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Look Ahead 2020: Politics — All eyes on the coming General Election

As we usher in the new year following an eventful 2019, TODAY takes a look at what to expect in several areas affecting Singaporeans' lives: Economy, property, environment, politics and transport. In the fourth of five instalments, we cast the spotlight on the political scene which is set to get busy, with the next General Election widely expected to take place in 2020.

As Singapore awaits the next General Election with bated breath, analysts interviewed pointed to several issues that could weigh on voters’ minds in the coming elections.

As Singapore awaits the next General Election with bated breath, analysts interviewed pointed to several issues that could weigh on voters’ minds in the coming elections.

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As we usher in the new year following an eventful 2019, TODAY takes a look at what to expect in several areas affecting Singaporeans' lives: Economy, property, environment, politics and transport. In the fourth of five instalments, we cast the spotlight on the political scene which is set to get busy, with the next General Election widely expected to take place in 2020. 

SINGAPORE — There is a saying that “all politics is local” — that instead of national or long-term concerns, it is often community-level issues that will sway voters’ sentiment.

But in a year marked by political strife abroad born of deep-seated problems, 2019 was a reminder that Singapore is not immune to national issues and bread-and-butter challenges, such as housing, inequality and living costs, political analysts say.

As Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan noted, 2019 was characterised globally by “dystopian developments” — whether it is vehement protests against the governments of the day over poor governance, rising inequality, costs of living, and the lack of action against climate change.

“It seems like 2019 is the proverbial lull before the storm, as 2020 may turn out to be even more unsettling,” he said.

Singapore is facing a possible election year, with the next General Election (GE) due to be held by early 2021. 

To many, the formation of the electoral boundaries review committee in August last year was the bugle call signalling an imminent GE, after which it may just be a period of several months between the committee’s formation and Polling Day.

Since then, various political parties have been gearing up for the GE, convening internal conventions and press conferences, introducing new party slogans, policy papers, and “new faces”, as well as ramping up their presence at physical walkabouts or through social media.

As Singapore awaits the next GE with bated breath, analysts interviewed pointed to several issues that could weigh on voters’ minds in the coming elections. 


In December 2017, an Institute of Policy Studies report concluded that Singapore faces sharper divides along class lines, compared with race or religion. A few months later, the book This Is What Inequality Looks Like by sociologist Teo You Yenn highlighted the challenges faced by the poor and the structural traps that keep them socially immobile.

Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sounded the warning in February 2018 against the dangers of widening income inequalities. 

The Education Ministry has also worked to boost social mobility since then, such as the creation of a task force to strengthen support for under-performing students from disadvantaged families in 2018. It will also replace streaming in all secondary schools with subject-based banding by 2024. 

Inequality is not a recent issue, noted Assoc Prof Tan, and the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has been addressing it through government budgets for over a decade.

Based on latest statistics, the inequality gap in Singapore has been shrinking.

The Gini coefficient — a measure of income inequality — was 0.458 in 2018, which was similar to the previous two years and was among the lowest in a decade. Zero indicates total income equality and one means total inequality.

After adjusting for Government transfers and taxes, the Gini coefficient in 2018 fell from 0.458 to 0.404, demonstrating the “redistributive effects” of Government policies, according to the Singapore Department of Statistics.

Still, it remains an area that needs to be addressed continually, said Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Political Science.

He cited a study by Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy last November that found more than 1,000 homeless people on Singapore’s streets. This was the first study of its sort, he noted, adding that it serves as an example of how social stratification remains a serious issue in Singapore.

“Recognising a problem is the first step to trying to address it. This is a departure from the past where the issue of homelessness was downplayed,” he said.

What the Gini coefficient may not capture is wealth inequality, which looks at how much wealth individuals accumulated, rather than how much they earn. Neither does it consider generational mobility — the ease for people to move across social classes or into a higher income percentile compared with their parents.

If significant segments of the electorate feel that Singapore has become a haven for the rich and elitist, then that will not augur well for the PAP, said Assoc Prof Tan. “Ultimately, cost of living issues for the young and old alike are fundamentally about how equitable society is,” he added. 

