With the election campaign about to end and Cooling Off Day about to begin, I’ve compiled a handy collection of my election history primer as well as my four election specials for your reading pleasure.
This election has been dominated by familiar slogans and political attacks. We’ve been amused by Heng Swee Keat’s East Coast Plan, charmed by Jamus Lim’s charisma and touched by Abdul Shariff’s willpower. Social media has made the election more accessible but also restricted within echo chambers.
Old worries such as retirement adequacy, living costs and employment have meshed with ongoing concerns about the fallout from the pandemic and Singapore’s place in the changing world order. A newer generation tries to push back against established orthodoxies, alarming more conservative elders.
As a millennial voter, I wish for a strong, capable government that consults closely with a well-informed, empowered and rugged citizenry to tackle the complex challenges we face. Welcoming a diverse range of views and ideas is crucial at a time when no one entity can claim a monopoly on talent and competence in every speciality.
Former President Ong Teng Cheong said, “My loyalty is first and foremost, to the people of Singapore. It has always been so, and will always remain so.” I hope that every voter and candidate remembers that we must all be in this for the betterment of Singapore and Singaporeans as we head to the polls on Friday. Majulah Singapura.
Introducing the Singapore Election History Primer for #GE2020 ! See a full overview of all 14 of Singapore’s General Elections from 1959 to 2015, learn about four colourful past opposition figures (including one who infamously said “Don’t talk cock” in parliament) & enjoy a selection of quotable quotes from politicians past & present.
Ever wondered what foreign diplomats report about Singapore’s election? I dug into US diplomatic cables released in 2010 by Wikileaks to see what the Americans thought about our 2006 election. Learn about their views on the state of our opposition, the role of Malay Muslim MPs and the conduct of the election campaign. Then read their assessment of PM Lee’s performance and the impact of MM Lee on voters.
As the election campaign continues past the halfway mark, there has been some buzz over the Singapore Democratic Alliance’s posters, which feature vintage style illustrations rather than photos of candidates. That prompted me to look into the history of Singapore’s election posters and leaflets and see how the designs have evolved through the decades. Check out some fascinating examples in my latest piece!
Did you know that JB Jeyaretnam was not the first WP candidate to win a by-election at Anson? Or that Marine Parade is the only GRC to ever face a by-election? Learn all about the curious history of Singapore’s by-elections in my latest piece!
On the final day of election campaigning, most voters are likely exhausted from the torrent of news. So here are 20 interesting pics I dug up from the National Archives from bygone elections. Check them out!
As the campaign for this general election enters its final days, it’s important to remember that General Elections are not the only elections that take place in Singapore. We also have had by-elections to fill seats left vacant during the Parliamentary term.
Readers would be familiar with the three most recent by-elections: Hougang (2012), Punggol East (2013) and Bukit Batok (2016). Therefore, this piece will look at the series of by-elections that took place from 1957-1992.
In June 1956, David Marshall resigned as Chief Minister after failing to secure British commitment to full self-government. His successor, Lim Yew Hock, led another delegation a few months later that included opposition leader Lee Kuan Yew. Marshall then criticised Lee for selling out to the British and challenged him to a contest in the latter’s constituency of Tanjong Pagar.
Lee accepted this and resigned his seat in April 1957. However, Marshall later backed out and announced his (short lived) political retirement instead. Lee went on to retake his seat while Marshall’s old seat of Cairnhill went to the Liberal Socialist Party
April 1961 By-Election
In August 1960, PAP Minister for National Development Ong Eng Guan was sacked from his post and expelled from the party for constantly clashing with the leadership. In Dec 1960, Ong resigned his seat of Hong Lim and challenged the PAP to defeat him as an independent candidate. He successfully retained his seat with 73.3% of votes against the PAP’s Jek Yeun Thong (who later became one of the Old Guard).
July 1961 By-Election
In April 1961, Baharuddin bin Mohd Ariff, the PAP Member for Anson, died from a sudden illness at the age of 28. David Marshall, now chief of the Workers’ Party, contested and won a multi-cornered fight with 43.3% of votes, making this the WP’s first ever election victory. He was sworn in on 20 July, the same day that Lee Kuan Yew tabled a motion of confidence on the PAP government. The 13 PAP Assemblymen who voted against the motion were then expelled from the party, triggering the PAP Split.
