Social media challenges Singapore’s rulers

The city state’s ruling party lost seats in recent elections and analysts believe new technologies aided the opposition.

Singapore parliament
The opposition Workers’ Party gained ground against the ruling Peoples’ Action Party in a recent vote [EPA]

Weeks after a watershed general election in Singapore, the influential role played by social media to dramatically transform political debate in this affluent city- state continues to reverberate through cyberspace.

“Social Media in Singapore Politics: It’s Serious Business Folks!” was the headline of an analysis that appeared this week on theonlinecitizen, a popular website featuring commentary challenging the official narrative of the southeast Asian country’s ruling Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) and the mainstream media – all of which are pro-government mouthpieces.

Views that appeared on and plus critical commentary on the Internet “sparked a new way of thinking for Singapore, especially in the political arena,” read the article, one of many assessments following the May 7 poll. “The Internet became a platform for Singaporeans to not only vent their frustrations at the PAP, but also to share political opinion and connect with other like- minded individuals.”

It echoed views expressed in a blog by Catherine Lim, the country’s most renowned female novelist, who included the Internet and social media among the “confluences of forces” behind the “people’s anger [that] broke out in [the 2011 general election] and not earlier.”

“The rise of a younger, more articulate electorate, the power of the Internet and the social media… allowed free discussion on usually censored topics,” wrote Lim of a country that has been under the authoritarian grip of the PAP since it gained self-rule from British colonisation in 1959.

The views on cyberspace challenging the one-party state were rare till now, note analysts, given the climate of fear that had plagued the country. The PAP, from the days of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kwan Yew, was notorious for suing and jailing its critics as it proceeded to transform a malaria-infested backwater port town into a glittering city with a developed country’s standard of living.

“This election was a landmark because it marks the country’s transition out of fear,” said James Gomez, executive director of Singaporeans for Democracy, a local think tank. “Young people, in particular, those who voted for the first time, have become politically socialised through the social media and are very much part of this transition.”

Consequently the PAP, led by Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong, son of the country’s first premier, Lee Kwan Yew, saw the comfortable victory margins it had secured in 13 previous polls hit an all-time low. The incumbent party secured 60 per cent of the votes cast – its worst ever showing at a poll.

The PAP’s latest loss to the opposition parties – a slide that saw it drop in the popular vote to 67 per cent in the May 2006 general election, from 75 per cent of the vote at the 2001 poll – is not, however, reflected in the parliamentary seats. The electoral system that has controversial mechanisms favouring the ruling party ensured the PAP secured 81 of the 87 contested seats.

The six seats that went to the opposition was a victory for them – they had only two opposition members in the last legislature. “Though a measly six out of 87 seats is nothing to crow about, one needs to look beyond the election results and consider the larger context in order to appreciate the nature of this breakthrough,” noted a commentary this week on Temasek Review, another Singaporean website known for views that go against the grain of PAP politics.

“The real change that has taken place is in the political landscape,” it argued. “The PAP now has much more competition than ever before – so much so that even the tried-and-tested strategy of singling out the most threatening candidate for character assassination can no longer be employed.”

It was a political shift that some Singapore watchers had been predicting ahead of the polls, given the sizeable number of young voters – a third of the 2.2 million registered voters were under 35 years old – and the wide use of the Internet, accessed by nearly 80 percent of the country’s population of 3.4 million.

The government, moreover, had eased its grip on controlling political discussions and actions in public by 2008, enabling the opposition parties to campaign for the first time using, podcasts and Video recordings of opposition rallies were also uploaded on websites for the first time without first being vetted by the government’s film censorship board.

“Singapore’s 2011 General Election will go down in history as the most crucial since 1959,” wrote Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, a German political foundation, in a background paper on the eve of this month’s poll. “Bread and butter issues such as rising cost of living, housing process, immigration policy and income-inequality have fuelled widespread dissatisfaction.”

“Those who characterised Singaporeans as politically apathetic may need to think what has possessed this once politically boring city-state,” read Friedrich Naumann Stiftung’s paper, Fear No More: Singapore’s Defining 2011 General Elections. “With the help of new media and the government’s increased tolerance for dissent, Singaporeans have become more vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction both online and in public forums.”

“The 200,000 new youth voters led the way through online discussions, expressing a need for a system that listens to them,” said Sinapan Samydorai, a director of the Think Centre, a Singaporean think tank. “The social media have given a platform for the opposition to build on.”

A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.

Source: IPS