Singapore election round-up

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien LoongThe people of Singapore went to the polls last week and voted largely in favour of the ruling People's Action Party, but the opposition made significant gains in what could lead to the beginnings of change in the semi-authoritarian island nation. PAP won 60.1% of the vote, down from 67% in the 2006 election. While it's not the kind of gain that will dramatically shake up the political arena in Singapore in the immediate future, the results come with bold promises from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong:

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pledged his People's Action Party will change the way it governs after returning to power with the smallest margin of popular votes and the opposition won a record number of seats.

Lee, 59, faces pressure to be more responsive to criticism of government policies. He said his party will engage the population more in decision-making after what he called a "watershed" election. A reduced monopoly on political discourse may mean increased attention to calls for reining in housing costs and tightening immigration policies that boosted the island's population by about a fifth since 2005.

We shouldn't forget that this is the ruling party hailing the election as a watershed. It's also important to remember that the PAP still has the support of the majority of Singaporeans. The people of Singapore have historically accepted restricted civil liberties and limited democracy in exchange for a government/state that has provided widespread opportunities for access to housing, jobs, pensions, security, healthcare and other benefits, but a large number of Singaporeans continue to leave the country each year and there is a growing gap between the rich and the poor.

A great deal of attention has been focussed on the difference that social media made to this year's election.

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.

The PAP is responding to the election results and is already attempting to shore up support in what essentially amounts of damage control.

The government will likely reduce the number of foreign workers in a bid to ease voter discontent over stagnant wages and overburdened public services, a move that could slow economic growth in coming years to between 3 percent and 5 percent from an average of about 8.5 percent between 2004 and 2007, said Wei Zheng Kit, an analyst with Citigroup in Singapore.

The election results are clearly a wake-up call of sorts, but this doesn't mean PAP is really challenged, and if the party makes the right kind of reforms in the coming years, it will likely regain its vice grip on the political field. Political contestation in Singapore is a funny thing because it's incredibly difficult to envisage anything other than a PAP government. Nevertheless, the time is ripe for change, according to Associate Professor Hussin Mutalib of the Political Science Department at the National University of Singapore:

"If they (PAP) do not ride along this tide of change, especially over the younger generation, a lot more voices will be joining the opposition in the next election," he said, adding that the stakes could be very high.

"It is not only for the PAP but also opposition parties which need to prove themselves and force PAP to implement change. The faster they (opposition) can do this, they can create their own image and identity. If they can do that, they will have a vibrant parliament with a lot of alternative voices and that will be good for Singapore."

Speaking of the younger generation, there was a lot of attention on two young women: The first, PAP's Tin Pei Ling, was the product of PAP's disastrous attempt to reach out to Singapore's youth. Nobody was fooled and her incompetence and immaturity shone through in every interview. Nicole Seah, on the other hand, was much lauded for her eloquence and passion. I don't think either of them would make particularly good politicians at this stage, although there is clearly potential for Seah to become a star in the future, but it's difficult to get too excited about her when at least part of her appeal came from the contrast to silly old Tin Pei Ling.

Seah was one of the highest profile candidates in the election. She reached near pop star status. But I don't think wet-behind-the-ear pop stars aren't usually the kind of people you want as your members of parliament. In five years time though, she could develop into a candidate whose strength is based on her own qualities, and her own qualities alone. At the moment though, she's something of an idealist and her political heyday is still to come.

"I'm not tired, I'm raring to go. To me this is just the beginning. I never saw the 2011 election as an end in itself … I was always thinking about what's going to happen five years down the road," she said.

The Nicole-Tin saga was blown out of proportion and detracted from other, more pressing issues at hand. Regardless, Tin Pei Ling is now an MP elect, whether we like it or not. Already a Facebook page calling for Tin Pei Ling's removal has attracted close to 60,000 "likes", but let's not get into the habit of thinking Facebook pages are the real game changers here. Nicole Seah's Facebook page is liked by nearly 100,000 people, but she isn't the MP elect and she won't have a chance to be for another five years.

One point of note, however, is that in the Marine Parade GRC — where Tin Pei Ling and Nicole Seah were candidates — the PAP team won with only 56.65% of the votes against the National Solidarity Party team. Tin Pei Ling has already been singled out as a factor in that:

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said the negative publicity around Ms Tin Pei Ling was one factor to the People's Action Party's (PAP) weaker performance at Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

Mr Goh added the party needs to change from both a top-down and bottom-up approach.

He said: "I was expecting, to be frank, slightly better results but we were prepared for this kind of results because it's a new situation."

One thing Nicole Seah can take away from all of this is that her strength in addressing people also contributed to PAP's weak showing in Marine Parade, but as I said before, I still don't think she would make for a good MP — yet. It just would not make sense for the opposition to have Seah in parliament at this stage, even if she is being groomed to be a strong politician for the future. Why put so much focus on a young woman who is clearly not ready to be in parliament?

There were a few other interesting notes circulating, including from Hougang Stadium, the Workers' Party Election Assembly Point:

The WP took only two of the eight constituencies they were contesting – Hougang, a single-seat ward, and Aljunied GRC.

But the atmosphere at Hougang Stadium was anything but downbeat. If it were not for the fact that this was a political occasion, one could even call the mood in Hougang festive.

Many brought placards, inflatable hammers and made decorative items out of WP flags. A trumpeter provided musical entertainment – if you could call staccato blasts music – during the lull in proceedings, while others took to chanting the football classic, "ole ole ole".

And even in defeat, the WP candidates were not downcast. "See, my team is not a suicide squad," quipped Mr Mohd Rahizan Yaacob, who led the WP team in Moulmein-Kallang GRC. "We've shown what we can do. Time was not on our side but we did manage to (gain a) favourable result. There were certain areas where we got 44 to 47 per cent, which is very high."

More from the Balderdash blog:

now when we were hanging out near the barricades.. tv crew approached the small gathering (most of the crowd had dispersed) and it looked like they wnated to interview some people… and… this is what got me so riled up the entire fucking crowd just… disappeared… as the tv crew approached, those previously rabid WP supporters just suddenly became.. no more

This is one side of Singapore that clearly needs attention. People are still afraid to speak their minds, which goes some way to explaining why social media has become such a popular platform.

Overall, the Workers' Party can take away from this the fact that they tripled their seats to six, "the most by the opposition since independence in 1965". Workers' Party supporters are understandably elated at what is essentially a breakthrough for them.

Here's to a bright future, Singapore.

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