Ong Eng Guan, who had retained his seat in the April 1961 by-election and the 1963 general election, resigned his seat in June 1965, claiming that the legislature was meeting too infrequently. He contemplated running for his seat again, but chose to retire from politics instead. The PAP’s Lee Koon Choy won the election against the Barisan Sosialis candidate with 59.5% of votes. Interestingly, by the time Lee was sworn in in December 1965, Singapore had already separated from Malaysia and the Legislative Assembly had become the new Parliament.
After Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, the Barisan claimed that Singapore’s independence was “phoney” and announced a boycott of Parliament. In December 1965, Barisan member Lim Huan Boon resigned after disagreeing with the party’s stance. His seat of Bukit Merah was won by the PAP’s Lim Guan Hoo with 82.9% of votes against independent candidate MPD Nair.
Three more Barisan MPs, Chio Cheng Thun, Kow Kee Seng and ST Bani, resigned in January 1966. Their seats of Choa Chu Kang, Paya Lebar and Crawford were won uncontested by PAP candidates, the first time the legislature had walkover victories since 1952.
An unprecented third round of by-elections were triggered when the remaining two Barisan MPs Chia Thye Poh and Lee Tee Tong resigned their seats of Jurong and Bukit Timah. PAP MP Fong Kim Heng also decided to resign due to poor health. With the Barisan’s parliamentary boycott still in place, all three seats were won uncontested by the PAP.
The final remaining Barisan MPs, Koo Young, Loh Miaw Gong, Ong Lian Teng, Poh Ber Liak and Tan Cheng Tong resigned their seats in December 1966. This also ended the Barisan’s presence in Parliament and began an era of a PAP monopoly which lasted till 1981. With the Barisan boycott still in place, PAP candidates won unopposed in four seats: Jalan Kayu, Tampines, Bukit Panjang and Havelock. The PAP’s Ang Nam Piau won the Thomson seat overwhelmingly against two independents.
In April 1970, five PAP MPs resigned “so that the party can bring new talent and experience into parliament”. Among them included Chan Choy Siong, the only female MP in Parliament and champion of the Women’s Charter. The Havelock, Whampoa and Delta seats were won unopposed while PAP candidates won Ulu Pandan and Kampong Kapor against the United National Front. Hon Sui Sen, the new MP for Havelock, soon succeeded Goh Keng Swee as Finance Minister and remained so until his death in 1983.
May 1977 By-Election
In February 1977, N Govindasamy, the PAP MP for Radin Mas, died from a heart attack. In the subsequent by-election, the PAP’s Bernard Chen won 70.6% of votes against the WP’s JB Jeyaretnam, who was making his third attempt to win a seat. The WP contested the seat after negotiations among opposition parties to avoid three-cornered fights.
July 1977 By-Election
Lim Guan Hoo, who had himself won the Bukit Merah seat in the 1966 by-elections, slipped into a coma after a stroke in February 1977. In July, his seat was declared vacant and a by-election was called. After opposition negotiations, the Barisan’s Lee Siew Choh contested against the PAP’s Lim Chee Onn. Lim won with 72.2% of votes.
February 1979 By-Elections
In January 1979, six PAP MPs, Ong Soo Chuan (Nee Soon), Teong Eng Siong (Sembawang), Ahmad Haleem (Telok Blangah), Yong Nyuk Lin (Geylang West), Ivan Baptist (Potong Pasir) and Ng Yeow Chong (Mountbatten) resigned their seats. The reason cited was a renewal of party ranks. A seventh seat, Anson, was also left vacant by the death of PAP MP P. Govindaswamy.
The resulting 7 by-elections remain a record in Singapore’s electoral history. Devan Nair, who had led the NTUC since his return from Malaysia, won the Anson seat. Tony Tan, who would later become Deputy Prime Minister and President, won in Sembawang. Teh Cheang Wan, who would become Minister for National Development and later committed suicide in 1986, was elected in Geylang West. Chiam See Tong ran in Potong Pasir for the very first time but lost with 33.2% of votes.
