Editors Note: This article was written by a NZ journalist in Singapore. The person has requested to stay anonymous to protect their identity.
By far this General Election has been the most dramatic in years and for the first time there has been a shift in the political climate. Social Media has played a huge part in this as it has allowed open discussion in an island state of five million inhabitants where debate is rarely allowed or engaged in officially.
It is a known fact that the national daily, The Straits Times, published by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) although not run or controlled by the governing Peoples Action Party (PAP), aligns itself with the party’s ideals and decisions. This is mostly due to ‘erring on the side of caution’. So nine times out of 10, daily coverage, more so during the General Election swings towards the Government.
The privately owned state broadcaster Mediacorp Singapore, toes the line, so generally an opposing voice or the opinion of someone in Singapore’s small collection of opposition parties, is normally left to a few sound bites (sometimes strategically edited), if at all.
Since the last General Election in 2006, an alternative news source has been gaining traction with citizens and residents here. The Online Citizen has given an alternative voice to politics and the policies enacted by the Government. It’s been not only reporting the news sometimes ‘missed’ in the dailies but allowing debate via its forum and comment boxes. Unabashedly anti-PAP it has used all forms of social media tools – blogs, Facebook, Twitter, to communicate and cover events leading up to and during this GE.
Such a force in ‘swaying public opinion’, that the Government gazetted The Online Citizen as a political association earlier this year, meaning it cannot be funded or supported by any political party. And all donations must be submitted to the electoral office for checks and balances.
Singapore is known as a ‘fine city’ where rules are strictly adhered to and it is illegal to protest (a group of 20 people or more requires a permit) or to speak openly of politics or religion. This however does not extend to cyberspace and this is where Singaporean activists or just the average ‘Joe Lee’ have made their voices heard. Facebook pages, wall debates, YouTube videos, Twitter, blogs have been working overtime here and been used to counteract and open up political discussion. All of this has greatly enhanced the opposition’s voice; particularly the Singapore Democratic Party, the Workers’ Party and National Solidarity Party.
Letters written to (usually PAP) MPs – and their replies – have been published on the web. Independent studies showing what or who the media is reporting on each day during election season has been posted and linked on Facebook, opposition party manifestos and campaign messages, in English as well as in Mandarin, Hokkien (a Chinese dialect prevalent here), Tamil and Bahasa Malayu, have been uploaded to YouTube – such videos are not allowed to be broadcast on State television, and the costs to be in and fund a political party in Singapore are extremely high, making it even more challenging for the opposition to reach voters. Even rally dates and places and FAQs about the voting system (there’s an urban myth that the PAP will track down dissenters and freeze their superannuation for example), can now be found online and, what social media is good at, reposted, linked and ‘liked’.
Twitter has also made public events more exciting with up-to-the-minute reports from MP and opposition walkabouts to coverage at all the political rallies. This is the first election where there has been a surplus of coverage and it has worked to the opposition’s advantage.
One recent example are comments made by the PAP Minister for Community, Youth and Sports, Vivian Balakrishnan, on the SDP’s Vincent Wijeysingha. Balakrishnan via his Facebook and the media began what can only be described as a smear campaign, accusing SDP of having “a gay agenda”. This relates to a mysterious YouTube video that supposedly shows Wijeysingha discussing gay rights at a private forum – homosexuality is legal in Singapore but sex between two men or two women is not (go figure) .
These comments by the minister were shared, retweeted, blogged about and reported on in the proceeding days – with one SPH tabloid even attempting to ‘out’ Wijeysingha as the first ‘Gay MP’.
But it backfired and Balakrishnan was met with a virtual tsunami accusing him of resorting to gutter politics and using the gay community as a way to keep conservative voters ‘straying from the flock’. The flaming got so intense, Balakrishnan, had to remove the wall posting feature from his Facebook page.
Since then, the minister has distanced himself from the issue and offered no form of apology or addressed it with the members of the SDP, further enraging more liberal, level-headed voters.
What has become apparent in this GE is that the young and tech-savvy generation of Singapore citizens are not as willing to toe the line like their forefathers. There is no doubt Singapore is an economic success story in all sense of the word and rivalled by many in the region, but its tight control of opinion, of the media, climate of fear mongering, and sweeping policies (Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his cabinet ministers are the highest paid public servants in the world), is no longer being tolerated and being questioned by Singaporeans. On the ground, their right to freedom of expression is curbed, dissent is muted and access is restricted (there is no Information Act in Singapore). But online a community of citizens has been formed, who are free to make judgements, share their thoughts and to question the motives of their Members of Parliament via their smartphones, tablets and computers.
As a New Zealander in Singapore it has been refreshing to see such open and active politics in the past few months leading up to the election. Although the PAP is again triumphant, its armour has been dented. For the first time the opposition has gone from two seats to eight (two are non-constituency MPs) and the PAP’s share of votes has dropped to, an uncomfortable 60.1 per cent, from 66.6 per cent in 2006 and 75.5 per cent in 2001. This election, the opposition and their supporters’ ammunition has been social media and the political landscape of Singapore has been changed forever because of it.