History of general elections in Singapore

Singapore Infopedia


Since 1948, general elections have been held to elect representatives to Singapore’s legislature. The first election was held in 1948 to elect six unofficial members to the 22-seat Legislative Council. The electorate was, however, limited to British subjects. Over time, the number of local representatives in the legislature as well as the size of the electorate increased alongside constitutional developments in Singapore. In 1968, Singapore held its first general election as an independent nation.

Legislative Council elections
On 1 April 1946, Singapore became a Crown Colony that was administered separately from Malaya.1 Singapore’s constitution was also revised to allow for some local participation in government, thus setting Singapore on the path to self-government. According to the revised constitution, the Singapore Legislative Council would consist of nine official and 13 unofficial members. The public would directly elect six of the 13 unofficial members.2

The 1948 election, held to elect six unofficial members to the Legislative Council, saw a voter turnout of 14,126 on the 20 March polling day.3 The Singapore Progressive Party (SPP), led by lawyer C. C. Tan, won three seats. The other three seats were won by independent candidates.4 The Malayan Union, one of the earliest political parties, had boycotted the election and urged voters not to vote. The party was unhappy with British post-war constitutional plans and the fact that only British subjects were allowed to contest and vote in the election.5

In 1951, the number of elected members to the Legislative Council was increased to nine. The electorate was also expanded to include British protected subjects born in Malaya, Sarawak, Brunei and British North Borneo.6 The election on 10 April saw the SPP taking the majority with its win of six seats. The Singapore Labour Party (SLP) won two seats, while the last seat went to independent candidate Vilasini Menon, who became the first woman to be elected into the Legislative Council.7

Legislative Assembly elections
The Rendel Constitution came into force on 8 April 1955.8 Under this constitution, Singapore’s main legislative body, the Legislative Council, became the 32-member Legislative Assembly consisting of three ex-officios, four nominated members and 25 popularly elected representatives. In addition, the political party with a majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly would form a council of ministers.9 The constitution also allowed for a system of automatic registration that increased the electorate to around 300,000.10

Campaigning for the 1955 Legislative Assembly general election was vigorous, with 79 candidates contesting 25 seats and more than 300 election rallies held in the week before the election.11 On 2 April polling day, 160,395 people went to the polls and gave the Labour Front (LF), led by David Marshall, a victory with its win of 10 out of the 17 seats it contested.12 The other seats were won by the SPP (four seats), the People’s Action Party (PAP) (three seats), the Singapore Alliance (three seats), the Democratic Party (two seats) and three independent candidates. Lacking an outright majority, the Labour Front formed a coalition government with the Singapore Alliance.13 Following the election, Marshall was appointed Singapore’s first chief minister.14

The next Legislative Assembly general election held on 30 May 1959 launched Singapore as a fully self-governing state.15 It was held under the 1958 State of Singapore Constitution that replaced the Rendel Constitution.16 The PAP contested seats in all 51 constituencies against 12 other political parties.17 As voting was made compulsory, more than 89 percent of voters (524,420) turned up to cast their votes.18 The PAP eventually achieved a landslide victory winning a majority of 43 seats in the Legislative Assembly. The other seats went to the Singapore People’s Alliance (four seats), the United Malays National Organisation-Malayan Chinese Association alliance (UMNO-MCA) (three seats) and an independent candidate.19 This election paved the way for Lee Kuan Yew, then secretary-general of the PAP, to become the first prime minister of Singapore.20

In 1963, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew called for a snap election – an election with minimum notice – with polling day set for 21 September to elect 51 members to the Legislative Assembly.21 The timing of the general election capitalised on the PAP’s success in pushing for Singapore’s merger with the Federation of Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia on 16 September. The election also sought a new mandate for the PAP. The PAP contested all 51 seats and won the election with 37 seats, the Barisan Sosialis secured 13 seats and Ong Eng Guan of the United People’s Party (UPP) retained his seat in Hong Lim.22

Parliamentary elections
Singapore left the Federation of Malaysia and became an independent and sovereign nation on 9 August 1965. The Barisan Sosialis boycotted the first session of parliament to protest against the PAP’s alleged “undemocratic ways” as they did not want to provide “legal cover” for Singapore’s “phoney independence”.23 On 8 October 1966, the Barisan Sosialis announced the resignation of all its nine members of parliament, leaving the PAP with a monopoly in parliament.24

Singapore held its first general election as an independent nation on 13 April 1968, with the PAP sweeping all parliamentary seats in 58 constituencies and garnering 84.4 percent of total votes cast. This election marked the first time that a single party had won all seats in parliament. PAP’s success was in part due to an election boycott by the Barisan Sosialis and several other opposition parties. On nomination day, only 7 out of 58 seats were contested.25

Five opposition parties – the Barisan Sosialis, the Workers’ Party, the People’s Front, the United National Front and Pertubohan Kebangsaan Melayu Singapura (PKMS) – contested the next general election held on 2 September 1972.26 The ruling PAP campaigned on its record of effective government and repeated its success in the previous election by winning all 65 parliamentary seats,27 representing 69.02 percent of total votes cast.28

