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A Watershed Election And The Rise Of ‘Personality Politics’

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A Watershed Election And The Rise Of 'Personality Politics' 2

On July 11, Singaporeans woke up to a new reality. The watershed general election (GE) of 2020 had come and gone, and major shifts seem to have happened in Parliament.

With 83 out of 93 seats, the People’s Action Party (PAP) — also Singapore’s incumbent government since independence in 1965 — managed to achieve the “strong mandate” that it asked for.

Image Credit: Vulcan Post

Though they managed to retain their supermajority in parliament, the PAP lost a significant amount of political ground.

The incumbent party relinquished two Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) — Aljunied and Sengkang — and Hougang Single Member Constituency (SMC) to the Workers’ Party (WP).

The party’s 61.24 per cent of the popular vote was also the second lowest percentage since independence.

We have a clear mandate, but the percentage of the popular vote is not as high as I had hoped for.

– PAP’s Secretary-General Lee Hsien Loong.

It is clear that Singaporean voters are trying to send a strong message to the government and the nation — what is it, and what can we take away from the GE 2020 results?

Singaporeans (Not Just WP Supporters) Want Change

This year, with the exception of MacPherson and Mountbatten SMCs, the PAP had a reduction of votes in all the constituencies it ran for (except the new ones).

How did this happen? The opposition had the odds stacked against them.

Elections held during periods of crises tend to correlate to a vote swing in favour of the PAP, due to the flight to safety mentality. In the GE 2001, the PAP received a handsome 75 per cent vote share when voters decided to opt for stability.

Furthermore, physical rallies which opposition parties tend to rely on heavily to reach out to voters were disallowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

GE2015 and GE2020 Results
Comparison of GE 2015 and GE 2020 results / Image Credit: Vulcan Post

According to Eugene Tan, a law professor and former independent MP, most Singaporeans believe in checks and balances.

This is exactly what the opposition parties capitalised on this election to rally Singaporeans. For example, the WP’s campaign slogan was “Make Your Vote Count” and denying the PAP a “blank cheque” was a point that resurfaced during many speeches.

Furthermore, these points are further supplemented by the electorate’s bid to reject “gutter politics”.

Besides WP, which is arguably the strongest opposition party in Singapore, other parties also made significant inroads into many wards during the GE 2020.

The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) narrowly lost West Coast GRC with about 48 per cent of the popular vote.

In addition, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) also had its best showing since the 1990s. Its Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan scored 45.2 per cent against PAP’s S. Murali in Bukit Batok, while SDP chairman Paul Tambyah won 46.26 per cent of votes in Bukit Panjang

This points to a strong possibility that Singaporeans islandwide are ready to embrace alternative voices in parliament and accept a variety of different parties into parliament.

Personality Politics: The Jamus Effect?

Jamus Lim Workers Party
WP Candidate Jamus Lim/ Image Credits: Mothership

The personality of politicians could be a key factor in determining the votes of the electorate.

Though the PAP’s vote share fell significantly in nearly all wards, some opposition teams fared better than others.

Noticeably, Sengkang GRC was won over by WP’s young four-man team. Besides He Ting Ru who had previously run in GE 2015, all members were new faces.

However, the presence of Harvard-educated Jamus Lim in the team could have been a strong selling point for the Sengkang electorate.

The WP candidate stood out in this year’s election. He emerged as a rising star during a televised political debate, which saw him capturing the hearts and minds of Singaporeans.

Other candidates with a strong showing such as Chee Soon Juan of SDP or Tan Cheng Bock of PSP had already managed to build up their personal brand name through years of being in the political scene.

Social Media Is Important, Even In Politics

Workers' Party on Instagram
Image Credit: Workers’ Party via Instagram

This year, many young millennials and even members of Generation Z cast their votes for the first time. People in these age groups are typically fervent social media users, and spend more time on social media than traditional media.

Most opposition parties made good use of social media and networking sites to reach out to young voters.

80-year-old PSP chief Tan Cheng Bock became an internet sensation with his attempts to incorporate millennial and Gen Z lingo such as “hypebeast” and “woke” into his social media postings.

Tan Cheng Bok on Instagram
Image Credit: Tan Cheng Bock via Instagram

According to Tan, this is was a way for him to reach out and better connect to the younger electorate.

You know how much time I spent learning all these new words, my friend? I earn my votes, I never expect them.

– PSP Chief Tan Cheng Bock via TodayOnline

The WP also put up an impressive online campaign, which many netizens lauded. The party’s introduction video spread like wildfire on the Internet, garnering more than 15,000 likes on Facebook.

Becoming A Post-Materialist Society

A materialist society concerns itself with material needs, bread-and-butter issues, physical and economic security.

In contrast to this, post-materialists strive for self-actualisation and values like liberalism.

In the e-rallies of WP’s Sengkang candidates, issues such as social inequality and climate change were highlighted. This seemed to resonate with the younger voters.

According to sociologist Tan Ern Ser of the National University of Singapore, Singaporeans might be adopting “higher-order, post-materialist” values.

This year’s unique elections has laid the foundation for opposition parties to gain a foothold in their various wards.

Though it remains to be observed if the rejuvenation of opposition parties has created a new dawn for Singapore, the years leading up to the next elections will be some interesting ones to watch.

Featured Image Credit: EPA-EFE / Roslan Rahman via AFP

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