In October 1981, Devan Nair was appointed President, vacating the Anson seat. JB Jeyaretnam contested against Pang Kim Hin, who was the nephew of PSA Chairman Lim Kim San. With PSA employees living in Anson facing housing relocation issues, Jeyaretnam won the seat in a shocking upset with 51.9% of the vote, becoming the first opposition candidate to win a seat in independent Singapore’s Parliament. He retained the seat in the 1984 general election but was disqualified in 1986 after legal troubles.
In the first and only by-election ever held for a GRC, all four Marine Parade MPs, including Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, resigned. Goh wanted a stronger mandate after the poorer results of the 1991 general election, and he wanted to give Jeyaretnam (who was not eligible for the 1991 election due to a ban) a chance to contest.
Teo Chee Hean, who would later become DPM and Senior Minister made his political debut. Chee Soon Juan, a star candidate from the SDP, also debuted in this by-election. The WP team was disqualified due to improper paperwork and the PAP won 72.9% of votes against the SDP, NSP and SJP. This would be the last by-election for 20 years until the 2012 Hougang polls.
As the election campaign continues past the halfway mark, there has been some buzz over the Singapore Democratic Alliance’s posters, which feature vintage style illustrations rather than the photos of candidates.
That prompted me to look into the history of Singapore’s election posters and leaflets and see how the designs have evolved through the decades.
In 1955, Singapore held elections under the Rendel Constitution. The incumbent Singapore Progressive Party, the new People’s Action party and the Labour Front were among the parties that contested. The Labour Front won the majority of votes and formed a coalition with the Singapore Alliance Party and David Marshall became Singapore’s first Chief Minister.
Almost all posters and leaflets were printed in black and white to save costs.
The poster below was produced to show the members of the Legislative Assembly elected in the 1955 election.
In 1957, Lee Kuan Yew resigned his seat to recontest it in a by-election in response to David Marshall’s challenge. However Marshall withdrew from the contest and Lee won the by-election with 68.1% of the votes.
In 1959, elections were held to usher in full internal self-government. The PAP and the Singapore Progressive Alliance headed by Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock contested the polls. The PAP won a landslide victory and formed the government for the first time.
Voting was made compulsory for the first time in 1959 and posters were also produced to remind people of this.
In 1961, David Marshall contested in the 1961 Anson by-election as a Workers’ Party candidate after the PAP Assemblyman died. He won the seat but subsequently lost it in the 1963 general election.
In the 1963 general election, Lim Yew Hock’s SPA once again contested. After not winning any seats, the party was dissolved after independence in 1965.
In 1980, the Workers’ Party’s JB Jeyaretnam produced the poster below. While he was unsuccessful in winning the seat, he contested the 1981 Anson by-election and became the first opposition MP in Parliament since 1966.
In 1984, Chiam See Tong successfully contested the seat of Potong Pasir. His poster is below.
The 1984 election was the final one contested by Barisan Sosialis. The party merged with the Workers’ Party before the 1988 election.
For the 1988 election, the PAP capitalised on the newly opened MRT network to produce the poster below.
As GRCs were introduced in 1988, election posters also featured multiple candidates’ photos for the first time.
“More Good Years” was a signature slogan for PM Goh Chok Tong in the 1990s and it was reflected in this poster.
Seet Ai Mee became infamous for washing her hands after shaking a fishmonger’s hands during a walkabout in the 1991 election. She subsequently lost her seat to the SDP’s Ling How Doong.
The Workers’ Party also produced a variety of posters in the 1990s. Below are some examples.
SDP’s Chee Soon Juan contested the 1997 election as party chief after Chiam left and headed the Singapore People’s Party. The SDP lost both seats it had won in 1991.
Independent Candidates post-1965
Independent candidates were largely irrelevant after independence. But some dogged individuals continued to produce posters with their meagre resources for elections. Their posters were simple and used generic symbols.
Stanley Mariadass contested against the PAP’s Tony Tan in 1984. He lost with 22.6% of votes.
Businessman Lee Mun Hung contested against the PAP’s Hu Tsu Hau in 1984, winning 16.8% of votes.
The poster below is the only one where the entire body of the candidate is visible and he is posing with a thumbs up. Yen Kim Khooi won 22% of the votes against the PAP’s Eugene Yap in 1991.
Acknowledgement: Many of the images credited to NAS were obtained from the following two blog posts by Justin Zhuang, who did a great job analysing their design elements. [Part 1] [Part 2]
If you haven’t already read my Singapore Election History Primer for #GE2020, you can do so HERE.