The PAP repeated its success once again in the 1976 general election held on 23 December when it won all 53 seats it contested, thus sweeping all 69 parliamentary seats. The party’s share of the popular vote increased to 72.4 percent.29

It was another landslide victory for the PAP when it made a clean sweep of all 75 parliamentary seats in the next general election held on 23 December 1980. Its share of the votes also increased to 75.6 percent.30

A breakthrough in the PAP’s monopoly of parliament came about only in 1981 when J. B. Jeyaratnam of the Workers’ Party won the by-election held on 31 October for the Anson constituency.31

In the 1984 general election held on 22 December, the opposition continued to chip at the PAP’s dominance by winning two seats in parliament. Jeyaratnam retained his seat in Anson and Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) won the Potong Pasir seat. While the PAP won 77 out of 79 parliamentary seats, its share of the votes dropped by more than 12 percentage points to 62.9 percent.32

In 1988, the government introduced the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system to ensure minority representation in parliament. GRCs are electoral divisions in which members are voted into parliament as a group and at least one member has to belong to a minority racial group.33

The general election on 3 September 1988 marked the first time that the GRC system was implemented. The 13 GRCs in this election made up 39 of the 81 parliamentary seats available.34 The election saw the PAP winning 80 seats and SDP’s Chiam See Tong retaining his Potong Pasir seat. There was a slight increase in PAP’s share of valid votes to 63.1 percent.35

During the 1991 general election, then secretary-general of the SDP Chiam See Tong called for the opposition to adopt a “by-election strategy”. This strategy allowed the PAP to win enough seats on nomination day to form the government so that the people could vote for the opposition on polling day without fear that the PAP government would be toppled.36 With the cooperation of other opposition parties, the PAP won 41 out of 81 parliamentary seats through walkovers on nomination day, which was just enough for the PAP to form the government.37 The election results also proved that Chiam’s strategy was effective. Following polling on 31 August, the opposition won four seats in Bukit Gombak, Nee Soon Central, Potong Pasir and Hougang. The PAP’s share of valid votes dropped to 61 percent.38

The opposition used the same strategy in the 1997 general election by contesting only 36 of the 83 parliamentary seats on nomination day, enabling the PAP to form the government. The PAP viewed this election as a “local election” and unveiled detailed plans and programmes for each constituency. The party also announced that constituencies giving a strong vote to the ruling party would be given priority in the “upgrading” programme. The election on 2 January saw the PAP recapturing the seats of Bukit Gombak and Nee Soon Central and increasing its share of valid votes to 65 percent.39

The general election held on 3 November 2001 saw a similar result when the PAP was returned to power on nomination day, with walkovers in 55 out of 84 parliamentary seats.40 The opposition managed to retain the Hougang and Potong Pasir seats. The PAP increased its share of valid votes to 75.3 percent.41

During the 2006 general election held on 6 May, the opposition abandoned its “by-election strategy” by fielding candidates in 47 seats, more than half the 87 seats in parliament, thus denying the PAP a return to power on nomination day.42 Co-ordination between the opposition also ensured that all contests were straight fights with the PAP so that the opposition parties would not dilute one another’s votes.43 This election was also the first to include overseas Singaporeans with around 550 of them casting their votes at eight diplomatic missions in five countries.44 Despite the changes, the results were similar to the previous two general elections. The PAP won 82 out of 84 seats – losing the seats of Hougang and Potong Pasir – although its share of the popular vote dropped to 66.6 percent. The Workers’ Party emerged as the top opposition party, garnering an average of 38.4 percent of votes in constituencies it contested.45

The most recent general election on 7 May 2011 saw opposition parties contesting 82 out of 87 parliamentary seats, with contesting parties using various social media platforms to reach out to their audience.46 Although the PAP won 81 out of 87 parliamentary seats, this election was the poorest showing by the PAP since independence. It also marked the first time that the PAP had lost a GRC.47 The Workers’ Party captured the five-seat Aljunied GRC and retained its Hougang seat. Some political watchers have hailed this a watershed election with a level of political engagement unseen since Singapore’s independence.48 

