Lee highlighted the nearly $100 billion the government has spent in propping up the trade-exposed economy in the pandemic months, pointed out domestic case numbers are falling after a second wave of infections and declared “we are now in a stable position… [but] we should be under no illusions that we have defeated COVID-19”.
The 68-year-old leader even echoed former Australian prime minister John Howard during his speech: “soon you will have the chance to decide whom do I trust with the responsibility of working with you to take our country forward. I have every confidence that you will think carefully and vote wisely”.
Lee and his ruling People’s Action Party are, more than most governments, running on their record. The PAP has won every election since 1959, recording between 60 per cent and 86 per cent of the vote since the island nation won independence in 1965.
The prospect of one of the opposition parties actually winning power is remote, to put it politely. The PAP won 83 of 89 seats in 2015, with the Workers’ Party claiming the other six. The latter and other minor parties won’t seize power in a shock result like what occurred in Malaysia in 2018.
“Orderly” is the order of the day in Singaporean elections.
A report last week from the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights coalition, a group of current and former MPs from south-east Asia that advocates for democracy, criticised the expected poll.
It stated that while polls in Singapore are “generally free of irregularities”, elections are “neither free nor fair” because of structural restrictions in the system, such as a largely government-controlled media environment, legal restrictions on free speech and assembly, and inherent issues in the electoral system.
Lee, the eldest son of the first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, wants nothing more than another orderly election ahead of a much-speculated handover to Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in the next five-year term.
An election was not due until April 2021, but there had been speculation it would be called soon as Lee and senior politicians appeared in unofficial campaign mode while delivering several major speeches and new policies.
His gamble — if you can call it that — is that voters will choose ongoing government support for the economy and jobs, governing experience and the desire for continuity, and not change in a time of unprecedented uncertainty.
Singapore is the most economically open, trade-exposed country in the region and a hit to the ruling party’s vote could potentially underline the growing fault lines around the world between free traders and protectionists, globalists and nationalists.
A significant drop in the ruling part’s vote from 69 per cent in 2015 would presage trouble ahead for it in the years to come.
But don’t bet on it.
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.