SINGAPORE – A resounding election win for Singapore’s perennial rulers has been tainted by concerns about a generational voter shift that could in time weaken the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) unyielding grip on power.
The PAP won all but ten of 93 seats in parliament and 61 percent of the popular vote — a landslide by international standards — but its share of the vote dropped nine points from the last election in 2015.
Surveys released this week said a youth backlash was reinforced by disaffection from middle-aged voters, who were not expected to rock the boat given the dire economic outlook and job uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This has prompted analysts to consider whether a long-term decline in the PAP’s support is underway — a trend that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and others have warned could unnerve foreign investors drawn to Singapore’s political stability.
“The results indicate a tentative generational shift,” said Eugene Tan, a former nominated member of parliament. “Unless the PAP responds with humility and empathy, one-party dominance will wither.”
Seats won by the opposition have grown steadily over the last two decades, as has its popular vote, with the exception of the 2015 election held after the death of Singapore’s modern day founder Lee Kuan Yew.
In the wake of Friday’s election, senior PAP figures promised “soul-searching”, while editorials in pro-government media called for a change to the PAP’s paternalistic approach and combative political tactics, and a leadership with stronger links to the people.
“The young people have significantly different life aspirations and priorities … . This will have to be reflected in our political process and in government policies,” Prime Minister Lee said after the election results.
There are many unique characteristics of the Singapore electoral system that favor the larger and better-resourced ruling party, notably group constituencies where teams of candidates contend for multiple seats.
The capture by the main opposition Workers’ Party of two of these constituencies last week has been held up as an example of the PAP losing touch with young voters. In one of them, Sengkang, a relatively-youthful voter base picked a slate of mainly new candidates, including Singapore’s youngest ever elected MP at 26, over experienced political office holders.
A survey of voter intentions published by Blackbox Research on Thursday showed that the Workers’ Party was most popular among Generation Z, those aged 21-25.
Separate surveys by the Straits Times newspaper showed that young voters swapped to the opposition due to issues ranging from opposition pledges to reduce immigration to perceptions that the PAP’s targeting of opposition figures was high-handed.
But Blackbox said the biggest vote shift was towards the new Progress Singapore Party (PSP), headed by an ex-PAP stalwart, which narrowly missed out on seats but garnered 10 percent of ballots. PSP was most popular among those aged 25-59, while the PAP was favored by those aged 60 and above.
“The PSP appeared to do better with disaffected former PAP voters,” Blackbox said.
Opposition voter Selvan Paramasivam, a 31-year-old investment analyst, said as older voters lose their influence in elections to a younger, social media-savvy citizenry, a consensus is forming around the need for “a substantial alternative voice in parliament.”
And despite warnings about foreign investors, this mood for change received only a muted reaction from financial markets compared to a similarly-unexpected slump in the PAP’s vote share in 2011.
“This may have to do with the point that most commentators feel that the election was a good one reflecting the Republic’s political maturity transition to a more diverse parliament,” said Leong Sook Mei, a market researcher at MUFG Bank.
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