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An orderly choice in Singapore and a (somewhat) surprising result

Citizens with face masks stood in line for parliamentary elections in Singapore on Friday, and a lot of space separated them. Their temperatures had been checked. Before they received their ballot papers, they sprayed their hands with disinfectant and many put on disposable gloves.

If a country was able to successfully run elections during a global pandemic, it was certainly Singapore, a wealthy, well-kept city-state with a population largely conditioned on compliance.

The election winner was never in doubt, even if the vote was extended by two hours to meet the long line of voters.

While the winner remained the center-right People’s Party, considered the longest-running elected political party in the world, the results released early Saturday showed a surprising decline in support. Its share of the referendum fell to 61 percent, an increase of almost nine points since the elections five years ago, and the leading opposition party took a record 10 of Parliament’s 93 seats.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the 68-year-old son of the nation’s founding father, has indicated that he will remain at the top of the country until the end of the coronavirus crisis.

But if the elections show the steady hand of a party that has used Singapore’s greatest strengths – deep box office, technocratic professionalism and belief in science and technology – to fight a pandemic, it has also highlighted divisions in a society that like many others, including others in industrialized countries, are struggling with a changing geopolitical landscape.

And several of the parliamentary races were surprisingly competitive. The opposition workers’ party won 10 seats, according to results.

“Singapore has driven the wave of globalization up, but with Covid we are entering a phase of deglobalization that is making Singapore’s economy very vulnerable,” said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist with a focus on Southeast Asia.

“From the outside, Singapore looks like a great success story, and it is in many ways, but it raises legitimate questions about what it wants to be in this new era,” added Ms. Welsh.

Above all, the People’s Action Party promised stability and competence. The ruling party, which led Singapore before independence in 1965, claims to have turned a low-resource backwater at the tip of the Southeast Asian peninsula into one of the most prosperous nations in the world.

The corona virus has haunted overcrowded dormitories with 200,000 foreign workers and infected tens of thousands, but Singapore has reduced its death toll from the pandemic to just 26 people. Job losses have been curbed by relief efforts in excess of $ 70 billion. While Singapore has no minimum wage and, according to some estimates, at least 10 percent of its households are considered poor, comprehensive public housing ensures a kind of social safety net for citizens.

“We need the support of every Singaporean,” said Mr. Lee, who has led Singapore since 2004, before the vote. “Not just to return the PAP to the government. But also to give him a strong mandate and enable him to act decisively on your behalf and to steer the country towards better days. “

For the 10 opposition parties running against the PAP, the campaign was less an attempt to remove a political monster than an attempt to bring different points of view into the national conversation. The smallest mandate the governing party has ever received was a 60 percent victory in 2011, and the opposition won only six seats in the last elections in 2015.

“What we’re trying to deny them is a blank check, and that’s what I think this election is about,” said Jamus Lim, economist and Labor Party candidate, in an online debate.

Singapore’s political constraints and social distancing measures made it even harder than usual for the opposition to gain momentum.

The campaign season lasted only nine days. A counterfeit news law that entered into force last year was seen as a deterrent to the online debate. Election campaigns have been banned due to the limitations of the corona virus. Election polls were also not allowed.

The short campaign period was marked by personal vitriol, particularly a dispute between Mr. Lee and his younger brother Lee Hsien Yang, a former brigadier general and businessman who had joined the opposition Progress Singapore Party last month.

Her father, Lee Kuan Yew, was a co-founder of the People’s Action Party and was Prime Minister for more than three decades.

Senior Lee led the ethnically Chinese-dominated city-state to independence in 1965 after he left the new country of Malaysia. He advocated rules and order and advocated Confucian virtues.

Today, most Singaporeans are of Chinese descent, but about 40 percent of the country’s 5.7 million residents were born abroad. According to racial harmony laws, people who stir up religious or racial enmity can spend up to three years in prison.

Last year, Heng Swee Keat, deputy prime minister and alleged successor to Mr. Lee, said that older Singaporeans were “not ready” for a leader who is not ethnic Chinese.

On Sunday, Labor Party candidate Raeesah Khan apologized for social media comments accusing the police of treating ethnic minorities and migrant workers harder than whites or rich Chinese. Their comment prompted two police reports to be submitted, the Singapore police confirmed.

“Systemic racism is a reality in Singapore,” said Jolovan Wham, a social worker and activist who campaigned for the rights of migrant workers.

Ethnic minorities fear that if they act against racism in public, they may be investigated by the police, said Wham, who spent a week in prison this year for criticizing the Singapore courts.

“Self-censorship has become the norm,” he added. “The lack of freedom of expression in Singapore has made it difficult to conduct authentic and honest debates on important issues that affect us.”

Young Singaporeans, some of whom have expressed their political views in boisterous online forums, are part of a global discourse on privilege and power, said Donald Low, a former senior Singapore official who now teaches at the Hong Kong University of Science and technology.

Some prominent members of the ruling party have opposed the notion that they are benefiting from a system that unfairly rewards an ethnic Chinese elite.

“Denying young ethnic minorities that a wealthy Chinese man is not privileged, that there is no prejudice in society, is incredibly patronizing,” said Low.

Singapore’s prosperity depends on the sweat of its approximately one million low-wage migrant workers, who help keep the city neat, efficient and breathtakingly modern.

Unlike other expatriates who can ultimately qualify for permanent residence, these migrants, who are mainly from South Asia and China, work in Singapore and know that they are temporary members of society.

Worker activists have warned over the years that their dormitories, which have been relegated to the periphery of the island state, are petri dishes for diseases, and it may come as no surprise that the vast majority of the more than 45,600 coronavirus cases in Singapore are among this population .

The government has announced plans to build more facilities for foreign workers, but has opposed criticism of ignoring migrants’ working conditions at their peril. Most migrants who tested positive were asymptomatic or barely sick, health officials said.

“Creating new dormitories with more space is no silver bullet,” said Singapore Justice Minister K. Shanmugam in an interview. Cruise ships are luxurious, but the corona virus has spread quickly in their common spaces.

However, the public health crisis among migrant workers in Singapore has sparked a debate on the basic structure of the country’s hyperglobalized economy.

“The real problem is our excessive reliance on low-cost foreign workers,” said Low, former director of financial policy at the Singapore Treasury.

“What this has revealed,” he added, “is not only systemic injustice to foreign workers, but also something that affects Singapore’s veneer of technocratic modernity and superior governance.”

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