Will the COVID-19 Epidemic Influence the Upcoming Elections in Singapore and New Zealand?

Singapore and New Zealand will be hosting General Elections in the next six months. New Zealand is due to go to polls in September 2020 and Singapore has confirmed elections to take place on 10th July. Both Prime Ministers have received international praise for strong leadership performances during the COVID-19 epidemic and maintain strong public support. But will this translate into a strong performance at the elections with both countries facing post-COVID-19 issues including economic recession, high cost of living and stronger challenges from the opposition?

Featured image: Photo: Jacklee. / CC BY-SA Singapore General Election People’s Action Party COVID-19 rally

Singapore Government’s handling of COVID-19

Asia Thinkers examine the Singaporean Governments management during COVID-19 and the challenges faced in the runup to the election and interview Singapore Politician, Ravi Philemon, Co-Founder of a new political party “Red Dot United” -which will contest the upcoming elections.

Election season is creeping up on Singapore. Although the current term doesn’t run out until April 2021, the election has been called for July 10th 2020, with the government confident in gaining public support for its handling of the virus, seeing it as an opportunity to secure a stronger mandate. The election will be held amid the COVID-19 epidemic and measures will be put in place to reduce the risk of transmission – including no rallies. Restrictions on gatherings of more than five people mean that opposition parties will have difficulty gathering for their usual discussions to avoid multi-party fights in certain constituencies.

The overall result of the election isn’t in doubt. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) hasn’t lost an election in over 60 years, and the entire Singapore system from dominance over data and information, to the exercise of restrictive legislation, gives any ruling party the upper hand. More importantly, PAP also enjoys genuine support among a broad base of voters, guaranteeing a supermajority in Parliament in every election.

But what will be interesting in this election is the margin of the PAP victory, and the performance of various opposition parties, particularly the Workers’ Party (currently the only opposition party to have a presence in Parliament), the Singapore Democratic Party, Progress Singapore Party, and the new Red Dot United party. The key issue is whether the Government will gather support from its performance in managing the COVID-19 epidemic and this being the last election Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will contest as leader of the party, he will want a strong performance.  If the opposition breaks the PAP’s two-thirds parliamentary majority – this would restrain the incumbent’s ability to amend the constitution and increase the amount of debate in the House.

Despite its advantageous position, PAP has reasons to be anxious about its performance in the next election. Initially, the Singapore Governments quick actions, transparency and method of handling the virus was praised and lauded as a global standard. Contact tracing apps, mass screenings, and swift isolation received support both at home and abroad. But by the middle of April, the number of COVID-19 cases spiked and as of June, Singapore recorded a total of 41,600 cases.

The mistake lay in the government’s lack of oversight on migrant workers living in cramped dormitories. Their proximity and poor living conditions contributed to Singapore’s growing COVID-19 cases. According to the Singapore Ministry of Health, these migrant workers have contributed to 90 per cent of the city-state’s COVID-19 cases. Initially, the government reacted slowly, doing little to isolate migrant workers as Singapore faced an escalating pandemic crisis.

The Singaporean political opposition faces immense division which could have a major impact on performance. Twelve active parties, all with their own agenda and personalities. Former PAP member of parliament, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, went ahead to create his party, the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), giving hope that the opposition might have new energy. But even before contesting its first elections, two prominent members of the party, Ravi Philemon and Michelle Lee, left and proceeded to form their party, Red Dot United, bringing into question the sustainability of opposition unity.

Asia Thinkers interviewed Ravi Philemon on his motivation to enter politics, his reasons for leaving PSP and the motivation and objectives behind forming Red Dot United:

Ravi, can you tell Asia Thinkers what motivated you to enter Singapore politics and what have you learnt from being involved with different opposition parties such as SPP, PSP over the years?

I moved to the United States with my family in the mid-2000s. When I came back in 2008, it felt as if I had come back to a different country. It had become more crowded in a few short years and people seemed less happy. It was also a time when the Great Financial Crisis struck, in 2008. Many people were losing their homes and I wrote an article about ‘how you can avoid becoming homeless.’ It was a simple, common-sense report as to how you should avoid taking large mortgage loans which stretches the homeowners’ finances. But no mainstream media was willing to publish the letter because the ‘official’ stand then was that ‘there are no homeless people in Singapore’. TOC or The Online Citizen eventually published my article. That is how my relationship with them started. Back then, I considered myself a Blogivist (activist with a blog). I started doing more and more stuff for TOC and eventually became its chief editor. My various roles in TOC allowed me to meet and interact with several prominent individuals in the socio-political scene of Singapore.

