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5 reasons why Singapore’s upcoming general election is worth watching

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Singaporean voters queue at a polling station to cast their votes in the general election on Sept. 11, 2015.

Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images

Singapore is set to hold its general election on July 10 — a little more than a month after the country started easing restrictions aimed at containing one of Southeast Asia’s largest coronavirus outbreaks.

Singapore’s ruling party, the People’s Action Party, has never lost an election before and has governed the city state since 1959, before the country’s independence in 1965.

The upcoming election is gearing up to be different from the previous ones before. Here are five reasons why Singapore’s next election is worth watching.

Coronavirus cases are still climbing

The Southeast Asian country is not the first to hold a national vote in the middle of the pandemic. South Korea in April held parliamentary elections that resulted in a decisive win for President Moon Jae-in’s party.  

While the South Korean government was largely praised for its handling of the virus at the time of its elections, Singapore’s response — which was initially seen as a success globally — lost some of its shine due to an outbreak within dormitories that house migrant workers.

Those workers — usually men from other Asian countries working in low-wage, labor-intensive jobs — account for more than 90% of nearly 44,000 confirmed infections in Singapore, according to the health ministry’s data.

The total number of new cases reported daily still hovers in the hundreds. However, a decline in infections outside the dormitories led the Singapore government to ease much of its partial lockdown measures last month, paving the way for the election to be held.

Still, some observers warned that infections in the wider community could climb in the lead-up to the July 10 vote.

“Any surge in community cases … to the polling day might lead to criticism on the government’s decision, and will, therefore, backfire (on) its approval rating,” consultancy The Economist Intelligence Unit said in a note last week.

Economic crisis looming

The coronavirus pandemic hit Singapore at a time when its open and trade-dependent economy was already feeling the effects of the U.S.-China trade war.

Singapore is forecasting its worst economic recession since independence in 1965. The economy is expected to shrink by between 4% and 7% this year, according to official estimates.

In the past, times of crises helped the ruling party to score larger electoral wins as voters preferred a steady hand to lead the country. In the 2001 general election — which was held soon after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. — the party received 75.3% of the votes.

But such “flight to safety” often occurred at the onset of a crisis, not in the middle of it, said Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University.

“I think now Singapore is in the eye of the storm, and how the government has handled the crisis so far, I think that’s going to come under very robust scrutiny during the campaign period,” Tan told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” last week.

“I don’t think it’s all clear that this is the general election that will favor the ruling party, the odds are that it would, but we shouldn’t exclude the possibility that voters may take a different view,” said Tan, a regular commentator of Singapore politics.   

Changing of guards

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had previously said he was ready to step down by the time he turns 70. Lee, who has held the top job since 2004, is now 68 which means the upcoming election could be his last as prime minister.  

Lee is only the third prime minister of Singapore since independence. He’s the son of the city state’s widely respected founding prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew.

Current Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat is tipped to succeed Lee. Heng and a group of cabinet ministers — dubbed the fourth generation, or 4G, leaders — have been at the forefront of the country’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.  

Those ministers are expected to play a bigger role in leading the ruling People’s Action Party, or PAP, in the upcoming election.

Opposition politics

For only the second time since Singapore’s independence, all 93 parliamentary seats that are up for grabs in the election will be contested. The ruling PAP is the only one that has fielded candidates for every seat.

The PAP has won every election since independence — often even before polling day, because opposition parties sometimes fielded candidates for only a handful of seats. The last election in 2015 was the first time that every parliamentary seat was contested.

Last week, the prime minister’s younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, joined an opposition party. Although the younger Lee is not contesting in the election, he is expected to help rally support for the opposition. 

Lee Hsien Yang, the son of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and younger brother of current premier Lee Hsien Loong, joins the opposition Progress Singapore Party.

Suhaimi Abdullah | Getty Images

Their father, Lee Kuan Yew, co-founded the ruling party and was Singapore’s longest serving prime minister from 1959 to 1990. He was widely credited for the development of Singapore — a former British colony — from a third-world country into the advanced city state that it is today.

Safe campaigning and voting

An election in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak means political parties will have to do away with the traditional way of campaigning. Chief among those is mass rallies — one of the most common methods for candidates to reach out to voters.

Door-to-door campaigning and community walkabouts are still allowed, subject to rules such as limiting each group to five people, mask-wearing and keeping a safe distance, according to guidelines issued by the Elections Department.

To make up for the lack of physical rallies, political parties will get more airtime to campaign on free-to-air television channels, the guidelines said. Candidates can also live-stream online rallies, it added.

On voting day, temperature screening and other hygiene measures will be carried out at all polling stations, the department said. To avoid crowding, there will also be more polling stations, and voters will be allocated a recommended two-hour time slot to cast their ballot, it added.

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Modi’s Weibo account removed at request of Indian embassy in China

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) talks to Chinese President Xi Jingping during the BRICS meeting in Goa, India, on October 16, 2016.

Prakash Singh | AFP | Getty Images

China’s Twitter like service, Weibo, has removed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s account at the request of the Indian embassy in Beijing. 

The unusual move comes amid rising tensions between India and China over their disputed border high in the Western Himalayas and a clash earlier this month that left 20 Indian soldiers dead

India retaliated by banning 59 Chinese apps, including high-profile ones such as TikTok and WeChat. New Delhi is also reportedly weighing whether to let Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei participate in the rollout of the country’s next-generation 5G mobile networks. 

