This election, for the first time, none could accuse Singapore’s populace of self-censorship and political naivete. Debates raged on the blogosphere and in the “Twitterverse”, and it was more than just the “coffee shop complaints” you might hear in past elections; citizens were forming groups of likeminded people who then felt more confident to speak up. Political blogs like Temasek Review and The Online Citizen, which have long tried to create an alternative narrative to that perpetuated in the mainstream media, also took off in a new way in this election, with commentaries and news pieces filling their site and Twitter feeds every day. These were then shared and retweeted. I have never seen so much political debate and interest from Singaporeans I knew from my schooldays, including expats and those studying in universities abroad.
“The atmosphere is electric,” said Hazmi Hisyam, a student of law at the National University of Singapore in a tweet in April, “Social media has really changed the way politics is conducted.” The hashtag #sgelections was the top trending topic on Twitter in Singapore for the week leading up the elections. All the political parties, too, had Twitter accounts that they were using to broadcast their message in real time, including the PAP. The most successful opposition party, the Worker’s Party, had slightly over twice the followers of the PAP on election day.
While social media shifted much of the dynamic of the election, the result of the election shows that social media did not necessarily shift people’s alliance from the PAP—according to a data visualization graphic called Party Time, the PAP still received 1662 positive comments on election day as opposed to the Workers’ Party’s 1143 on Twitter and Facebook. The graphic, however, also proved the genuine buzz that almost all the parties, and the elections itself, created on social media.
The ruling party’s more liberal view on the media, surprisingly, went beyond just social media. There was generous and accurate coverage of the opposition in the mainstream media, even if this was still nothing compared to the coverage of the PAP. According to MARUAH, an NGO in Singapore that monitored the mainstream media’s coverage of the elections, it seemed that they largely refrained from helping the PAP in negative campaigning and placed news of the opposition on the front page, something that was almost never seen in previous elections. An unprecedented televised debate between senior PAP ministers and members of opposition parties in the lead up to the election was another move that indicated the ruling party’s—and the once subservient media’s—willingness to open up Singapore’s political landscape, slowly but surely.
As you might expect, the youth have played a significant role in these changes. Notably, in this election, more than a quarter of voters were under 35. According to a survey conducted by Nielsen last year, more than six in ten youths were generally engaged in social networking, an 8.5 per cent increase from 2009. Singapore is one of the most wired countries in the world, with Internet penetration rates of 72.5%, the 25th highest in the world. Nearly every resident carries a cellphone, many with access to broadband Internet.
Bloggers and tweeters were not just expressing discontent from the safety of their homes. Pictures show tens of thousands crowded at a stadium during a Workers’ Party rally on April 28—the biggest and most successful opposition party in the state. They waved blue flags and inflatable hammers, the symbol of the party. YouTube videos show the chairperson of the Workers’ Party, Sylvia Lim, unable to speak without being interrupted by overwhelming cheers every two minutes. Never before have Singaporeans seen such an image; there was never such fervor for the opposition, and there was no YouTube on which to publish this footage.
The rallies and buzz of discontent online may not have translated into overwhelming gains for the opposition, who had hoped for more seats. But for keen observers of Singapore’s political scene, this is a sign of things to come. In a blogpost, Catherine Lim, a best-selling author and a veteran political commentator wrote: “I believe that something once thought unthinkable, is happening in our midst right now—a made-in-Singapore political renaissance or revolution of sorts, that will eventually lead to a maturing of our society, and enable it to take its rightful place among the practicing democracies in the world.”
Writing about how her previously-held views on Singapore—as a fearful, politically-naive electorate, with a weak opposition, and an inflexible ruling party—were challenged during this election, she wrote: “Never have I been so glad that I have been proved so wrong on so many counts.”