This past weekend was a historic one for Singapore, the small southeast Asian city-state that often escapes the attention of the world’s press, unless its rulers are threatening them with libel. On Saturday, Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) was dealt a small but sharp blow. While the PAP held on to power by winning 81 of the 87 elected seats in the national parliament—it has ruled since 1959—this was a tripling of seats held by opposition parties. And, more importantly, the ruling party only managed to secure 60.1 per cent of the vote. That might be an American president’s dream, but it is the lowest vote PAP has received since independence in 1965.
A modest gain, sure, but in Singapore, the PAP has completely dominated politics since independence, consistently walking away from elections with even greater majorities than Saturday’s. The ruling party has long controlled not only parliament, but the entire discourse around politics and it has done so by maintaining a subservient press, and suppressing dissent. The lead up to the latest election, and the gains made by the opposition, signal a more significant shift in the way people are thinking than the figures suggest. “There is a greater awareness of the need for alternative voices,” says Chun Han Wong, a Singaporean who covered the election for The Wall Street Journal. “And less partisan loyalty to the PAP.”
Six parliamentary seats does not make for an “Arab Spring,” but this distinct change in Singapore’s political discourse shares something in common with the revolutionary waves of the Middle East. Like the revolting citizenries of those nations, Singaporeans have turned to social media outlets to express their dissent and discontent with the ruling party, overcoming the limitations of traditional media. And concurrently, there has been a development greatly different from what’s occurred in the Arab revolutions: the Singaporean government has loosened its restrictions on the media. It is a development I witnessed first hand, as a Singaporean, and as an aspiring journalist.
I was born and raised in Singapore, which has shaped my entire view of politics and the media. Growing up, there was a startling lack of political awareness among people I knew, and my family and peers were too afraid to discuss politics. This was partially because the domestic press has always been subservient to the ruling party. Singapore Press Holdings, which publishes seventeen newspapers, including the most widely read English and Chinese broadsheets, is overseen by a board of directors that features many members with direct links to the ruling party. Its current Chairman, Dr. Tony Tan, was Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore from 1994 to 2005. It’s not surprising then that it was rare to read any criticism of the government in the most widely read broadsheets.
The foreign press, too, has often had its hands tied when it comes to reporting on the country’s affairs, threatened in the past with defamation and contempt laws. Just last year, a British-born writer, Alan Shadrake, was sentenced to six weeks in a Singaporean prison and a large fine for contempt of court after he wrote a book questioning the independence of Singapore’s legal system and its use of the death penalty. This has not gone unnoticed internationally—Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 136th on their Press Freedom Index, below Iraq, Mexico, and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt.
The “big brother is watching you” mentality has permeated society, too. One of the biggest issues raised by opposition parties at rallies this year was that votes should be kept secret so that the PAP could not track down and “punish” people who voted for the opposition. Ballot papers in Singapore include serial numbers attached to the name of the voter. Though ballot papers cannot be examined without a court order, in an atmosphere of fear and repression, the potential to be found out unnerves many civil servants who believe their career paths might be affected by voting for the opposition.
Watching this election from here in New York, it was clear that social media, at least to some degree, and the ruling party’s liberal attitude towards it, definitely led to some of these changes. The government changed previous restrictions, allowing online campaigning through social media for the first time. Perhaps taking a page from the Arab revolutions, Singapore’s pragmatic ruling party was aware that should they attempt to control the Internet, the backlash would be overwhelming and would weaken their popular mandate.
The impact of that decision was overwhelming. The population felt empowered, now able to receive information on and from the opposition through their Facebook or Twitter feeds. Exposed to new ideas, they were then able to communicate them online without fear of repression or restriction.