SINGAPORE, July 1 — Unlike past elections held when the country was doing well, the current General Election set amid the ongoing Covid-19 crisis can “change the course of history,” just like the 1959 and 2001 elections, said Lee Hsien Loong, secretary-general of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) yesterday.
The landmark 1959 election marked the year Singapore became self-governing, and also saw the PAP, then an opposition party, secure its first victory, while the 2001 polls were held in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.
Lee, 68, who had previously indicated his wish to hand over the reins of the party and the Government to the next generation of leaders before the next election, also said he does not know if GE2020 will be his final one, with the pandemic possibly affecting his succession plans.
“As for Covid-19 on our plans, I very much hope that Covid-19 will not disturb my plans but (it) is a very wily and dangerous virus, and we will have to see how things develop on that,” he added in response to questions about his succession plan during a virtual press conference with PAP leaders.
The prime minister noted that the stakes for this election are “very high.”
“Most of the time when we go into an election, the country's doing well. And then during the campaign, we talk about how to improve things further, new ideas to take us forward, building on our success,” he said.
“Then, sometimes, like now, you have an election during a crisis. These are elections that focus everyone's mind and you can also change the course of history.”
He cited the elections in 1959 and 2001 as examples.
“This is such a crisis election. As our manifesto puts it, what's at stake is our lives, jobs, our future. Everything depends on which government you choose and the mandate you give it,” he said hours after nominations closed for the July 10 poll.
With him at the press conference were the PAP’s Teo Chee Hean, first assistant secretary-general Heng Swee Keat, second assistant secretary-general Chan Chun Sing, and vice-chairman Masagos Zulkifli.
With the coronavirus pandemic raising the stakes of the GE, Lee said the party expects a tough fight in the GE though he acknowledged that there could be a “flight to safety” during a crisis — whereby voters pick the incumbents due to a preference for stability.
At the same time, Mr Lee noted the Covid-19 crisis also means this is “not the happiest of times.”
“People are feeling the pain, the uncertainty acutely. The opposition is making the most of that, (they are) well-organised, prepared, will not roll over, or go away. The PAP will have to fight for every vote and win every heart,” he said.
He reiterated the call for a strong mandate in the polls.
“Don't vote for a compromised candidate, don't vote for a weakened national team. Singapore needs to have the best team to work for you, with you, to see us all through this crisis, both for the party with the experience, the commitment, and the ideas to take us forward.”
Different from past polls
Apart from the raised stakes, Mr Lee was also asked how different the current election feels compared with past GEs.
Lee, who took part in his first hustings in 1984, will be contesting the ninth time.
“I can't say that it's the last one, although I have said that I'm hoping to hand over (during) this term to my successor,” said Lee. If elected, Heng is widely expected to take over as prime minister.
Remembering how there was no internet, much less social media, in 1984, Lee said politicians “made their mileage by stomping the ground, house by house, market by market, and you made the buzz by generating election rallies, where people got the feel of you.”
But the internet and social media has become a much bigger factor, he said, adding that this has both good sides and significant downsides, too, “because of the problem of people mobilising overnight internet storms.”
He was referring to the furore behind former PAP new candidate Ivan Lim Shaw Chuan, 42, who had withdrawn his candidacy following negative online accusations of his character.
“It happens faster than people are able to digest and make sense of information and facts, and in an election that's a dangerous thing,” said Lee.
Lee also highlighted changes to the law that have increased the number, as well as the parliamentary powers of Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs), stressing that significant opposition presence is guaranteed and there is no chance of shutting them out.
NCMPs are non-elected MPs who are the best performing opposition members in the GE.
In 2016, the NCMP scheme was changed to allow for a maximum of 12 opposition MPs in Parliament, up from a maximum of nine previously.
NCMPs will also have full Parliamentary voting rights as a fully elected MP, which means they can vote on annual Budgets, constitutional amendments and motions of confidence.
“Whatever happens, significant opposition presence is guaranteed in the Constitution. There is no possibility of the opposition being shut out from parliament,” said Lee.
The Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh had previously raised the possibility of an opposition “wipeout” in GE2020. Before the dissolution of Parliament, WP had three NCMPs, two of whom — Dennis Tan and Leon Perera — are standing for elections.
In response to a question about opposition members making statements about the importance of them becoming elected MPs, Lee said: “I can fully understand that the opposition parties will want to try very hard to win seats, and not just to have good, losing results in all the constituencies.”
But as far as the Constitution and parliament are concerned, there is no difference between NCMPs and elected MPs in terms of their rights, he reiterated.
“We expect the NCMPs to participate as actively as the elected MPs in parliament, and if we look at what the Workers’ Party’s NCMPs have been doing in the last term, indeed they have, in some cases, been more active that the elected MPs at the risk of overshadowing the elected MPs,” he said. — TODAY