Many Singaporeans would have read news reports and seen news videos during elections. Reading between the lines on what is said and unsaid is a crucial skill for many a voter. But how do foreign diplomats, tasked with collecting data and providing frank assessments, analyse Singapore’s politics and electoral hustings in their reports to headquarters?
To understand this, I reviewed cables that were part of the Wikileaks mass release of US diplomatic cables in November 2010. Among the cables from the embassy in Singapore are several which cover Singapore politics leading up to, during, and after the 2006 general election.
Singapore’s Opposition Parties
In a cable from October 2004, diplomats described Singapore’s opposition as “disunited, dispirited, and incapable of offering a credible alternative”.
The cable cited the numerous institutional obstacles and internal problems in the opposition camp as hampering the development of a coherent ideological critique of the PAP’s policies. Noting the lack of rewards from joining opposition politics, as well as the PAP’s strategy of co-opting its most potent critics, the cable added that:
“Singapore’s sterile political culture has also robbed it of the risk-taking, creativity and entrepreneurship that the PAP recognizes Singapore will need if it is to continue to thrive”
Giving a further example, it cited Raymond Lim, who founded the Roundtable, a civic policy discussion group, and was later recruited by the PAP and given a Cabinet position (He later left politics in 2011).
“An opposition figure commented that the PAP’s successful co-optation strategy has fomented mistrust in the opposition camp by causing them to suspect each other’s motives.”
The cable then detailed the various obstacles facing opposition parties, such as the lack of connections with social and cultural organisations. For example, it noted that the Workers Party had almost no relation with Singapore’s labour movement.
“In December 2002, a union affiliated with the NTUC sacked and expelled a branch chairman because he had taken a leadership position in an opposition party.”
This is probably a reference to Muhammad Ali Aman, who was a member of the SDA leadership, and refused to give up opposition politics. He was subsequently dismissed from the United Workers of Electronics and Electrical Industries, an NTUC-affiliated union.
Then Singapore People’s Party chief Chiam See Tong observed most people who joined the opposition felt aggrieved by some government policy. The WP’s Sylvia Lim, on the other hand, felt that “something intrinsically wrong with the PAP’s domination of the political scene.”
The political bias of Singapore’s mainstream media was mentioned, with opposition veteran JB Jeyaretnam stating that “friends often ask him why he has been so quiet recently. He tells them he has been active, but the media just doesn’t cover it.”
“Comment: The docile press even draws the scorn of some members of the elite. One senior MFA official reportedly threatened to demote any official he found reading the Straits Times. End Comment.”
Without pulling punches, the cable also faulted the opposition for being feckless and divided. One opposition MP noted they have “too many leaders and not enough followers”. Several parties were dominated by personality politics rather than coherent policies. The media’s extensive coverage of opposition stumbles did not help the perception of a confidence deficit.
Commenting on the lack of ideological depth in Singapore’s political system, the cable attributed this to the PAP’s promotion of “pragmatic values” and co-opting aspects of opposition proposals.
“MP Chiam See Tong told us he spent years pushing for smaller class sizes in schools and longer compulsory education, which the PAP eventually adopted without attributing it to Chiam.”
Summing up its observations, the cable concluded that as long as opposition politicians “appear more interested in bemoaning their fate than planning how to build viable organizations”, the PAP would continue having the isolated and ineffective opposition it desires.
Malay Muslim Issues and PAP Malay MPs
In February 2006, the embassy dispatched two cables  with observations about the 12 Malay Muslim MPs that were in Parliament at that time. Of the 12, only three (Yaacob Ibrahim, Halimah Yacob and Maliki Osman) remained after the 2015 election.
The cables set the context on the role of PAP Malay Muslim MPs in Singapore.
 “the MP positions are an important tool for the PAP to co-opt bright and talented Muslims, especially any potential critics”
 “these MPs also work with community organizations and grassroots leaders to uplift Singapore’s Malay/Muslim minority, which lags behind the other races in education level and income.”
 “the MPs project a moderate image for Singapore’s Muslim community. Following the 9/11 attacks and the detentions of Jemaah Islamiyah suspects in Singapore, Muslim MPs have been expected to take a clear stand against terrorism and lead the community in condemning Islamic extremism.”
