SINGAPORE -- The biggest opposition party in Singapore won 10 of 93 seats in parliament in Friday's general election. On the surface, the result may look like a stunning defeat for the party. But in reality, it is a historic leap.
The ruling People's Action Party, as expected, maintained its long and uninterrupted grip on power, while the Workers' Party won double-digit seats for the first time since Singapore's independence in 1965.
The election system in Singapore is unique, divided into Group Representation Constituencies and Single Member Constituencies. In each GRC, a group of four to five candidates from the same political party contests and wins all seats if it receives more votes than other groups.
Opposition parties often fail to perform well in GRCs due to the difficulty of fielding groups of attractive candidates in comparison with the PAP. The WP scored the first ever victory over the PAP in a GRC in 2011 voting, or two elections before the latest one.
In Friday's balloting, the WP won the Sengkang GRC in addition to the GRC where it has prevailed since 2011. Sengkang is a residential area, having a large number of young child rearing households, in the northeastern part of the city-state.
The WP ran a group of young candidates with an average age of 35. One of them is Raeesah Khan, a 26-year-old social activist who played a symbolic role in the latest election.
With ethnic Chinese forming the vast majority of Singapore's population, Khan is a Malay, one of the minority communities. Based on her experience of helping marginalized women and children, Khan proactively talked about women's issues during the campaign. She also took up the question of climate change, which is drawing strong interest from young people.
But Khan found herself in hot water in the middle of the campaign due to the launch of an investigation by police after they received a report alleging that her past Facebook comments had promoted enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race.
The PAP, concerned about the popularity of young WP candidates, took advantage of the development and urged the party to release its official view regarding Khan's comments and have her disclose other past public comments so that voters could judge her quality as a lawmaker.
The reputation of opposition candidates was severely damaged by fierce PAP attacks in past elections. But the 2020 vote took a different turn as hashtag-decorated messages in support of Khan were posted on Twitter as if to counter the PAP's criticism. Young WP candidates maintained their momentum throughout the campaign.
In small hours of Saturday, the WP group in the Sengkang GRC defeated the PAP team which included an incumbent cabinet minister. Khan will thus become the youngest member of parliament in Singapore's history, according to local media reports.
The PAP's negative campaign prompted voters to join a wave of support for Khan, said Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate of the Asia Research Institute at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.
"People are fed up," Welsh said, adding that a "negative campaign makes people angry. And people will come to her defense."
The PAP, which had retained more than 90% of the entire seats in past parliamentary elections since Singapore's independence in 1965, fell slightly short of that mark this time, taking 89%. Such overwhelming historical dominance has made it proud of leading the small country's growth and it thus tends to go on the offensive against opposition parties.
In the latest election, for example, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who heads the PAP, brushed aside the WP's campaign pledge to introduce, among other things, a national minimum wage as "fashionable peacetime slogans, not serious wartime plans." Speaking to an online election rally, he added that Singapore must preserve its "high reputation" as a "matter of survival" to prevent foreign capital from fleeing. "Otherwise, we will just fade away and be forgotten, like so many city-states in history."
Assertions by political parties naturally clash with each other in an election campaign. But the PAP's exclusive stance eliminates the possibility of dialogue with opposition parties and keeps itself at a distance from voters.
Tan Cheng Bock, secretary-general of the Progress Singapore Party, described the PAP's stance as "the politics of fear" during the campaign. Noting that the PAP rewards people who vote for it and treats those who do not as enemies, Tan said Singapore should put an end to such a structure of confrontation.
Formerly a longtime member of parliament from the PAP, Tan founded the PSP in 2019 to create an opposition camp that can compete with the governing party. Although the PSP failed to win a seat in Friday's election, it trailed the PAP by only 3 percentage points in the share of votes in a western GRC.
The PAP's share of votes dropped sharply to 61.2% from 69.9% in the previous election in 2015 because a sense of discomfort surrounding what Tan described as "the politics of fear" has spread among voters.
Jamus Lim, a member of the WP team in the Sengkang GRC, said he is willing to hold constructive talks with the PAP in parliament. "[The] PAP does not have a monopoly on the best ideas on how we should bring the society forward," Lim said.
Another factor affecting the outcome in the Sengkang GRC was that young voters supported the WP because the party did not merely criticize the PAP.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, countries around the world are seeking new ways of pursuing economic and social life now that conventional patterns of behavior and senses of values have been upended. As Singapore is no exception, the result of Friday's election may reflect the social atmosphere of such a time.
But despite the various factors at play, in the end the number of opposition-occupied seats in parliament increased by just four from the previous election, while the number of seats in parliament rose by as many. Objectively speaking, therefore, a change of power in Singapore remains nothing more than a dream.
But if the election paves the way for active debate between the ruling and opposition parties, politics in Singapore can possibly advance to a new stage.