Masked, gloved Singaporeans go to the polls amid pandemic

Voters, wearing face masks, cast their votes at the Chung Cheng High School polling centre in Singapore today. (AP pic)

SINGAPORE: Wearing masks and gloves and being careful to observe social distancing, Singaporeans voted in a general election Friday as the city-state struggles to recover from a coronavirus outbreak.

After a nine-day campaign that took place mostly online as rallies were banned to cut the risk of infection, voters cast their ballots with a raft of strict safety measures in place.

Polls close at 8pm, with final results expected early Saturday.

The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has governed Singapore for six decades, is assured of victory but faces an opposition with some popular candidates backed by the estranged brother of the premier.

The affluent financial hub had seen large virus outbreaks in dormitories housing low-paid foreign workers, but with new infections slowing and authorities easing a partial lockdown, the government decided to call the poll.

The opposition has accused the PAP of being “irresponsible”, but officials insist they have done enough to ensure the 2.65 million eligible voters can cast their ballots safely.

“I think (the measures) should be enough for everyone to be safe,” 22-year-old voter Terence Ng told AFP.

But long queues formed in some places because of the extra checks, prompting election officials to drop the requirement for voters to wear disposable gloves in a bid to speed up the process.

Speaking to reporters after voting, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged there had been “teething problems”, but added they had been rectified. “It’s running smoothly now,” said the 68-year-old.

Crisis of a generation

Lee, in charge since 2004 but now likely heading for his final term as premier, has called Covid-19 “the crisis of a generation” and sought to project his party as a force for stability.

Trading hub Singapore has been hit hard by the pandemic and is forecast to be heading for its worst recession since independence in 1965. The government has rolled out nearly S$100 billion in stimulus packages.

Analysts say holding a vote now is a gamble and, with opinion polls banned during election campaigns in the tightly regulated country, it is not clear if the health crisis will boost or dent the government’s support.

While the government’s rivals are weak — they won only six parliamentary seats at the last election — a move by Premier Lee’s brother, Lee Hsien Yang, to join the opposition may help them.

The sibling is locked in a long-running feud with the prime minister over the legacy of their father, Singapore’s late founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, and has become a member of the Progress Singapore Party, although he is not running for office himself.

“Voting for the opposition is the safest choice for Singapore,” Lee Hsien Yang said in a Facebook post this week.

“It is not ‘rocking the boat’ but saving our boat from sinking.”

His party among a host of opposition groups taking on the PAP, with 93 parliamentary seats being contested.

Lively online campaign

The PAP, which oversaw Singapore’s transformation into one of the world’s wealthiest societies, enjoys solid support but has been accused of arrogance, gerrymandering and targeting its rivals.

During the campaign, several media outlets were hit with a controversial law against misinformation after carrying comments made by an opposition figure on the virus outbreak.

They were ordered to place warnings next to the comments, saying they contained false information.

Job security and the government’s response to the pandemic have been key topics among voters.

After initially keeping the virus in check, Singapore saw major outbreaks in the foreign worker dorms.

It has reported more than 45,000 infections, including 26 deaths, and is slowly emerging from a two-month lockdown.

While on-the-ground campaigning was limited to candidates meeting voters in small groups, the online campaign has been lively, with thousands watching live-streamed speeches.

The poll is also a step in a carefully orchestrated transition of power to a new generation of leaders, with the prime minister expected to hand over to a hand-picked successor at some point afterwards.