Singapore could hold elections during outbreak, minister says

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A man wearing a protective face mask walks past an indoor waterfall at Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore on February 27, 2020.

Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images

It’s “very likely” that Singapore will have to hold its next general elections in the middle of the new coronavirus outbreak, the country’s national development minister said on Wednesday.

The Southeast Asian country must hold general elections by April 2021 but there have been signs that polls could be called much sooner than that. Last week, the country announced changes to its electoral boundaries — which typically marks one step toward an election in Singapore.

The past three elections under current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong — in 2006, 2011 and 2015 — were held roughly two to three months after changes in electoral boundaries were released. A Wednesday report by local newspaper The Straits Times, quoting activists from the ruling People’s Action Party, said the elections could be held as soon as early May.

Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s minister for national development, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” that some medical experts have warned that the virus might not go away any time soon. That means that the fight against the new coronavirus disease — or COVID-19 — could “drag on for a year and beyond a year,” he said.

“So, whatever the timing of the election, because it has to be held by April 2021, it is very likely that it will have to be held when COVID-19 is still circulating in our midst — that’s the reality,” said Wong, who’s also second finance minister and co-chair of a multi-ministry task force set up to fight the spread of the new coronavirus disease in Singapore.

Wong said the task force has put out advisories and guidelines for event organizers, which include limiting the number of people at events to prevent the virus spread.

“If and when the prime minister decides to call an election, then the Elections Department, as any other event organizer, will have to (be) cognizant of the guidelines and then adjust and modify the way elections are conducted in line with our advisories and guidelines,” he said.

Still, some opposition politicians have spoken up against holding an election in the middle of the outbreak.

Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party — which doesn’t have a presence in parliament — said on Facebook over the weekend that “it would be the height of irresponsibility” if the ruling party proceeds with an election “when public safety is at its most vulnerable.”

He was responding to Prime Minister Lee’s statement on Facebook that the country could “hope and pray” for the situation to stabilize to hold elections “under more normal circumstances,” or head to the polls early to elect a government with a fresh mandate to tackle “the critical tasks at hand.”

“If we have to hold elections before COVID-19 is over, we will take all the precautions necessary, so that parties can campaign effectively, and people can vote safely,” wrote Lee.

As of Tuesday noon, Singapore has reported 266 coronavirus cases, of which 114 have been discharged from hospitals, according to its Ministry of Health. The country hasn’t reported any deaths.

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