In Singapore, Social Media Aids Another Political Shift

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.

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.”

For most of my youth, I was convinced that there would be little place for dissent or opposition support in Singapore. I was convinced, too, that it would be impossible to be a serious journalist in Singapore—to criticize wrongdoings of the government, to speak out against immigration or racial policies, to strive to fair and accurate coverage during election period. I was convinced that should I write about Singaporean politics, very few would actually be interested, let alone be moved to comment, respond, and participate in the political debate. I, too, have never been more glad to be proved wrong.

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Shibani Mahtani is a Singaporean student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She has written for the Guardian in London and the Associated Press in Singapore. Tags: , , , , , ,