers granted under the fake news law during the official campaign season.
The office in charge of the law, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), said Tambyah’s assertions were false.
“The medical management of migrant workers was guided by the Ministry of Health and its medical professionals, based on the prevailing scientific evidence and local situation,” it said.
The slew of directives issued on Sunday were the fifth set of Pofma orders issued since the campaign began on June 30.
Asked about the correction notices on Monday, Tambyah told CNA the directives were a “complete distraction”.