The people of Singapore are heading to the polls here on Friday, temperature-checked and wearing masks and gloves. It's the second national election held in Asia during the Covid-19 crisis after South Korea led the way with parliamentary polling in April.
The outcome isn't in question. Just how democratic a country is if the same party keeps on winning is a good question. But the People's Action Party (PAP) has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965.
The PAP sues any opposition into submission, running critics through the courts until they experience financial collapse, and is aided by a self-censoring state-controlled media. The record 11 parties contesting the vote mainly sell themselves as "Not PAP" rather than promoting any serious alternative policies.
Therefore, the re-coronation of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is something of a formality. He is the son of the country's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who carved out the country when it was banished from newly formed Malaysia in 1965, the first and only modern country to have independence forced upon it.
The elder Lee won the eternal love of the country when he warded off the Communist red tide sweeping Asia in the 1960s and 1970s and set the stage for rapid growth in the city state. Singapore is now the richest nation in Southeast Asia, with economic output per person among the world's highest at US$64,578 per year. It is also Southeast Asia's financial hub, a base for funds serving protectionist high-tax markets such as India and a suddenly popular alternative to Hong Kong, with its "evil" treason law.
I have never known a people who trust their government more and expect it to do more for them than the people in Singapore. It is a huge generalization, of course. But in Singapore, the state provides.
Singapore's response to the coronavirus has been bigger, proportionately, than any other nation in Asia. The government has spent the equivalent of 19.2% of its total economy on its Covid-19 stimulus, with 12.9% coming directly from the budget and the rest from other measures.
It has provided a hefty Job Support Scheme and Wage Credit Scheme to preserve jobs, and a corporate income-tax rebate of up to S$15,000 (US$11,000). There are also a property-tax rebate, a care package for households, government-backed loan capital, and support for airlines.
This election likely will mark the last term for the younger Lee, who is 68 and took office in 2004. The results will be watched not for the overall outcome but rather for the margin of the ruling party's victory. The PAP captured a record-low 60% of the vote in 2011, when immigration from mainland China was a prime concern and the newcomers were seen as taking local jobs and driving up property prices.
Polling will end at 8 p.m. local time, with results likely on Saturday. Befitting a country where many social ills are petty crimes -- the joke is that it's a "fine city" -- voting is mandatory for the city's 2.65 million voters.
Singapore also has Asia's largest outbreak of Covid-19 on a per-capita basis. Despite a total population of only 4.0 million, it has 45,423 confirmed cases at last count, although its wonderful health care system has kept the death count very low, at 26.
The outbreak has stripped bare the great inequities in Singaporean society. The country always has been a melting pot of Chinese, Malay and Indian influences. Since 1819, it was part of Britain's Straits Settlements (which included Malaya), but had a more balanced population than what is now mainland Malaysia.
The Chinese portion of society has long had the upper hand, though, economically and politically. The vast underclass of migrant workers, mainly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, has suffered the brunt of the virus. Able to enter Singapore only on short-term visas, they are forced to live in crowded dorms. Once the coronavirus took hold, there was no escape.
The Lion City is likely to experience its worst-ever recession in the wake of the virus. The open economy has been decimated by the lack of trade and travel and is due to shrink 6.0% this year, according to Oxford Economics. If all goes well, it should rebound 7.1% in 2021.
Given its virus and economic woes, Singapore's benchmark Straits Times index has been one of Asia's poorest performers. It is down 17.7% year to date, a showing worse than any other nation outside Indonesia and the Philippines, which are also contending with virulent viral outbreaks.
One of the main issues to watch in this election is the performance of Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, 59. Heng, who is also the finance minister, is the princeling in waiting to succeed Lee. He is contesting an East Coast constituency where the PAP had one of its closest walkovers at the last election, securing just the 60.7% of the vote. Overall, the PAP potentially could register a clean sweep of all 93 seats up for grabs, particularly if Singaporeans vote for stability during the Covid-19 crisis.