Assoc Prof Tan believes that this concern of a Singapore divided along class lines will be attended to in a “more determined manner” in this year’s Budget which will be unveiled on February 18. Budget 2020 will form the backbone of the PAP’s election manifesto, he said. 


Assoc Prof Tan pointed out that among the many aims of Budget 2020, there is a need to contextualise the Budget as establishing the social compact in light of an ageing society, smaller families, and the reality of high costs of living. 

“There is a patent need to show the redistributive policies that are in place and why every Singaporean, rich or poor, will benefit from an equal and fair society,” he said. 

Budget 2020 will also need to look at Singapore’s fiscal needs over the next decade, searching for new revenue streams for the public coffers to fund social development and redistributive programmes.

But a bitter pill for Singaporeans is the impending goods and services tax (GST) hike, which the PAP Government has said is necessary to help cover an expected increase in healthcare, infrastructure and security spending in the future.

The GST is set to increase from 7 per cent to 9 per cent sometime between 2021 and 2025.

Political analyst Assistant Professor Woo Jun Jie said: “(The planned GST hike) will likely become a hot button issue that the Opposition will bring up. Questions will certainly be raised over the need for a GST hike. The Government will likely reinforce its position, as it has done before.”

The main opposition party, the Workers’ Party (WP), had previously opposed the planned GST hike, arguing for other means to raise government revenue such as by tapping the national reserves.

WP had also indicated it is likely to raise the issue during the hustings, as Aljunied GRC MP Low Thia Khiang said in 2018: “The next election is 2020, or 2021. So you’re going to increase after the next election. Good to announce it now, then we can debate it at the rally.”

What is complicating the GST issue is a slower economic growth today, which can make increases in taxation felt more deeply, especially by middle and lower income households with less disposable income, said Assoc Prof Chong.

He said: “Taxes in themselves are not necessarily off-putting. Perception of those taxes can be shaped by what benefits people feel those taxes are bringing them in tangible and persistent ways.

“The current administration has tried and will be trying to play down the negative effects of the GST hike for ordinary citizens, but not everything is under their control — the regional and global economic climate which frames Singapore’s economic performance being one major example.”

Its unpopularity was noted by PAP first assistant secretary-general Heng Swee Keat, who announced the impending hike as Finance Minister in 2018.

Speaking to party members in November last year, Mr Heng — who is also Deputy Prime Minister — reiterated that many have asked him not to talk about the GST increases with the election nearing, but the responsible thing to do is to be upfront and not hide from “difficult truths”.

Mr Heng was speaking at a party conference to mark the 65th anniversary of the PAP’s founding in 1954, which he described as possibly “the last party gathering before the next General Election”.

A GST support package will be unveiled in Budget 2020 to help cushion the impact of the increases when they happen, he said.

He added: “This is not an election goodie — the package will only be given when the GST is increased next term. But we know that Singaporeans are concerned given the current economic outlook, so we want to assure you that there will be help during the transition, so that Singaporeans need not worry or be riled up by the Opposition who want to find something to get people to be angry.”


Another topic that could surface during the GE is the long-running Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) saga.

After a year-long trial, the High Court ruled in October last year that Mr Low and two fellow Aljunied GRC MPs — Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Pritam Singh — were liable for damages against the AHTC and the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council. Mr Low and Ms Lim, in particular, had breached their fiduciary duties of care towards AHTC. WP is appealing the judgement.

If the WP MPs are unable to pay for the damages, they could become bankrupt and could lose their parliamentary seats, and will not be able to contest in the next GE. The amount claimed against the defendants exceeds S$33.7 million, but the actual sum payable is yet to be determined in a future tranche of the AHTC trial.

With WP’s appeal against the judgement pending, Parliament passed a motion calling for Ms Lim and Mr Low to recuse themselves from all financial responsibilities related to AHTC. Mr Heng, who moved the motion, questioned the WP MPs’ integrity and their persistent refusal to be transparent at the expense of the residents.

The AHTC decided to allow both MPs to continue handling financial matters after an internal vote. 