Stephanie Ho

1. Bilveer Singh, Whither PAP’s Dominance: An Analysis of Singapore’s 1991 General Elections (Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 1992), 3. (Call no. RSING 324.95957 BIL)
2. Yeo Kim Wah and Albert Lau, “From Colonialism to Independence, 1945–1965,” in A History of Singapore, ed. Ernest C. T. Chew and Edwin Lee (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 119. (Call no. RSING 959.57 HIS-[HIS])
3. “63 Per Cent Voters Go to Poll,” Straits Times, 21 March 1948, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Alex Josey, Democracy in Singapore: The 1970 By-Election (Singapore: Donald Moore, 1970), 32. (Call no. RSING 321.8095957 JOS)
5. Yeo and Lau, “Colonialism to Independence,” 122.
6. Yeo and Lau, “Colonialism to Independence,” 126.
7. “Rush of Voters Is Expected at Night,” Straits Times, 9 April 1951, 7;  Progressives Head Singapore Poll,” Straits Times, 11 April 1951, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Constitution Day,” Straits Times, 7 February 1955, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Singh, Whither PAP’s Dominance, 4; Power for the People,” Straits Times, 7 February 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Yeo and Lau, “Colonialism to Independence,” 129.
11. “Battle for Votes on in Earnest,” Straits Times, 27 March 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Labour Wins – Marshall Will Be Chief Minister,” Straits Times, 3 April 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Labour Wins”; Yeo and Lau, “Colonialism to Independence,” 132.
14. “Labour Wins.”
15. “P.A.P. Versus the Rest,” Straits Times, 27 April 1959, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Kevin Y.L. Tan, ed., The Singapore Legal System (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1999), 44–45. (Call no. RSING 349.5957 SIN)
17. “P.A.P. Versus the Rest.” 
18. “Merdeka – Then Leaders Are Chaired in Their Seats,” Straits Times, 31 May 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “The P.A.P. Landslide,” Straits Times, 1 June 1959, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Lee Is Premier,” Straits Times, 2 June 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Jackie Sam, “Singapore’s D-day,” Straits Times, 21 September 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Richard Clutterbuck, Riot and Revolution in Singapore and Malaya 1945–1963 (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1973), 160. (Call no. RSING 959.57024 CLU-[HIS])
23. “Barisan MPs Won’t Be There,” Straits Times, 8 December 1965, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
24. R. Chandran, “Barisan MPs Quit,” Straits Times, 8 October 1966, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Chan Heng Chee, “Political Developments, 1965–1979,” in A History of Singapore, ed. Ernest C. T. Chew and Edwin Lee (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 166–7 (Call no. RSING 959.57 HIS-[HIS]); R Chandran et al., “The PAP Seven Sweep to Victory,” Straits Times, 14 April 1968, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Poteik Chia, “Sept. 2 Is Polling Day,” Straits Times, 24 August 1972, 1; “Eight Up!” Straits Times, 24 August 1972, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Clean Sweep for the PAP,” Straits Times, 3 September 1972, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “760,472 People (93.55 per Cent) Voted in the General Election,” Straits Times, 4 September 1972, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Chan, Political Developments,” 170.
30. “75-0: It’s Another Clean Sweep,” Straits Times, 24 December 1980, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Leslie Fong et. al., “Jeyaretnam Takes Anson,” Straits Times, 1 November 1981, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “PAP Wins All But Two,” Straits Times, 23 December 1984, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “13 GRCs for Next General Election,” Straits Times, 15 June 1988, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
34. “13 GRCs for Next General Election.”
35. Leslie Fong, “PAP Landslide,” Straits Times, 4 September 1988, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Singh, Whither PAP’s Dominance, 46–47.
37. Singh, Whither PAP’s Dominance, 51.
38. Singh, Whither PAP’s Dominance, 85–86.
39. Derek Da Cunha, The Price of Victory: The 1997 General Election and Beyond (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1997), 1–2. (Call no. RSING 324.95957 DAC)
40. Warren Fernandez, “PAP Sweeps 55 Seats,” Straits Times, 26 October 2001, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
41. Zuraidah Ibrahim, “75.3% Resounding Win for the PAP,” Straits Times, 4 November 2001, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
42. Bertha Henson, “All-Out Bid to Deny PAP a Clean Sweep,” Straits Times, 6 May 2006, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
43. “The Straight-Forward Fight,” Today, 27 April 2006, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
44. Neo Hui Min, “First to Vote,” Straits Times, 6 May 2006, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
45. Zuraidah Ibrahim, “PM Gets His Strong Mandate,” Straits Times, 7 May 2006, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
46. Bilveer Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore: An Introduction (Singapore: McGraw-Hill, 2012), 218–20. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 SIN)
47. Singh, Politics and Governance in Singapore, 230.
48. Kevin Y. L. Tan and Terence Lee, eds., Voting in Change: Politics of Singapore’s 2011 General Election (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011), 10. (Call no. RSING 324.95957 VOT)

Further resources
Alex Josey, The Crucial Years Ahead: Republic of Singapore General Election 1968 (Singapore: D. Moore, 1968). (Call no. RCLOS 324.5957 JOS)

Alex Josey, The Singapore General Elections, 1972 (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1972). (Call no. RSING 324.5957 JOS)

Bilveer Singh, Whither PAP’s Dominance: An Analysis of Singapore’s 1991 General Elections (Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 1992). (Call no. RSING 324.95957 BIL)

Derek Da Cunha, The Price of Victory: The 1997 General Election and Beyond (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1997). (Call no. RSING 324.95957 DAC)

Eddie C. Y. Kuo, Duncan Holaday and Eugenia Peck, Mirror on the Wall: Media in a Singapore Election (Singapore: Asian Mass Communication Research and Information Centre, 1993). (Call no. RSING 324.95957 KUO)

Elections in Singapore: Are They Free and Fair?: An Open Singapore Centre Report on the Conduct of Parliamentary Elections in Singapore (Singapore: Open Singapore Centre, 2000). (Call no. RSING 324.63095957 ELE)

Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, The 1955 Election, 2 April 1955, Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, 1988, videorecording. (Call no. RSING 324.95957 NIN)

The information in this article is valid as of 1 September 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.   


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