Insight: How does the PAP perform in times of crisis?

Singapore’s upcoming general election will be held in a time of crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to affect us on a global scale while economic contractions will become the norm. We are undoubtedly headed into a future of uncertainty. How then does Singapore’s ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), fare during times of crisis?

To explore this we shall consider significant milestones of “crises” the city-state faced since independence and how such crises were reflected in their subsequent general elections. 

Credits to Sharvin Seakara

Independence (1965)

Singapore’s first general election after independence took place in 1968. The PAP experienced a 39.8 percent increase in voter support since the previous election in 1963. Two major factors were at play: 1)  Being the first election after independence an upsurge of national pride and patriotism is expected. 2) Singapore’s major opposition at that time, the Barisan Sosialis (a party that split from the PAP), boycotted the elections with many other opposition parties following suit – leaving the PAP largely uncontested. 

Within the context of “crisis”, it is no surprise the PAP garnered such support with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew being the political figure leading the city-state after its expulsion from Malaysia. However, it remains unclear which of the two factors influenced voters most. The PAP enjoyed an overwhelming support from voters, 86.7 percent of the total votes were allotted to the party. 

Singapore’s First Recession (1985)

Singapore’s first post independence recession in 1985 put a stop to the continuous growth of 8.5 percent per year. It brought Singapore’s second quarter of 1985 at a growth rate of -1.4 percent, dropping to -3.5 percent in the third quarter. 

High costs, wages, and rentals were attributed to the causes of the recession. In response, the government lowered employer contributions to the Central Provident Fund along with rebates on taxes. 

The 1988 general election took place after the 1985 recession with the PAP experiencing a 1.6 percent drop in the share of votes. The decrease in vote share is not a consequence of the recession. The prior to the 1988 election, the 1984 election saw the PAP lose 12.9 percent of the vote share to two major opposition figures: J.B. Jeyaretnam (JBJ) of the Workers’ Party (WP) and Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). In 1988 JBJ did not contest but Chiam See Tong managed to secure Potong Pasir for the SDP.  

Asian Financial Crisis (1997) & the September 11 Attacks (2001)

The 2001 general elections was a pivotal election for the PAP. The election was originally scheduled to be held in 2002 but was brought forward due to the economic crisis Singapore experienced after the September 11 Attacks, consequently the party experienced a 10.3 percent increase in vote share. 

Reuters/Sean Adair

The crisis that sparked after the 9/11 attacks and the fear that loomed around the world could have contributed significantly to Singaporeans voting for the PAP. Political analysts have called it a “flight to safety”. 

Global Financial Crisis (2008)

The first election that was held after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 was the historic 2011 general election where the PAP scored its lowest result of 60.14 percent since independence. 

The result served the ruling party a signal that a large portion of Singaporeans were dissatisfied with the PAP. To what extent the consequences of the 2008 recession had upon the results remains unclear but several political analysts have attributed the generational shifts in perception towards the party leadership. This prompted Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew to quit the country’s cabinet, citing that it was time for the youth to carry on leading Singapore. 

Covid-19 and GE 2020

The country’s general election to be held on July 10 will be an interesting one. Political analysts have again suggested a possible “flight to safety” during this election as the Covid-19 pandemic drags on. 

Source: The Straits Times

For example, if we were to take another look at our chart, we notice that in both years where the elections were held at the same time as the period of crisis (1997 & 2001), there was an increase in vote share. This might point to issue salience being a significant determinant, where uncertainty during the period of crisis has an impact on voters’ risk-taking behaviour.

Hence, for GE2020, we can look back to the elections held in 2001 and perhaps expect similar results; however, certain factors might change the electoral calculus. Former PAP member of parliament Tan Cheng Bock has been leading a new generation of opposition candidates with his Progress Singapore Party (PSP); additionally, Lee Hsien Yang, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s brother, has gone out to support PSP.

Both the PAP and the opposition have been capitalizing on social media with limited physical outreach and no physical rallies. How these parties will appeal to voters will depend on how well they utilize these technological tools. In times of crisis, will the people of Singapore resort to a “flight to safety” or will there be a TCB & LHY factor?

For now the only way to find out is by keeping an eye on how these parties develop their digital presence but also keeping in mind the scale of the crisis at hand.

— Nigel Li

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