Two Factors Which Decided the Singaporean GE: Jamus Lim & PAP's Strategic Mistake

Much has already been said about the Singaporean General Election of 2020 - and even more is coming in the days and weeks ahead of us. But I think for all the complexity involved - the Covid-19 situation, looming economic troubles, epidemic spreading in the dorms, general shutdown of the economy and isolation from the rest of the world - ultimately there were two elements standing out as significantly impacting the attitudes of voters at the polls.

Let's start with the already much discussed surprising new entrant who swung the vote and virtually single-handedly plucked an entire GRC for the Workers' Party.

Facts vs. Feelings

Until 2020 Singaporean opposition has been rather stale - plenty of the same old faces, with their tired old slogans and symbols that often reminded spectators of the bygone era of Cold War. Compared to the West, where left wing ideas have moved from their traditional base among largely manual, industrial labour to urban upper middle class voting for feel-good policies, Singaporean parties looked like relics (especially given the economic prosperity of the country).

That said, I have long held a belief that the situation may be shaken up by a young, sophisticated, presentable left winger who is going to appeal to younger and middle class voters with ideas and style they already know from the West. Fundamentally, after all, people around the world are not all that different - especially in a country as westernized as Singapore is.

Such a person has just appeared.

A well-spoken, educated academic economist, who only recently returned to the country after 16 years abroad - this is exactly the candidate that the left-leaning, younger middle-class was waiting for. Somebody who can fulfill their need to manifest themselves as progressive, forward-looking, caring and slightly rebellious (hence in opposition to the long-enduring establishment) - yet without turning over the table.

It is important to emphasize that this need is almost entirely emotional, not rational, since a closer look at the Workers' Party proposals confirms the judgment of minister Balakrishnan, that WP has long positioned itself as a party left of PAP - but not too far left, not to sound overly populist and scare the generally pro-capitalist Singaporeans away. In other words, its proposals aren't a dramatic departure from the current policies, but are distinct enough and wrapped in feel-good slogans that are increasingly attractive to many voters - especially those who have not been raised in much tougher times.

Rationally speaking, everything that WP proposes is not so much about PAP ideas moved left but rather PAP ideas made worse.

But that's what the pursuit of political distinction forces competing parties to often do, just to set themselves apart from the incumbents.

A good example is the proposal to draw a larger amount from the returns on reserves instead of increasing GST - an idea that would cost future generations tens of billions of dollars in lost returns, for a temporary freeze on the tax hike (which would ultimately have to happen at some point anyway).

Notably, however, it would not immediately threaten the country - it's something that Singapore could weather quite well for very long. At the same time it would move away from the optimum balance that divides the current returns 50/50 between current and future needs, and reduce Singapore's reserves in proportion to its GDP, leaving relatively less money to deal with future crises.

Such is the nature of erosive populism of the modern left - "creatively" organizing the money to woo the voters with promises of smaller burdens, while the ultimate bill for it is delayed by decades.

That said, it also shows why Jamus Lim has had such a huge impact on the outcome of the GE. The gravest weakness of traditional left-wing socialists is their complete incompetence on economic affairs. But Jamus Lim is a trained economist – he knows the terms, he knows what figures to look at and he knows how to pick them to sell his narrative and look authoritative to people who have no real understanding of what he’s talking about.

Another example of his magic with the numbers was the largely false narrative that the current government governs in the interest of capital over labour - and that Singaporean workers take only 42 cents on each dollar of national income, while the Japanese, in comparison, take 55 cents.

Of course while he did this, he failed to mention that Japan is the most indebted nation in the world by public debt, that Bank of Japan has to keep printing money to buy more bonds from the government to finance bloated spending or that Singaporean national income per capita is over $60,000 while Japanese is just $40,000. Using his own figures of 42 cents on the dollar vs. 55 cents in Japan, Singaporeans are actually paid 15% more given that the national income is 50% higher.

At the same time, there's no word about how much more Singaporeans can buy for their money, how affordable accommodation is in the city-state in relation to income, how much cheaper food or healthcare are.

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In other words, Singaporeans - in absolute figures - make more money and pay less than people elsewhere, even if their share in the overall national income is lower on a per capita basis. And it is, because Singapore is - essentially - just a city and a global business hub, so a high concentration of corporations is going to skew national statistics. Its situation is incomparable to that of larger countries.

Unsurprisingly, however, few people comprehend these nuances. Not that they care, anyway, since their decisions are mainly emotional, based on sympathies and frequently (these days) a desire to see some political change just for the sake of it.

It explains not only why Jamus Lim was such a huge hit with the voters - but also why he (and similar individuals, should they enter the scene) are the biggest threat to the ruling PAP in the longer run.

PAP may have all the facts on its side but they can't really change how people feel. It's like arguing with someone who's in love.

Many voters needed an acceptable, articulate opposition politician, who sounds competent while challenging the establishment they themselves disapprove of. Emergence of Jamus Lim fortifies their belief that they are right and the rest of the society is wrong.

His single appearance was enough to send shockwaves across the nation and swing so many voters in favor of the Workers' Party that it managed to win Sengkang and - for the first time ever - collect majority of the contested votes vs. PAP (50.5%). He was surely a revelation of the campaign - and likely a sign of things to come in the following years.

But Jamus alone isn't responsible for PAP's relative underperformance.

Strong Mandate?

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the entire world under pressure it hasn't experienced since the World Wars. Within weeks economies ground to a halt, many businesses went bust, those who weren't sick were fearing for their jobs. After initially strong response and praise for its "gold standard", PAP's government had come under pressure over the huge outbreak in dorms housing foreign workers and gradually increasing spread of the virus elsewhere, leading to a two-month lockdown period beginning in April.

