March 3, 2020 / 6:19 AM / a month ago

Virus outbreak a litmus test for Singapore's new leaders

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - When a rare moment of panic buying shook Singapore’s highly ordered society over fears about the spread of coronavirus, it took a personal broadcast from the prime minister to bring calm.

FILE PHOTO: Tourists sit at a table at a largely empty Chinatown district as tourism takes a decline due to the coronavirus outbreak in Singapore February 21, 2020. Picture taken February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

As Lee Hsien Loong, a scion of Singapore’s founding family, prepares to step down after elections expected this year, the handling of the virus has become the defining test for a new generation of leaders.

    “How they handle a crisis, both the health and the economic crisis, will give confidence to Singaporeans on the ability of the 4G team to manage the country,” said Inderjit Singh, a former MP for the People’s Action Party (PAP) which has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965.

    4G refers to fourth generation, a term used to describe the group of ruling party politicians seen as future leaders.

While Lee’s PAP is expected to win an election which must be held by April 2021, even small shifts in its support can lead to policy changes that impact many international firms based in the Asian business hub.

After its worst ever result in 2011 - when it still secured 60% of the vote - the PAP accelerated foreign labour curbs amid unease among citizens about immigration levels and the impact on job prospects and property prices.

The PAP declined to comment.

TOUGHER TEST

Singapore’s battle with the disease is front-and-centre of voters’ minds with virus cases now over 100, analysts say, overshadowing issues such as immigration and living costs that had been expected to dominate the election before the city-state’s outbreak began in late January.

A poll last month by research firms Blackbox and Toluna showed 62% of Singaporeans were closely following virus news and information, more than in any of the eight other Asian places surveyed including Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Singapore has won international praise for its virus containment efforts.

But analysts say managing the economic fallout, which could tip Singapore into recession following decade-low growth in 2019, will be a tougher task.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat - Lee’s would-be successor - last month budgeted for the biggest deficit in years with billions earmarked for managing the virus’ impact on firms and households.

“People may forget about how the government dealt with the public health aspect,” said Eugene Tan, a former nominated MP. Nominated MPs are appointed directly by the president and not affiliated to political parties.

Tan said any perception of economic mismanagement over the virus would be a bigger issue in an election he expects by year-end, and any “blunders” over Singapore’s response could hurt the ruling party well beyond that vote.

After 2018's historic government ousting in neighbouring Malaysia, a vote that set off upheaval that has resurfaced in recent weeks, Lee said the party which he has led since 2004 did not have a "monopoly of power". reut.rs/2TgF4b4

Lee, 68, has said he plans to step down by the time he is 70.

The officials spearheading Singapore’s virus fight have faced some criticism for what they said was a “misunderstanding” when they raised the virus alert level which sparked the panic buying of essentials like rice and toilet paper last month.

FILE PHOTO: A Chinese restaurant displays a sign that says 'disinfected' as businesses adapt to less footfall due to the coronavirus outbreak in Singapore February 21, 2020. Picture taken February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

Trade minister Chan Chun Sing - another seen as a future party leader - called the panic buying disgraceful and idiotic in comments from a closed-door business briefing reported by local media.

Chong Ja Ian, political science professor at National University Singapore, said some people found Chan’s remarks “condescending” and others “frank and forthcoming”.

This “mixed response” to key individuals will also shape whether voters’ are satisfied with the 4G’s virus measures which is being “couched as a litmus test for them,” Chong said.

Reporting by Aradhana Aravindan and John Geddie in Singapore; Editing by Lincoln Feast.

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