Singapore, 11 May 2011
Last Sunday I woke up even more confused than I usually do when I wake before 11am on a weekend. My local news channel was replaying the royal wedding at 9am in the morning, just six hours after the most historic election in Singapore since independence. I have since been told that coverage surrounding the royal nuptials was heightened within the traditional media to distract from the 7 May election. Lucky for me, this election was impacted by the Internet, and in particular social media. Indeed, this has been the where the most notable action has been during the election – with its impact a potential game-changer to the island’s status quo.
In the aftermath of the euphoria of having an opposition party breach a bastion of the People’s Action Party – the ‘multi-seat constituency that is the GRC’ – by sweeping away Aljunied GRC. By doing so, they also deposed Foreign Minister George Yeo, not only of his ministerial portfolio, but also his parliamentary seat and technically his job of 23 years. In his press statement yesterday at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs he stated
“Like it or not, we are entering a new phase in Singapore’s political development. How we respond to it will decide Singapore’s destiny in the 21st century. I would help in whatever way I can to bring about this transformation of the PAP. I wish I had a mandate from the people of Aljunied to be a strong advocate of such transformation. But I don’t.”
The advocates for a transformation in the PAP’s style of governance, or a change in government, were primarily expressed online. Socio-political news sites to social-media platforms ran countless stories on issues such as, highly paid ministers who weren’t held accountable for runaway terrorists, floods in modern urban areas, the high cost of public housing and transportation, the loss of jobs to foreign talents who do not have to perform mandatory national service, and a mandatory retirement-age savings fund (CPF) that is giving negative real interest rate returns. Many young voters amplified their voices using websites like, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, experiencing a political awakening of sorts. Interactive Infographics were even produced to track and monitor the online news, blogs and conversations on the Singapore General Elections.
For the PAP, it seemed like their greatest fear was realised – the highly educated group of middle class citizens they had created to be the powerhouse of Singapore’s financial industry had somehow decided that politics were interesting. One of my favourite reactions to the fear of an alternative voice is an online forum piece from The Straits Times entitled, ‘Can Singapore cope with the Trojan horse of democracy?’ The author is
convinced by the rationale of some of the PAP’s leaders that a small nation state like ours cannot expend unnecessary time and energy in formulating policy. The reality that faces [Singaporeans] is not replicable elsewhere. We simply do not have the resources to manage impasse after impasse. Those with a liberal slant often carry a romantic ideal of a democracy where politicians debate for the good of the people. Well, there have been many debates in these democracies, but name me one that has managed to achieve the good for most of its people, if not all?
Maybe some historians of American and British parliamentary history could suggest some examples…
The online battle for the hearts and minds of the people echoed many of the debates surrounding the ‘people power revolts’ in the Middle East and North Africa – how much influence did social media have on people’s opinions? What the result of the Singapore election demonstrated was that there remains a major disconnect between the voices in social media and those that are on the ground. In Singapore, not only did the internet and social media start the debate earlier than usual, catching the PAP off-guard, but it also enabled a greater flow of information and partially levelled the playing field. One example of this was the storm of controversy over PAP candidate Tin Pei-Ling’s photo with a Kate Spade bag. For much of the election, the government never quite believed that online media could challenge the mainstream media in terms of influence and readership but minor issues, such as Tin Pei-Ling’s bag, went viral, fragmenting the political narrative the PAP has taken great care to create.
On the other hand, the results of the Singapore election demonstrate that there remains a major disconnect between the voices in social media and those that are on the ground. The Internet and social media proved enough to help bring about a major swing in popular opinion but not the radical wholesale changes that many believed were possible. The impetus behind ‘Cooling-off Day’ was to dilute the effects of opposition political campaigning. As such, the dominant pathologies of Singapore’s dominant political culture reared their heads – risk-averse and complacent voting, a GRC system, and public servants who feared losing their jobs over suspicions regarding ‘not so secret’ voting process. What is seemingly needed is sweeping electoral reform. The case is similar in Malaysia. Voices in social media appeared to be pro-opposition. In the April 2011 Sarawak state elections, there was a massive online ‘revolt’ against Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. Nonetheless, his party, the Barisan Nasional, was sworn in for its eighth term. The lesson from Singapore’s watershed election is that social media and online media platforms cannot make an impact without simultaneous widespread, cohesive political pressure. Until such forces emerge, predictions of a political spring in Southeast Asia remain premature.