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.
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.