BANGKOK – Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced Tuesday that the city-state will hold the first elections in Southeast Asia since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Elections are scheduled for July 10, and Parliament dissolved on Tuesday to begin the electoral process.
In a televised speech Tuesday, Lee acknowledged the devastating effect of the pandemic on a country that, more than most, relies on a globalized world for its economic security.
“There is a long fight ahead,” said Lee. “Singapore has not yet felt the full economic consequences of Covid-19, but it is coming.”
Unemployment will rise, Lee warned, adding that “external uncertainties”, such as the upcoming US elections and tensions between the United States and China, further complicated the outlook for Singapore.
“To overcome these challenges, we must remain fully united as one people,” said Lee. “An election now, when things are relatively stable, will clear the covers and give the new government a new five-year term.”
Elections must take place before April 2021, and some opposition lawmakers have advised against holding them, while pandemic regulations make a normal campaign impossible. Singapore has criminalized non-compliance with its strict social distancing measures.
Shaking hands will not be allowed during the nine-day campaign period, nor will political demonstrations be allowed, according to Singapore’s electoral authority.
“There is no need to rush to organize one so early, especially as the country continues to record hundreds of new daily coronavirus cases,” Teddy Baguilat Jr., executive director of ASEAN human rights lawmakers and former member of parliament Filipino said in a statement.
In the first months of the pandemic, Singapore successfully stifled most of the local transmission through a meticulous contact tracking program. But the coronavirus reached the dormitories where hundreds of thousands of foreign workers live in communal neighborhoods. As of Tuesday, the country had registered more than 42,400 coronavirus cases, most within the foreign worker community.
Singapore’s leaders note that the country has suffered only 26 deaths and that the relatively high workload is more a function of extensive testing than runaway transmission. Most cases are asymptomatic or very mild.
In his speech on Tuesday, Mr. Lee noted that there was only one patient currently in intensive care. The new case rate has decreased in recent days, and Singapore has relaxed some of its blocking measures.
However, the pandemic has weighed heavily on the country, which is disproportionately dependent on international networks that the coronavirus has disrupted. Its economy could contract 5.8 percent this year, according to a survey by the Singapore Monetary Authority.
The Popular Action Party, co-founded by Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, who was prime minister from 1959 to 1990, has governed Singapore since before separating from Malaysia to become an independent nation in 1965. It is expected to win the next elections, too.
Lee, 68, has been Prime Minister since 2004 and has had cancer twice.
“This general election,” he said, “will be like no other we have experienced.”