 “the Muslim MPs actively defend government policies that are unpopular in parts of the community”
 “these MPs help the PAP project its desired image of Singapore as a multi-racial, multi-religious meritocracy, even though real political power is wielded by a small inner-circle of mostly ethnic Chinese”
The cables noted that the Malay community primarily sees the MPs as “hardworking and talented” but also as “agents of the government”. According to former MUIS president Maarof bin Haji Salleh, the MPs were constrained from aggressively promoting the interests of the Malay/Muslim community.
“This was due to electoral reasons — they could not afford to antagonize the majority of ethnic Chinese voters in their districts — as well as the PAP’s firm line against any use of religion for political purposes.”
Rashidah Abdul Rasip, then CEO of Mendaki, questioned why Muslim MPs were absent in higher profile and sensitive ministries, with the sole Malay Minister usually in charge of the Environment or Community Development ministries.
The cables then listed the biographies of all 12 MPs. Focusing on the three MPs that still remained after 2015, here are some excerpts:
“Several contacts have asserted that, since his hajj in February 2004, Yaacob has become less of an integrationist. These contacts said he has come to believe that there were two distinct spheres in Singaporean society: public and private.”
On Yaacob Ibrahim
“Halimah does not appear to have a prominent position in the Muslim community. She occasionally appears on the Malay-language television news, but seldom is quoted in Berita Harian, Singapore’s Malay-language newspaper, and rarely attends large Malay/Muslim events attended by emboffs [embassy officers]. The leadership of Jamiyah (the Muslim Missionary Society) was unenthusiastic about her in a recent meeting with emboffs. Halimah has a much stronger background in the trade union movement.”
On Halimah Yacob
“Mohamad Maliki exemplifies the new style of Muslim MP that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has been recruiting: a relatively young and highly educated professional.”
On Maliki Osman
In a separate cable dispatched on the eve of Polling Day (May 6), the embassy summarised the continuing debate over the efficacy of the PAP’s approach to Malay Muslim issues.
“The government-orchestrated effort to become a “model Muslim minority” initially faltered when many Muslim NGOs resisted Dr. Yaacob’s top-down approach, forcing him to shift tactics and treat NGO leaders as equal partners, according to Muslim community leaders and reporters”
Noting the government’s public expressions of the Malay community’s greater need to integrate, the cable added that:
“The PAP Muslim MPs, who publicly claim that Malays are becoming a “community of excellence,” have privately told us that they worry about the breakdown of Malay families and the potential growth of a permanent underclass.”
2006’s Election Budget
A cable from March 2006 summarised the new budget, noting the largesse of the Progress Package which doled out over $1 billion in growth dividends on 1 May (which later turned out to be less than a week before Polling Day).
“the combination of the budget’s “Progress Package” that extends a lending hand to low income earners, and daily reporting of party platforms and speculation about voter precinct redistricting in the government-controlled media evidence imminent elections… Many analysts believe that, currying favor with voters aside, this year’s budget reflects a growing concern about Singapore’s widening income gap.”
The Election Campaign
On the day that PM Lee called for the election (April 20), a cable stated upfront that the PAP would win it easily. The real questions, it advised, were the following
 “how big will PM Lee’s mandate be? The PAP will likely define success as winning 65-70 percent of the popular vote”
 “will the fractured opposition make any headway or will it lose its tenuous grip on its two of 84 seats? The opposition has a bit of new talent this time around, but the PAP looks eager to defeat the two low-key and long-in-the-tooth sitting MPs”
 “how “fair” will the contest be? The Government will scrupulously observe all the formalities, but also controls the process.”
The cable also noted that new restrictions on podcasting and videocasting during the election would greatly hamper opposition efforts to bypass mainstream media and reach voters directly.
Another cable from April 27 made several detailed observations about the PAP’s and opposition’s approach to the campaign and voters’ concerns. With the economy booming and generous budget goodies, the PAP was expected to get a boost at the ballot box. SPP Chairman Sin Kek Tong told embassy officers that opposition parties planned to focus on widening income inequality and rising costs of living.
Among the more interesting details from this cable are on PAP self-renewal:
“Despite the media hype and the fact that they still outshine the opposition, the new PAP MP candidates are a mixed lot. A few of them look like they have ministerial potential, notably former Chief of Navy Lui Tuck Yew and former International Enterprises of Singapore CEO Lee Yi Shyan. Some of the others we have met look quite weak, with limited political skills or policy experience.”