In the 2011 General Election, I volunteered in the campaign of an opposition politician before deciding to take the plunge into opposition politics. So for me, it was a journey. I felt that more and more people were being left behind and had a realisation that I could do more for them, as well as for Singapore. A belief that by joining in with Singapore partisan politics, could help point the government in the right direction. When I decided to take the plunge by being a part of partisan politics in Singapore, I naturally joined the political party of the candidate I had helped in the 2011 election, and when she left the party to another one for various reasons, I went along with her. I saw my primary role as being one of supporting this particular candidate. But around 2014 or 2015, Mr Chiam See Tong convinced me to be more involved and to participate in the 2015 General Election as one of his candidates. I learnt much from both him and his wife, Mrs Lina Chiam. They are both my friends and well-wishers. My membership with Mr Chiam’s SPP lapsed soon after the 2015 election. And when Dr Tan Cheng Bock started the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) in 2019, I decided to join him because I believe in the values of independence, transparency and accountability PSP was espousing.

About a year later, I decided to part ways with PSP for several reasons, which I prefer not to talk about. But Dr Tan remains a friend and a well-wisher. I look up to both Mr Chiam and Dr Tan as mentors and guides. I have learnt much from these two men, but mostly how to stay grounded, humble and always listen to the people.

What made you decide to leave PSP and co-found a new opposition party “Red Dot United” with Michelle Lee? What does RDU stand for? 

Whether it is politics or career, people leave organisations they are vested in for various reasons. And this happens despite there being no bad blood between the person leaving the organisation and the entity itself. I have spoken much about why I left PSP. It is there in the public domain. I do not wish to dwell on the past, but am excited about the future.

Michelle and I formed Red Dot United (RDU). ‘Red Dot’ refers to Singapore. The term “red dot” has come to be used by Singaporeans with pride and with a sense of the nation’s success despite its physical limitations. “Red Dot United” refers to our aspirations to see a united country, founded on sound principles and values. We want to be advocates for values like openness, accountability, transparency. Political parties usually only come alive during elections and are silent otherwise. We need different objectives and goals and not just winning elections. We hope to achieve new goals with RDU. Goals like citizen activation through enabling and educating people and moving away from the old way of doing things. We don’t create a cult of personality but want to see process/policy-driven politics. We want to lead by example.

You have been quoted as saying that your vision ‘is to build a political-social platform and not just another political party’. Can you explain more about the objectives of Red Dot United?

We hope that RDU will be a national movement dedicated to serving Singapore and advancing the well-being of all Singaporeans; by promoting the ideals of Fairness, Accountability, Integrity, Transparency and Happiness, Hope and Heart (Empathy and Compassion).

RDU’s objectives are:

  • Create a tolerant and pluralist society whose laws fully reflect national values as espoused in the Singapore National Pledge.
  • Foster and actively promote unity among all the peoples of this country regardless of ethnic origin religion, position, gender, occupation, status in society or political affiliation.
  • Ensure that all the institutions of the state, including the political institutions, the legal system and the public service, achieve the highest standards of efficiency and service, serving the purposes for which they were established.
  • Protect the rights of the individual citizen to live in peace, safety and security, respecting the legal code and the rights of others.
  • Support and promote the rights and equal opportunities for all citizens.
  • Encouraging enterprise, efficiency and self-reliance in economic activities for the benefit of all.
  • Manage the economy of the country with efficiency and prudence, guided by the consideration of the national interest.
  • Promote social justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities and privileges, and to work towards the lessening of vast inequalities within our society.
  • Seek to provide for all, who are capable, the opportunity and means of earning a living, either by way of self-employment or as employees in various undertakings.
  • Provide a good system of quality education, both public and private, at all levels which address the development needs of the country.
  • Give priority to the health needs of the nation to establish and maintain a decent and efficient system of public health which is easily accessible to the people.
  • Foster and maintain the freedom of the media, and the open dissemination and interchange of ideas, subject only to the laws of defamation and the legitimate claims of a national society.
  • Pursue responsible population policies.
  • Work towards achieving ecologically sustainable development.
  • Maintain, in the interest of national unity, harmonious relations with all other political parties, notwithstanding any differences in ideologies.
  • Protect and maintain the rule of law in the Republic of Singapore.
  • Uphold and maintain the separation of powers as provided by the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore.
  • Ensure and protect the integrity of the Republic of Singapore.
  • Respect, preserve and promote the traditional cultures and institutions of Singapore.
  • Ensure that Singapore maintains friendly relations with all countries which respect our sovereignty and integrity as a nation.
  • Contribute positively to the achievement of world peace and justice, working harmoniously through the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations.
  • Endorse and equip candidates of good standing for national elections and strive for electoral success.

