Singapore remained in crisis mode in 2021, a situation that persisted from 2020. While COVID-19 continued to devastate various foundations of Singapore, especially the economy and public confidence in the government, a political succession crisis threw the republic deeper into uncharted territory. These developments are likely to have long-term consequences, especially for the staying power of government in what is a one-dominant-party state.
By whatever yardsticks one evaluates Singapore in 2021, it was clearly a year of crisis, both internally and externally, with no clear signs of abatement. While the COVID-19 pandemic may be addressed by 2023, there remain serious issues with regard to the national economy due to turbulence emanating from the United States–China trade war that began under president Donald Trump and seems to be intensifying under president Joe Biden.
The internal and external challenges that confronted Singapore in 2021 were clearly signposted in last year’s review in this journal (Lam 2021: 149–54). It focused on numerous crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the initial mistakes in managing it, and the unprecedented economic crisis it unleashed; along with the strongest-ever performance by the opposition in a general election since 1965, despite the ruling party retaining its supermajority in Parliament. The general election also brought challenges for political succession as the designated successor to the prime minister, Heng Swee Keat, barely secured his electoral seat. In 2021 these crises continued and even intensified.
Several key internal challenges confronted Singapore. First, there were knock-on effects from the 2020 general election. The polls saw the largest opposition presence in Parliament, even as the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) continued to hold a supermajority (after securing 83 of the 93 contested seats). Since July 2020, parliamentary debates have become robust, to the credit of the opposition Workers’ Party for bringing constructive arguments, leading in turn to greater public awareness of national issues. The Workers’ Party has also supported the government on a number of issues, including drug trafficking, the use of the TraceTogether app for contact tracing, and helping Singapore’s disadvantaged. However, in November 2021 the Workers’ Party entered a crisis when one of its MPs, Raeesah Khan, admitted she had lied to Parliament in August. At a hearing held by the PAP-controlled Committee of Privileges, it was revealed that Raeesah had confessed this to her party’s leaders, prompting the question of to what extent the party should also be held responsible for Raeesah’s actions. Most analysts and probably Singaporeans were of the view that punishing Raeesah (who resigned from Parliament later in November) was enough and the Workers’ Party should not be punished, as it would amount to a witch hunt and bullying by the PAP.
Singapore was challenged by a rare succession crisis. On April 8, 2021, Deputy Prime Minister Heng announced his decision to step down as leader of the fourth-generation (4G) PAP team, citing the need for a “younger person with a longer runway to lead the country”—casting age as the main reason for his decision (Tan 2021). No immediate successor to Heng was announced, as the prime minister noted the need “to identify who amongst the people can maximise the performance of the team, and make all the pieces fit together and add up to more than the sum of its parts” (Chew 2021). Since then there has been a focus on three ministers who could lead Singapore in the future: finance minister Lawrence Wong, minister for education Chan Chun Sing, and minister for health Ong Ye Kung.
The COVID-19 crisis that began in early 2020 continued, with Singapore entering Phase 3 on December 28, 2020. This followed an announcement on December 14 that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved for use in Singapore. But the loosening and tightening of measures to counter the pandemic amounted to a roller-coaster ride for the public, creating confusion and outrage. Various counter-pandemic measures were introduced from May to August 2021, but on September 6 the Multi-Ministry Task Force announced stricter measures. As cases of transmission surpassed 1,000 daily, then 3,000, and then 5,000 (in late October), measures were further tightened and extended to September 27, then to October 24, and then to November 24. An article in Bloomberg alleged that two of the task force’s key members had conflicting approaches, causing the mixed signals: Lawrence Wong favored tighter measures; Ong Ye Kung was believed to favor opening.
While Singapore has tightly guarded against inter-racial and inter-religious conflicts since 1965, these resurfaced in 2021. It began on April 27 with a video on Twitter which showed a woman harassing commuters by “grilling passengers about their ethnicity while purportedly taking videos of them” (Sun 2021). Later, a polytechnic lecturer was filmed saying racist things to an interracial couple. Some of these racial tensions were blamed on the India–Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), which was said to favor India. The prime minister later addressed the issue of race on three fronts, saying that there was no Chinese privilege in Singapore; there was a need for a new Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act to strengthen state’s power to deal with the issue; and Muslim nurses in the public healthcare sector would be permitted to wear a tudung (headscarf) from November 2021.
