Singapore Election History Primer for #GE2020

This special issue of The Historyogi Post is packed with everything you need to know about the history of elections in Singapore. 

#GE2020 Podcast: The historical roots of electioneering & campaigning in Singapore: 

Listen to this episode of my friend Kwan Jin Yao’s COVID19 Community Chronicles Podcast Series, where we discuss the historical roots of Singapore’s election traditions such as the GRC system, NMP & NCMP schemes, as well as the drawing of electoral boundaries & the involvement of the PA in grassroots & political work. We also take a look at the justifications put forth at that time for electoral reforms as well as the objections expressed against them.

Listen HERE

Singapore’s Past 14 General Elections at a Glance

1959: Secretary-General of People’s Action Party Lee Kuan Yew (right) with party members during general election. Credit: NAS

1959: First election that ushered in full internal self-government for Singapore. The People’s Action Party won the polls for the first time and its leader, Lee Kuan Yew, became the state’s first Prime Minister. Read More

1963: Police officer checking the documents of voters at entrance of polling station. Credit: NAS

1963: First election with Singapore as part of Malaysia. The PAP faced its toughest fight ever, with splinter group Barisan Sosialis and other left wing parties contesting nearly every seat. The PAP argued that a pro-communist victory would lead to KL imposing emergency rule. It won a two-thirds majority, defeating UMNO’s local candidates in Malay-dominated seats. Read More

1968: Mrs Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong waiting for results at the Raffles Institution counting centre. Credit: NAS

1968: First election in independent Singapore. This election had one of the longest campaign periods of six weeks. The Barisan boycotted the polls, giving the PAP a Parliamentary monopoly that would last until 1981. Read More

1972: Harbans Singh speaking at a Barisan rally. Credit NAS

1972: Five opposition parties contested nearly all the seats, with JB Jeyaretnam standing as a Workers’ Party candidate for the first time. But the PAP once again swept every seat, winning 69% of the votes. Read More

1976: S Rajaratnam addressing a rally at Malabar Street. Credit: NAS

1976: Future PM Goh Chok Tong entered politics in this election, together with opposition stalwart Chiam See Tong. Election deposits were increased for the first time and four opposition parties, namely Barisan, Singapore Justice Party, PKMS and United Front, formed the Joint Opposition Council to contest the polls. Read More

1980: Goh Chok Tong at the nomination centre in Tanjong Katong. Credit: NAS

1980: The SDP contested the polls for the first time. PAP MP Phey Yew Kok caused a stir when he jumped bail and fled embezzlement charges (he surrendered in 2015). The PAP once again swept all seats for the 4th consecutive time. Read More

1984: JB Jeyaretnam waving to supporters. Credit: NAS

1984: The PAP’s Graduate Mothers Scheme and proposed increase to the CPF withdrawal age caused public anger. Future PM Lee Hsien Loong entered politics in this election, while pioneer leaders Goh Keng Swee and Ong Pang Boon retired. The PAP lost over 10 percentage points in the popular vote. Chiam See Tong entered Parliament for the first time, winning Potong Pasir. The NCMP scheme was introduced but opposition candidates declined their offers. Read More

1988: A journalist updating the newsroom from the nomination centre. Credit: NAS

1988: The GRC system debuted, replacing most of the single-seat constituencies. Pioneer leaders Toh Chin Chye and S Rajaratnam retired, and this was Lee Kuan Yew’s final election as PM. Barisan merged with the WP. Former Law Society president Francis Seow contested under WP and later fled tax evasion charges to the US. Chiam retained the only opposition seat. Read More

1991: Low Thia Khiang at the counting centre. Credit: NAS

1991: New PM Goh called for early elections to get a fresh mandate, just a week after the electoral boundaries report was released. The PAP suffered a further drop in its popular vote, losing four seats. The SDP claimed two more seats, and WP’s Low Thia Khiang entered Parliament for the first time after winning Hougang. Read More

1997: Tan Cheng Bock carried by his supporters after winning Ayer Rajah. Credit: NAS

1997: Chiam resigned from the SDP and contested under the Singapore People’s Party banner. The SDP lost its two other seats, ending its Parliamentary presence. The PAP reversed its decline in the popular vote, while JB Jeyaretnam returned to Parliament as an NCMP after losing his Anson seat in 1986. WP’s Tang Liang Hong fled to Australia after the election to escape defamation suits and tax evasion charges. Read More

2001: Lim Swee Say and Sitoh Yih Pin at a rally in Potong Pasir. Credit: NAS

2001: The Singapore Democratic Alliance, led by Chiam, made its debut. Low took over as WP chief from Jeyaretnam, who resigned due to differences. The election deposit was almost doubled to $13,000. Parliament was dissolved just one day after electoral boundaries were unveiled. WP’s Aljunied team was disqualified for filing incomplete papers. The PAP won its largest ever popular vote, with 75.3%. This was Goh’s final election as PM. Read More

