I had been following the Singapore General Elections a little bit while I was based in Singapore over the past few months, and was able to keep up with it due to the fact that there has been so much political activity on the Internet.
Put together the fact that it was the first Singapore election to be held in the era of social media, and the March announcement by the Singapore Government to open up the Internet for political campaigning for the elections, online activity was going to play a significant part.
Heading into polling day on May 7, my personal feel was that if Twitter and Facebook really reflected the pulse of the people, then ruling-PAP was in deep trouble. But in the end, it won 81 of 87 Parliamentary seats, although it is considered its biggest loss (due to the loss of a GRC – the first time this has ever happened). This, despite the over 6% swing to the opposition parties.
Still, hopes were high for a stronger showing from the opposition. After all, “the people have spoken” and isn’t social media where people go to speak these days?
So, what happened?
Well, for one, I think that the disconnect between the voices on social media, and that on the ground, is significant. The case is similar in Malaysia. While voices on social media appear to be pro-opposition, Barisan Nasional had won many of the (equally many) by-elections since the March 2008 General Election, where the opposition had its biggest showing ever. During the Sarawak state elections recently, there was a massive online “revolt” against the Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud yet his party did well.
The second point was really something I only noticed as some of the official results came in. Some of the people I was following on Twitter, who I previously thought were pro-opposition, celebrated PAP’s victories. I mentioned this to a Singaporean friend of mine, who shared her thoughts: Everyone wants to be taken care of by PAP personally, but want change as well so they used Aljunied as a scapegoat of sorts.
So perhaps Ng Tze Yong, the social media editor of Straits Times Singapore, was right when he doodled the following:
You can see his other doodling, which I found amusing and insightful at the same time, here.
If this is true, then the disconnect cannot be taken lightly. After all, social media is also known as the dumping ground for ranting and raving. Could it social media is being used as a venting platform, but once one gets it off one’s chest, one would go back and vote for the status quo?
I’m not here to suggest that social media should be dismissed (heaven forbid!). I think it plays other roles in an event like this, especially in terms of opening up democratic space. The over-6% swing is indicative of this point (although, this can also be attributed to the fact that more seats were contested during this elections compared to previous ones).
My two points does, however, beg the question if social media can used as a testing ground to feel ground sentiments – not just in politics, but in marketing and business as well. Social media advocates often talk about how Twitter and Facebook, among other networks, are the best “focus groups”. Are they really?
If the elections in Singapore and Malaysia are anything to go by, maybe not.