On Friday (Jan 3), National Development Minister Lawrence Wong issued an order under the Town Councils Act to prevent further irregularities in the AHTC, by requiring it to limit the powers of Ms Lim and Mr Low in signing cheques, unilaterally approving expenses or accepting any contracts on behalf of AHTC, among others.

Political analysts felt that the AHTC issue is not likely to be polarising among voters for now. Staunch WP or PAP supporters would not be affected by the saga, but it may yet influence swing voters and their perceptions of the WP’s capacity to manage a town council, said Asst Prof Woo. 

Assoc Prof Chong agreed: “Those who think the Workers’ Party handled the situation as best as they can will continue to see things in this manner. Those who are disposed against the WP over the issue will hold on to these views. I do not think either group will really change their minds at this stage. 

“That it has dragged on for so long means that the AHTC issue has become normalised as part of regular politics in Singapore.”

Nevertheless, Assoc Prof Tan pointed out that if the PAP is perceived to be dwelling on the issue excessively or if the WP trivialises it, then the issue can take on a new lease of life. 

“The reality is that notwithstanding the AHTC issue, WP has a political cachet that no other opposition party has. At one level, voters are concerned PAP makes a clean sweep that wipes out the (opposition) slate; they see the value in having a credible opposition in Parliament — but not any opposition," he said.


The coming GE will see new leaders coming to the fore for some parties: The PAP has set the stage for Mr Heng to succeed PM Lee, while WP has elected Mr Pritam Singh as its secretary-general, taking over from the long-serving Mr Low. The Singapore People’s Party also saw veteran politician Chiam See Tong stepping down as its chief, with Mr Steve Chia taking over the helm. 

Meanwhile, the newly constituted Progress Singapore Party, led by former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock, also unveiled its leadership team last year.

While past politics in Singapore had been predominantly about individual leaders, the leadership transitions for the PAP and WP in particular highlight a shift from personality-driven politics to a team-based approach, the analysts said. 

Mr Heng had been picked by other 4G cabinet ministers as the “primus inter pares” (Latin for first among equals).

On WP’s end, Mr Low said in the party’s 2017 commemorative book Walking with Singapore that he has been working to move the party away from personality politics that defined it for years: “If a party is driven only by strong personality, then the party is very shallow... You need to build a team and an organisation."

Assoc Prof Tan noted that Mr Singh is not as badly affected as Mr Low and Ms Lim in the AHTC saga. The party chief, who had vouched for his other Aljunied MPs in Parliament, was found to have breached a lesser duty towards AHTC than his peers.

During the Parliamentary motion tabled by Mr Heng in November last year, he repeatedly made the point that the AHTC saga highlights the importance of good governance and the trust that Singaporeans place on their elected MPs. 

Sustaining this trust in the PAP's ability to govern across successive generations has been a theme for the PAP in 2019, with PM Lee — who is the party’s secretary-general — saying as much to party activists in its party conference in November last year. 

Referring to the team of fourth-generation (4G) PAP leaders, PM Lee said they have a difficult task ahead. "They deserve our full support. Back them, they are our team, they are Singapore's team.”

PM Lee has said that he will take the lead in the coming GE, though the 4G leaders will be “in the thick of things”. 

Assoc Prof Tan said: “The upcoming GE is potentially defining in how the new generation of leaders of both the PAP and WP are able to win the trust of Singaporeans.”

In the meantime, the analysts said a cabinet reshuffle is unlikely to happen before the GE if the polls are held in the first half of 2020. 

But if the elections take place later, a reshuffle in the coming months cannot be ruled out, they said. Assoc Prof Chong noted that it would make sense to expose the next generation of PAP leaders to different aspects of governance. 

If it happens before the GE, such a reshuffle would likely not result in major changes, said Assoc Prof Tan. “It is more to elevate a few office-holders to the rank of minister to signal their role and contribution to the 4G team,” he said.

Related topics

General Election Politics cost of living social inequality election Look Ahead 2020 SGVotes2020 Singapore General Election

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