PAP MP Charles Chong admitted that the PAP had to reach into its second and third tier candidates to fill the slate.
With regard to the opposition, the cable observed their generally dismal chances of victory, stating that the SDP was on the verge of collapse in the face of defamation suits against Chee Soon Juan, that the WP’s challenge in Aljunied was “doomed”, and that NCMP Steve Chia intended to abandon politics if he lost again (he did, but his retirement wasn’t permanent).
Observations on PAP’s Victory & PM Lee’s Performance
The embassy closely monitored the campaign and prepared a detailed cable on May 8 after results were announced. It declared that the election was a mandate for the PAP to continue its “successful economic and security policies”. However, it was scathing of PM Lee’s own performance.
“It is not a mandate for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who frequently failed to take center stage in the campaign and did relatively poorly in his own district.”
Commenting on his characterisation of the election as an opportunity to secure a personal mandate, the cable remarked:
“Did he get it? In a word, no. One would have expected PM Lee to be the focal point of the PAP campaign to show that he was his own man and to highlight a softer, more “modern” political style. But, in the run up to the campaign and during it, however, PM Lee frequently ceded center stage to his father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.”
It also faulted PM Lee’s now infamous remark about fixing the opposition and buying his supporters’ votes, and also noted that he performed badly against “a group of twenty- and thirty-something nobodies in the WP’s weakest slate.”
“The PAP could have run on its superior policies, experience, and candidates and eschewed the old-school hit-them-when-they-are-down tactics… Instead, the PAP’s hardball tactics — vintage Lee Kuan Yew — cost them some votes and contradicted the PM’s stated interest in a more open society.”
Another cable commenting on the minor cabinet reshuffle after the election predicted that Tharman Shanmugaratnam was “a likely candidate for Finance Minister in the future” (which he became in Dec 2007).
“The reshuffle also gives three of the cabinet’s rising stars — Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Vivian Balakrishnan, and Raymond Lim — the chance to demonstrate if they can perform well in new areas.”
The James Gomez Saga
The 2006 election is perhaps best known for the James Gomez saga, where the then-WP candidate was entangled in a dispute with the Elections Department over the submission of a form. PAP leaders immediately pounced on the issue, saturating most of the campaign period with attacks.
“The local media also played up the “story” — on one day, the Straits Times newspaper ran more than a dozen stories that discussed Gomez. Eventually, some PAP officials realized that the personal attacks on Gomez were creating a backlash, as PAP Headquarters Executive Director Lau Ping Sum told us on May 2. It took several more days, however, for it to stop.”
The cable complimented the WP for refusing to take the PAP bait on Gomez and for running a “capable issues-based campaign”. It concluded the whole affair’s lasting effect as follows:
“Though the PAP may have won over some “heartlanders” from the WP by disparaging Gomez and casting doubt on the integrity of his party, their hectoring clearly alienated many other members of the public and elite, including PAP supporters.”
Much Ado about Lee Kuan Yew
The post-election cable was unsympathetic about MM Lee’s role in the campaign.
“He appeared a cranky and sour old man and was only a liability to the PAP’s campaign. The extensive reporting in the government-controlled press may have backfired for the PAP as voters found the vindictiveness against Chee and his party distasteful and tired of the overwrought Gomez affair.”
Another cable from Sep 2006 observed that MM Lee’s continued presence in the Cabinet helped keep the PAP “highly disciplined and effective”. But it added that this came at the “cost to his son’s image and to the ability of the Singaporean political system to adapt and reform”.
“Some political observers, not friendly to the PAP, told us they actually felt sorry for PM Lee since he can not be his own man as long as his father is on the scene.”
In concluding, the cable observed that while most Singaporeans were grateful for the security and prosperity that MM Lee’s five decades of leadership had brought and are comforted by his presence, many also seemed ready for a “less patronizing government”.
It also somewhat accurately predicted the effect of his passing on Singapore.
“LKY’s eventual passing will not likely be a catalyst for radical political change, as so much of Singapore’s leadership and citizenry have been molded by his values. But it will certainly be indispensable to any significant political reform.”
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.
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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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
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
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
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
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.”
“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?”
“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.”