Weibo announced late on Wednesday that it had received a request from the Indian embassy in China to close Modi’s account.

“Weibo received an application from the Indian embassy in China, which said: ‘(I) hope to have the official Weibo account of Prime Minister Narendra Modi removed from the platform,'” it said.

The Chinese microblogging platform complied with the request and announced that: “Weibo has closed what was certified as the account of the Prime Minister of India.”

The Indian embassy in Beijing was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Modi has been on Weibo since 2015 but posted quite infrequently. 

His first ever post was written in Chinese and translated as: “Hello China! Looking forward to interacting with Chinese friends through Weibo.” 

Because social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are effectively blocked in China, Weibo is a major way to communicate with a Chinese audience. 

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UK extends visa rights to Hong Kongers, offers path to citizenship

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In this photo taken in Hong Kong on June 3, 2020, Reese Tan, a 25-year old tutor, poses with his British National (Overseas), or BN(O), in his favorite part of the city and the place he would miss the most if he leaves, the bustling shopping and eating district of Mongkok.

Anthony Wallace | AFP | Getty Images

The U.K. is offering around 3 million Hong Kong residents a path to British citizenship after a new national security law was imposed in the city, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Wednesday.

That announcement came after Beijing passed and implemented a new national security law in Hong Kong. Raab called the move “grave and deeply disturbing.”

“The enactment and imposition of this national security law constitute a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Parliament on Wednesday.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration signed by then Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher guarantees Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework. The city was a British colony for over 150 years before being transferred back to China in 1997.

The new national security law is spurring concerns about excessive oversight from Beijing and eroding rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.

About 3 million Hong Kongers are eligible for British National (Overseas) passports. There were 357,156 BN(O) passport holders as of April 17.

The new measures extend the visa rights of BN(O) passport holders, allowing them to stay in the U.K. for five years with the ability to work or study. That’s far greater than the six months previously allowed.

After five years, the passport holders will be able to apply for settled status and citizenship, according to information on the U.K. government website.

“This is a special, bespoke, set of arrangements developed for the unique circumstances we face and in light of our historic commitment to the people of Hong Kong,” said Raab in Parliament.

“We want a positive relationship with China. But, we will not look the other way on Hong Kong, and we will not duck our historic responsibilities to its people,” he added.

The U.S. and Taiwan are also looking into helping those who want to leave Hong Kong.

In the U.S., a bipartisan bill known as the “Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act” would grant Hong Kongers priority refugee status. Introduced in both chambers of Congress this week, the bill would enable those who fear political persecution from China to more quickly leave the city.

Taiwan on Wednesday set up an office to help resettle fleeing Hong Kongers.

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Pakistan central bank governor on economic challenges during coronavirus pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic is a public health crisis and until it’s addressed, there will most likely be economic hardships ahead, Pakistan’s central bank governor told CNBC. 

Pakistan has reported more than 213,000 cases of infection and nearly 4,400 people have died.

“We are very concerned. First and foremost, this is a public health crisis — we have to remind ourselves of that,” Reza Baqir said on CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” on Wednesday.

“And, only on a secondary basis, then it becomes an economic crisis. Until the public health crisis is addressed, we should continue to expect challenges on the economic front,” he added. 

For countries like Pakistan, the trade-off between lives and livelihood is a very real trade-off.

Reza Baqir

Pakistan’s central bank governor

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government lifted a two-month-long lockdown in early May, a few weeks before an important festival. 

As millions were struggling with starvation during that time of drastically reduced economic activity, the country’s Covid-19 cases surged once the lockdown was eased, Reuters reported

Lockdowns are a ‘luxury’

At the moment, the government is targeting coronavirus hotspots in the country and locking those areas down. 

Baqir explained that prolonged national lockdowns are a “luxury of the rich.” 

“For countries like Pakistan, the trade-off between lives and livelihood is a very real trade-off,” he said. The country has many day laborers who earn daily wages and lockdown would abruptly cut off their source of income. Without having a savings pool to dip into, many of those people would be looking at starvation, according to Baqir. 

Policemen put barbed wire as an market area is sealed by the authorities in Rawalpindi on July 1, 2020, as COVID-19 coronavirus cases continue to rise.

Farooq Naeem | AFP | Getty Images

Pakistan has limited fiscal policy options to help the economy weather the coronavirus crisis. Considering the country’s relatively large public debt, excessive government spending to boost the economy will be difficult.

On the monetary policy side, Baqir said the central bank injected so far about $7 billion, or 2.5% of GDP, in terms of liquidity support to households and businesses.

The central bank last week slashed its monetary policy rate by 100 basis points to 7% — State Bank of Pakistan has cut interest rates by 625 basis points since March when the coronavirus infection began spreading through the country. Baqir told CNBC the move was in tandem with the fall in inflation, from above 14% in January to around 8% currently. 

“There is no doubt that we face grave challenges,” Baqir said.

He outlined the three considerations in Pakistan’s response to the crisis. 

First, he highlighted that before the virus struck, the country’s economic fundamentals was improving – such as bringing down its current account deficit, which was a core part of its economic problems. Second, its fiscal and monetary policies are “prudent,” and finally, Pakistan is working with international financial organizations like the IMF and World Bank to keep its economy afloat. 

“I think the smart lockdown strategy of locking down hot spots in cities so far is working reasonably well, and we are confident that with the combination of measures – for us on the economic side, we should come out of this crisis largely unscathed,” Baqir said. 

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