On October 4, the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) was passed. The bill was first introduced in Parliament in September, with K. Shanmugam, the minister for home affairs and law, claiming that “the issue of foreign interference had been discussed extensively for more than three years in Parliament, public forums and the media” (Kurohi 2021). The minister had earlier claimed that “we have been the subject of foreign interference in the past” and that “the Internet has made hostile information campaigns cheap, easy and effective, and…states must be able to tackle them as issues of sovereignty and national security” (Mahmud 2019). The new law was criticized for being too vague and broad, imposing a securitization of information that would have a chilling effect on Singapore. The government reassured the public that FICA would only be used against foreigners, or their local proxies who tried to undermine Singapore’s stability.
As a small state, making itself relevant to the international community without succumbing to pressures has been the key goal of Singapore’s foreign policy. While adopting an open-door policy, it tried to promote a balance of power among the great powers in the region. The goal is to give Singapore more room to maneuver between the regional and great powers in pursuit of its interests. These mantras made 2021 a challenging year for the republic.
In February 2021, a military coup in Myanmar ousted Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader. As Singapore has been close to the military junta and is Myanmar’s largest investor, protesters in Myanmar called for a boycott of Singaporean products and financial institutions. Maintaining a neutral position, Singapore argued that “generalized sanctions…will hurt the ordinary citizens of Myanmar,” underscored the importance of “[keeping] lines of communication open,” and expressed alarm at the continuing violence in Myanmar, calling for the de-escalation of the situation (Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2021). While Singapore has acted through ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, it also believed that the ultimate solution must come not through external intervention but through internal resolutions.
Two top US officials visited Singapore in 2021. US defense secretary Lloyd Austin met Singapore’s defense minister, Ng Eng Hen, in the first trip to Southeast Asia by a top member of the Biden administration. Later, US vice president Kamala Harris visited Singapore as part of a Southeast Asia tour that also included a stop in Vietnam. She gave a speech in Singapore on August 24, stating that China continued to “coerce” and “make claims to the vast majority” of the South China Sea, and conversely that the US’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific region was not “designed to make anyone choose between countries” (ChannelNewsAsia 2021).
China’s minister of foreign affairs, Wang Yi, also visited Singapore in 2021, calling on his counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan and Deputy Prime Minister Heng on September 13, and PM Lee on September 14. Wang’s visit was also part of a tour of Southeast Asia; he stopped in Vietnam and Cambodia before Singapore, and continued from there to South Korea. When a journalist asked Minister Balakrishnan whether Singapore was caught in a “diplomatic competition” between US and China, Wang stated that Singapore held a “rational” view of China’s rise and that he hoped that the US would follow suit rather than view China’s rise as a zero-sum game (Tham and Tan 2021).
Singapore’s great power relations were also impacted by the announcement of a security pact (involving nuclear submarines) between the US, United Kingdom, and Australia (AUKUS). While it represented a continuation of old security ties between the three states, its announcement in September, especially against the backdrop of worsening US–China relations, led many to conclude that this was part of the intensifying “containment” of China in the Indo-Pacific region. Given that Singapore does not side with either great power but maintains close ties with both, AUKUS was a positive development, signaling continued US military commitment in the region.
The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August was viewed with disquiet in Singapore. There was concern that the Taliban could allow transnational terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS to exploit the security vacuum in Afghanistan. Singapore’s Internal Security Department stated that “there is currently no information of a specific terrorist threat to Singapore arising from the situation in Afghanistan” (Baharudin 2021). Still, speculation was rife that the Taliban takeover “could pave the way for the re-emergence of the regional terror network Jemaah Islamiyah,” which “has a historical and emotional connection with the Taliban” (Rayda 2021). This could provide a strong boost to jihadists and Islamists in Indonesia and elsewhere in their struggle to establish an Islamic government and impose sharia law in Indonesia and the region.
Singapore’s relations with Malaysia have always been sensitive, and any major developments in Singapore’s northern neighbor are politically significant. In August 2021, after serving for eighteen months, prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin lost support in Parliament and resigned. His successor, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, was sworn in a few days later. While both bilateral cooperation and negotiations regarding border opening continued, the territorial dispute over Pedra Branca was reignited. Relations have, however, remained on even keel.
Singapore has also developed close ties with India over the last two decades, especially in the political, diplomatic, economic, and security arenas. However, CECA has troubled bilateral relations; opposition members such as Leong Mun Wai of the Progress Singapore Party argue that Singapore has given too many concessions to India. Still, Singapore–India ties remained strong, with Balakrishnan (2021) revealing that “Singapore has been India’s largest source of foreign direct investment for three consecutive years, averaging $16 billion in total equity inflows annually.”
