Face-masked citizens lined up for general elections in Singapore on Friday, with plenty of space separating them from each other. Their temperatures had been checked. Before receiving their ballots, they spritzed their hands with sanitizer, and many put on disposable gloves.
If any country could successfully carry out an election during a global pandemic, it was surely Singapore, a rich, manicured city-state with a population that has largely been conditioned to follow the rules.
The winner of the elections was never in doubt, either, even if voting was extended by two hours to accommodate the long lines of voters.
But while the winner remained the center-right People’s Action Party, which ranks as the world’s longest-governing elected political party, the results released early Saturday showed a surprise slip in its support. Its share of the popular vote fell to 61 percent, a nearly nine point swing form the election 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 hinted that he will stay at the country’s helm until the coronavirus crisis passes.
But if the elections were meant to showcase the steady hand of a party that has used Singapore’s greatest strengths — deep coffers, technocratic professionalism and a belief in science and technology — to battle a pandemic, they also highlighted divisions in a society that, like many others in the developed world, is struggling with a changing geopolitical landscape.
And several of the parliamentary races proved surprisingly competitive, with the opposition Workers’ Party winning 10 seats, according to results.
“Singapore rode the wave of globalization to great heights, but with Covid, we’re entering a period of deglobalization that leaves Singapore’s economy very vulnerable,” said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist focused on Southeast Asia.
“From the outside, Singapore looks like a great success story and in many ways it is, but there are legitimate questions being raised about what it aspires to be in this new era,” Ms. Welsh added.
The People’s Action Party promised, above all, stability and competence. Having led Singapore since even before independence in 1965, the governing party claims credit for transforming a resource-starved backwater on the tip of peninsular Southeast Asia into one of the most prosperous nations on the planet.
The coronavirus has ripped through crowded dormitories housing 200,000 foreign laborers, infecting tens of thousands, but Singapore has kept its death toll from the pandemic to just 26 people. Job losses have been blunted by a relief effort costing more than $70 billion. While Singapore has no minimum wage and at least 10 percent of its households are considered poor by some estimates, extensive public housing for citizens ensures a kind of social safety net.
“We need the support of every Singaporean,” Mr. Lee, who has led Singapore since 2004, said before the voting. “Not just to return the P.A.P. to government. But also to give it a strong mandate, to empower it to act decisively on your behalf and steer the country towards better days ahead.”
For the 10 opposition parties that ran against the P.A.P., the campaign was less an attempt to unseat a political behemoth than an effort to inject different viewpoints into the national conversation. The smallest mandate the governing party has ever received was a 60 percent victory in 2011, and the opposition captured just six seats in the last elections, in 2015.
“What we are trying to deny them is a blank check, and that is what I think this election is about,” Jamus Lim, an economist and candidate for the Workers’ Party, said in an online debate.
Singapore’s political strictures, along with social distancing measures, made it even harder than usual for the opposition to gather momentum.
The campaign season was only nine days long. A “fake news” law that came into force last year was seen as having a chilling effect on online debate. Because of the coronavirus restrictions, electoral rallies were banned. Nor was electoral polling allowed.
The short campaign period was dominated by personal vitriol, particularly a spat between Mr. Lee and his younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, a former brigadier general and business executive who joined the opposition Progress Singapore Party last month.
Their father, Lee Kuan Yew, co-founded the People’s Action Party and served as prime minister for more than three decades.
The senior Mr. Lee steered the ethnically Chinese-dominated city-state to independence in 1965, after it broke off from the new country of Malaysia. He embraced rules and order, championing Confucian virtues.
Today, most Singaporeans are still of Chinese descent, but about 40 percent of the country’s 5.7 million residents are foreign-born. Under racial harmony laws, people who stoke religious or racial enmity can spend up to three years in jail.
Last year, Heng Swee Keat, the deputy prime minister and presumptive successor to Mr. Lee, said that older Singaporeans were “not ready” for a leader who is not ethnically Chinese.
On Sunday, Raeesah Khan, a candidate for the Workers’ Party, apologized for comments on social media that accused the police of treating ethnic minorities and migrant workers more harshly than whites or rich Chinese. Her commentary prompted the filing of two police reports, the Singapore police confirmed.
“Systemic racism is a reality in Singapore,” said Jolovan Wham, a social worker and activist who has campaigned for migrant workers’ rights.
Members of ethnic minority groups fear that if they publicly challenge racism, they may be subjected to investigations by the police, said Mr. Wham, who spent a week in prison this year for criticizing Singapore’s courts.
“Self-censorship has become the norm,” he added. “The lack of freedom of expression in Singapore has made it difficult to have authentic and honest debates about important issues affecting us.”
Young Singaporeans, some of whom have expressed their political views in boisterous online forums, are part of a global discourse about privilege and power, said Donald Low, a former high-ranking civil servant in Singapore who now teaches at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Some prominent members of the governing party have pushed back against the notion that they are beneficiaries of a system that unfairly rewards an ethnically Chinese elite.
“To deny to young ethnic minorities that a well-to-do Chinese man isn’t privileged, that there isn’t prejudice in society, is incredibly patronizing,” said Mr. Low.
Singapore’s prosperity depends on the sweat of its million or so low-wage migrant workers, who help keep the city neat, efficient and breathtakingly modern.
Unlike other expatriates who can eventually qualify for permanent residency, these migrants, who are mostly from South Asia and China, work in Singapore knowing they are temporary members of society.
Labor activists have warned over the years that their dormitories, relegated to the periphery of the island state, are petri dishes for disease, and it is perhaps no surprise that the vast majority of Singapore’s more than 45,600 coronavirus cases are among this population.
The government has said it will build more facilities for foreign laborers, but it has pushed back against criticism that it ignored migrants’ working conditions to their peril. Most migrants who have tested positive were asymptomatic or barely sick, health authorities have said.
“The setting up of new dorms with more space is not a silver bullet,” K. Shanmugam, Singapore’s law minister, said in an interview. Cruise ships, he noted, are luxurious, yet the coronavirus still spread quickly within their shared spaces.
But the public health crisis among Singapore’s migrant workers has catalyzed a debate about the fundamental structure of the nation’s hyper-globalized economy.
“The real problem is our overreliance on low-cost foreign labor,” said Mr. Low, a former director of fiscal policy at the Singaporean ministry of finance.
“What this has revealed,” he added, “is not just systemic injustice for foreign workers, but also something that is a stain on Singapore’s veneer of technocratic modernity and superior governance.”