Ultimately, however, given very low mortality, low infection figures in resident community and no visible pressure on the healthcare system local response to the virus can only be judged as excellent by global standards.

Yes, the authorities stumbled a few times - but the same can be said about every country on Earth. Is it really fair to blame anybody for a few errors when dealing with a crisis the world hasn't faced in a century, as they tried to balance the necessity to protect lives as well as jobs and livelihoods of millions?

All in all, the government in Singapore has proved itself and, through four additional relief budgets totaling S$90 billion, was also able to demonstrate the importance of national reserves. While the rest of the world is taking on even more debt to pay its way out of the pandemic, Singaporean government can simply reach into its very deep back pocket filled with cash prudently invested in the years prior.

That said, for all these apparent successes, the authorities have struggled to sell themselves well - especially in the context of this election.

On the whole, communications appears to be PAP's weakest department these days. Many of the policies and decisions made could have been explained more clearly and the campaign led with an open plea for a "strong mandate" was not only unconvincing but borderline suicidal.

You don't campaign for a "strong mandate" when you already bear the strongest mandate in the democratic world.

How many people could really buy this narrative? Opposition supporters laughed it off or used it to stoke fear of the "opposition wipeout" to mobilize supporters; middle-ground voters likely drifted away from PAP seeing the hastening of the election as a rather self-serving attempt to use the crisis to cement its power and even PAP supporters were forced to rationalize what the "strong mandate" really means for a party that has already had over 90% of seats in the parliament. PAP's governance was never at risk and the vote itself was due to be held only by April next year.

The poor impression was amplified by a generally laid-back attitude most Singaporeans started to exhibit about the disease. In a paradoxical way, PAP had become a victim of its own success. For two long months after the outbreak began, the daily increase in recorded cases held steady at fairly low double digits. A few hundred infections in a city of nearly 6 million people weren't really bothering anyone.

PAP campaigned on fear that it had managed to extinguish.

Even during the circuit-breaker period, after initial panic buying, people had relaxed over time, went out to jog, exercise or cycle in great numbers, seeing that the explosion of the disease was largely contained in the dorms at the city's outskirts. Yes, there was always the inevitable economic fallout coming - and its consequences are going to be felt in the years ahead. But aren't 83 seats in a 92 seat parliament enough to deal with it?

The ruling party pleading for votes (from a position this strong) looked disingenuous.

Of course self-preservation is a part of politics and since the privilege of calling the election is with the majority nobody can really blame them for trying to secure support for themselves so they can deal with the issues at hand. The problem isn't so much in the motivation - which is understandable - but with the execution, that many surely have seen as irresponsible.

PAP was hoping to capitalize on the fact that people are less likely to vote for change during a serious crisis. But a pandemic is about health first - even if the number of cases is relatively low. Given that the disease spreads more easily in large crowds, gunning for an election (whose date is not fixed in place by law but depends on the decision of the ruling party) looked like a desperate political maneuver not genuine care about the society - potentially putting millions at risk as they crowd at the polling stations.

The irony is that PAP, actually, did everything by the book in its pandemic management - it responded to threats along the way, had long managed to keep the case count very low and when huge outbreak ravaged the dorms, was able to contain it. During the lockdown period it managed to bring the daily case count in the resident community to low single digits (among the lowest in the world) - surely safe enough to finally hold the GE.

But its campaign narrative failed to inspire trust and made it look determined to take advantage of the situation.

What it should have said is - "we're going to hold the election as soon as it's safe". That's it. And then do everything they have done. The opposition parties would stick to their attacks but PAP would be beholden to its promise to hold the vote when it's finally safe to - which it could prove with low infection count after a two-month lockdown.

But the "strong mandate" narrative carried no such conditions. It was about holding the election as soon as possible not as soon as it's safe for everyone. That's what made it appear to be more about the PAP saving itself than the people.

And yet, nobody can really say that the GE was held in highly risky conditions. Again, PAP had facts and achievements on its side but it completely failed to sell them. Single digit case growth per day may very well be as low as we can expect for a very long time. It makes no sense to wait until it drops to zero, because that may not happen for months or years. After all, even the countries praised for their exemplary handling of the epidemic are still recording new cases, even if in very small numbers.

So the management of the crisis and the timing of the election were demonstrably good. But the way the political need for the vote was communicated badly damaged the image of the party as power hungry - and made it an easy target for the opposition, especially one strengthened by someone as affable as Jamus Lim.

A Glimpse into the Future

In some ways this GE is unlike any other - held in the middle of a pandemic and a global economic crisis. And yet, at the same time, it already offers us a look into the future of politics in Singapore.

For the first time since the country's inception, there's a gradual shift away from typical bread&butter issues. Feelings and appearances are already the top drivers for the younger voters. It doesn't matter how competent and accomplished you are - to score political points you also need to be cool - and this is something very hard to achieve for a strongly entrenched establishment (which, by definition, cannot be cool).

So, the outcome of the future elections will largely depend on two things:

  • The opposition's ability to recruit more members like Jamus Lim - otherwise the novelty factor of one guy is going to wear out quite quickly.

  • PAP's ability (or inability) to reinvent itself for the 21st century.

While the latter seems to be inordinately more difficult it's not all bad news for the incumbents, though. Since every action leads to an equal and opposite reaction not only in physics, the wave of feel-good left-wing politics will inescapably be followed by a wave of more reasonable centre-to-right wing sentiments, rooted in less empathetic common sense and facts, while fulfilling the emotional needs through praise and pride of the nation. And since Singapore has a lot to be proud of, it may ultimately cement support for the PAP - provided that it can take advantage of this new political reality and modernize its communications for the digital age we live in.