Challenges Confronting Singapore in 2021
While internal and external challenges are not new to Singapore, the ways these have surfaced and persisted since 2020 are definitely novel. These crises have tested the resilience and fortitude of the one-dominant-party state that has been in power since 1959. While the internal and external challenges are important and interrelated, the former are much more serious, with potentially dire long-term consequences for the future of the ruling party.
Two crises that could unravel the PAP in the near future are its mismanagement of COVID-19 and political succession. For the PAP, neither a pandemic nor an economic crisis is a new problem. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was easily managed in 2003, and the various economic challenges since the 1980s were triumphantly overcome. Yet today, the public is greatly confused and frustrated by the PAP’s mismanagement of both COVID-19 and the succession question. While other crises are important, including the TraceTogether app, FICA, and Prime Minister Lee’s draconian approach to his critics, they are tolerated (though not necessarily condoned) by Singapore’s citizens, thanks to the PAP’s longstanding legitimacy. The question is, how long will this public goodwill last?
Singapore remains in uncharted waters with COVID-19, its longest-running health crisis. At the end of 2021, Singapore was in a worse position, in terms of number of deaths and daily infections, than it was in early-to-mid-2020. Whether this was due to new COVID-19 variants or to policy failures, the negative public political fallout cannot be underestimated. The PAP’s management of COVID-19 is linked to the economic well-being of Singapore and the public perception of the 4G leaders who have been tasked with leading the country and overcoming the pandemic, both of which affect the government’s political legitimacy.
Traditionally, the PAP is known as a provider of public welfare and not democracy. This has been its sterling trademark and its basis of legitimacy—the reason citizens tolerate its harshness. This legitimacy is withering away under pressure from the ongoing economic crisis (which is fused with the COVID-19 pandemic) and the worsening US–China trade war. However, what has broken the camel’s back has been political succession, which has serious implications for the management of the pandemic and the economic well-being of Singapore.
For Singapore, a succession crisis is an unfamiliar political experience. The previous two prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, had settled the issue of their successors 10 years before they relinquished power. However, even after 17 years as prime minister, Prime Minister Lee (who will turn 70 in February 2022) has yet to settle the issue. This uncertainty and apparent failure is bad for Lee’s legacy, for the third-generation (3G) PAP leaders, for the 4G, for the PAP as it prepares for the next general election (in either 2024 or 2025), and for Singapore at large, especially its international standing. This sad state of affairs is linked to the erosion of the 4G leaders’ credibility, who are perceived as having failed Singapore—and the 3G leaders are not above reproach, as they have been holding the cudgels of power since 2004. The more the 4G leaders are seen to have failed, the more the 3G leaders’ standing will also corrode nationally and historically.
The prime minister’s reason for not handing power to his deputy was premised on the need to address the COVID-19 crisis. Yet, between March and July 2020, when the decision was made to extend Lee’s tenure as prime minister, the COVID-19 situation worsened, calling into question not just the prime minister’s standing but also the competence of the government to oversee the pandemic. While the 4G leaders may be helming the Multi-Ministry Task Force on COVID-19, partly to test their capabilities as national leaders in a crisis situation, the credibility and legitimacy of the 3G leaders are also in jeopardy. While Singaporeans are likely to continue to support the PAP in the coming years, the hit the ruling party (including both 3G and 4G leaders) has received from this failure to manage COVID-19 will have long-term impact on the party that in the past was seen as a safe pair of hands to manage national crises.
In sum, 2021 has been a year of continuous crisis. For Singaporeans, it has generally been one of the worst years in recent memory, with a continuous stream of bad news. For generations of Singaporeans who have grown up on news of all-round success, this is indeed foreboding; the highly critical and expectant electorate is likely to exact a heavy price from the nation’s political leaders. Despite all the past successes, 2021 has clearly been a year of perpetual challenges. In the past, citizens tolerated the PAP’s harshness because the public welfare was always protected; yet in a pandemic-centric order, the health crisis is linked to political uncertainty and sustained economic downturn. This has the potential to worsen public frustrations and undermine confidence in the ruling party, in turn channeling Singaporeans into the uncharted waters of how to deal with a ruling party that is seen as in a failing mode.
Published online: February 9, 2022