2006: WP Supporter at Yio Chu Kang Stadium. Credit: NAS

2006: The first election with Lee Hsien Loong as PM. For the first time, there were contests in six-member GRCs, no forfeiture of election deposits and the PM’s constituency’s popular vote was below the PAP’s national average. The campaign was dominated by the James Gomez saga, but the WP and SDA kept their seats. Read More

2011: WP Rally at Hougang. Credit: Singapore Election Watch

2011: Both Chiam and Low left their seats to lead GRC teams, with the WP capturing Aljunied GRC for the first time. The WP secured the largest opposition presence by a single party with six seats. Chiam’s gamble failed and Potong Pasir was finally lost to the PAP. Voter anger over cost of living, housing, immigration and growing inequality led to the PAP’s lowest popular vote ever at 60.14%. Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong retired from Cabinet. Read More

2015: Party supporters on Nomination Day. Credit: Straits Times

2015: The first election after the passing of Lee Kuan Yew. His death combined with nostalgia and patriotism around the SG50 celebrations, reversed the PAP’s decline in the popular vote. WP barely held on to Aljunied GRC and lost Punggol East, which it had won in 2013’s by-election. The SPP failed to regain Potong Pasir. SDP’s Chee returned to polls after getting discharged from bankruptcy. Read More

Four Iconic Opposition Politicians from Our Past

Credit: NAS

Ong Eng Guan: Ong joined the PAP in 1954 and became party treasurer. In 1957, the PAP won the City Council elections and Ong became Mayor of Singapore. His tenure was tumultuous, with repeated clashes with staff and new initiatives that bypassed existing bureaucracy in an attempt to be more accessible to the masses. In 1959, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly and became the first Minister for National Development. Ong was expelled in 1961 for repeatedly challenging the party leadership with public criticism. He immediately formed the United People’s Party and won his old seat back in a by-election. As his political fortunes faded, Ong resigned in 1965 and sank into obscurity. Read More

Credit: NAS

Chia Thye Poh: Chia was a Barisan Sosialis MP who resigned his seat in 1966. Shortly after, he was detained under the Internal Security Act. The government claimed he was a member of the Communist Party of Malaya and involved in subversive activities, charges that he repeatedly denied. Chia was imprisoned for 23 years until 1989 when he was released under restrictions. He was completely freed in 1998, holding the distinction of being Singapore’s longest held political prisoner to date. Read More

Credit: NAS

Harbans Singh: Harbans was a lawyer who built an infamous reputation as a maverick. His party, the United People’s Front, made headlines in the 1976 election for its election slogan “Kick out the PAP to end the fascist, dictatorial, blood sucking, arrogant and money faced regime”. Despite poor results, Harbans continued contesting elections, making a name for himself as an entertaining speaker with outrageous comments. His party became inactive after the 1988 election. Read More

Credit: NAS

Ling How Doong: Lim was the SDP Chairman who defeated the PAP MP Seet Ai Mee (who became notorious for washing her hands after shaking a fishmonger’s hands) in Bukit Gombak. When Chiam fell out with SDP and left, Ling remained in the party and supported Chee Soon Juan. In 1996, Ling made headlines when, in response to some comment whispered by Chiam to him in Parliament, he retorted “Don’t talk cock”. He was censured for using inappropriate language in the chamber and later lost his seat in the 1997 polls. Read More

Quotable Quotes from Politicians Past & Present

“The only way to avoid making mistakes is not to do anything. And that … will be the ultimate mistake.”

Goh Keng Swee

“And even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave, and I feel that something is going wrong, I’ll get up.”

Lee Kuan Yew

“Fair-weather Singaporeans will run away whenever the country runs into stormy weather. I call them ‘quitters’. Fortunately, ‘quitters’ are in the minority. The majority of Singaporeans are ‘stayers'”

Goh Chok Tong

“Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in Parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes, how can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?”

Lee Hsien Loong

“We have to pursue the subject of fun very seriously if we want to stay competitive in the twenty-first century.”

George Yeo

“Sir, do not forget that even if you do not pay peanuts, but pay with a bigger piece, say, a banana instead, you can still get a monkey.”

Low Thia Khiang

“A political opponent is not an enemy – an honest opponent should be treated with respect however bitter the opposition of his views. It is the essence of democratic progress to recognize that political opponents have material contribution to make to the thinking and efficiency of the government process and the education of the people. Abuse, ostracism, refusal to speak to one another, vicious slander; these are the symptoms of infantile arrogance enshrined in the traditions of rigid dictatorships.”

David Marshall

“You put out a funny podcast. You talk about bak chor mee. I will say mee siam mai hum,”

Lee Hsien Loong

“Ownself check ownself!”

Pritam Singh

“If Aljunied decides to go that way, well Aljunied has five years to live and repent.”

Lee Kuan Yew


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