Your party completed registration in June, will you be ready to proceed and field candidates if the election is called for in July? What role would you want to play if elected?

We are fielding five candidates in the 2020 General Election. Our Charter for ‘GE2020RDU’ guarantees that we will give our best to serve the residents of Jurong GRC and run their Town Council efficiently and prudently if elected, ensuring that all processes are transparent and that all responsibilities are fulfilled. In Parliament, RDU will consistently hold all policies and elected officials accountable to the principles and values of our Singapore pledge. We will speak up to enable Singaporeans to be the Captains of their own lives while caring for those in need of assistance. The Charter is here: https://reddotunited.sg/latest/f/a-charter-for-our-future—captains-of-our-own-lives

You have said previously that you are someone who believes in Social Justice. Do you believe the current Government could have done more to improve the lives of migrant workers before the COVID-19 epidemic?

It took over 30,000 foreign workers with COVID-19 for the Minister of National Development to announce in early June that the government is finally developing a more humane set of specifications for their dormitories, after collecting hundreds of dollars every month (between $300 to $1000) for each foreign worker in Singapore.

As every employer of a domestic helper knows, that’s money that could be paid in higher salaries to the worker (who earns a basic salary of about $600 a month in the construction sector), but instead is paid to the government each month. How much of that money has gone towards assisting the employers or the care and protection of the foreign workers? We hope that Singaporeans realise we need to think for ourselves, speak up and not be afraid to question decisions in the making or even those which have been made. It is also time to recognise that our government has no monopoly of wisdom or good decision-making. What we have seen recently appear to be some policies set by different ministries with no coordinated strategies.

We don’t expect perfection, but we do suggest that humbleness and a willingness to do better could carry us a lot further. As many Singaporean mums tell their kids, “Don’t tell me how well you have done, ask yourself how you can do better?”

The Government has been pushing for an early election possibly in July, do you feel this is the right time given the severity of COVID-19 to hold a General Election?

Red Dot United (RDU) believes that the current government holds a strong mandate from the previous general elections. Thus, the ministers would serve Singapore and Singaporeans well by being fully focused on better controlling the pandemic instead of being distracted by an election. We are currently in the month of July and can always hold an election later in the year. The next election need not be called until April 2021.

New Zealand election result to be influenced by COVID-19

With New Zealand ending a seven-week lockdown, the September election will go ahead but this year’s election will be different. The Electoral Commission stated that “due to COVID-19, a range of measures will be in place to keep people safe.”

With only months to go before the September General Election, popularity of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has soared in the country following her management of the COVID-19 crisis. Ardern, who took office in October 2017 and has since dealt with two other major crises, has the approval of 59.6 among New Zealanders, according to a recent survey. If she can maintain this support the labour party could come to power with an outright majority, securing 72 of the 120 seats in Parliament and be able to rule without forming a coalition.

However, the leader has always enjoyed popularity among her countrymen and after her election, there were even media talk of a “Jacindamania” phenomenon.

Over the last couple of months, Ardern implemented a series of drastic measures to check the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus drawing praise Internationally.

Ardern has stood out for the compassion shown to the victims of the racist attack on two mosques in the city of Christchurch in March 2019, in which 51 people died, and her leadership during the eruption of the Whakaari volcano, where 21 people lost their lives last December.

According to a recent poll, 88 per cent of New Zealanders trust their government to make the right decisions regarding COVID-19 (well above the G7 average of 59 per cent), and 83 per cent trust it to deal successfully with national problems. Asia Thinkers in their poll found many New Zealanders who were doubtful of Jarcindas performance six months ago, however are now fully backing her response to the epidemic.  But this is now and could change come September, when people’s memories of this phase of the crisis have dulled and they are looking for a path through the social and economic damage. The National opposition party with traditional big business support will position themselves as competent economic managers. The Government, in order to rebuild, “has borrowed an extra $50 billion over the next two years to support wage subsidies, corporate welfare and normal welfare, hoping for recovery if or when a vaccine is found.” This could see debt reach 53.6% of GDP by 2023. Her detractors think voters will not overlook the national debt. Her supporters think she’s earned a second term and earned public respect when she and cabinet members all took a 25% pay cut.

The issues that plagued New Zealand before the pandemic remain: child poverty, unequal treatment of Maori and Pacific island people by the criminal justice system, widespread homelessness, a high rate of youth suicide. The test for the PM and her Government will be to convince the country that labour is the party to bring economic and social reform post-election.

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