Why the 2011 Singapore election is worth watching
On May 7, 2011, 2.35 million Singaporeans will go to the polls. Eighty-four out of 87 seats in the single chamber parliament are at the heart of the political competition.
The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is a behemoth that has been in power since 1965, and has in the past come to power easily and without much fanfare.
During the last few elections, the PAP would come to power on nomination day and the competition would center on one or two single member constituencies.
At its best, the opposition won four seats in parliament, and this was in 1984. Singapore is known for its single dominant party system that is unrivaled by any other country in the 21st century.
But even before results of the 2011 general election are known, this election is worthy of notice for several reasons:
First, the electoral campaign process has been tweaked with notable effects. Parliament passed several key changes to the electoral process in 2010.
This included relaxing existing restrictions on the use of new media platforms for political party campaigning and the introduction of a one day cooling-off period. Whereas in the past political parties were not allowed to use social media for campaign purposes, parties are now
allowed to stream messages and campaign rallies online via social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs during the campaign period.
The effect is noticeable. There are a lot of activities on the web. Live streaming of the rallies are carried on Internet channels manned by mainstream media companies, while political sites such as The Online Citizen (TOC) run live commentaries of the rallies throughout the night.
There are also a great number of individual commentaries on blogs and other social media sites, either in favor of the ruling party or the opposition. These instant analyses come fast and furious throughout the day, with many creative takes on the political scene.
What this means is that one-sided analyses published in the mainstream media are often very quickly confronted by alternative takes on the same issues. It makes the one-sided bias of the mainstream media appear stark and at odds in this new and vibrant media landscape.
The space for the opposition to present their case, at least to the growing numbers of Singaporeans who are online, has also expanded significantly with these changes.
While in the past opposition leaders often complained of a lack of space to present their case, their rallies and other activities are now captured and posted online quickly. It would appear that the opposition parties are getting the space to get their ideas across and to connect with the voters. People want to hear what they have to say.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the nature of the contest seems to have shifted. The opposition strategy reflects greater thought and a certain maturity.
In part this may be a result of concrete changes to the electoral system announced in 2009, where the numbers of multi-member constituencies or Group Representative Constituencies (GRCs) were reduced while the numbers of single-member seat constituencies increased.
Additionally, the Prime Minster has promised to increase the number of non-constituency members of parliament (NCMPs). These are seats which are “given to the best losers” of the electoral competition to better reflect alternative views within parliament. The seats allow the NCMPs to debate issues, but deny them voting rights on key bills, including the budget and constitutional changes.
Yet, the opposition parties did not focus their fight only on the single member constituencies in this year’s election. Nor did they embrace the offer for more NCMPs in parliament. In the past the opposition had opted for a strategy where they chose to consolidate their resources for fights in mainly single member constituencies (SMCs) and perhaps one-group representative constituencies (GRCs).
This was necessary in large part because the opposition worked with very little resources and often only had a small handful of good candidates that could match the PAP. Opposition parties also faced the uphill battle of fielding minority candidates in a GRC – a fundamental requirement for political competition in GRCs.
This time around the opposition chose to contest 84 out of the 87 seats in parliament, thereby preventing the PAP from coming to power on nomination day. This automatically widened the competition, allowing more people to vote.
Most interestingly, perhaps, the more established political parties fielded candidates who were on par with the ruling party in terms of their credentials and quality.
For example, the opposition candidates contesting this general election include quite a few government scholarship recipients, former high-ranking civil servants, a very successful investment banker and graduates from local universities. Several opposition candidates have elite pedigree.
Vincent Wijeysingha, a star candidate for the Singapore Democratic Party, is the son of well-known and well-respected educator, Eugene Wijeysingha. This is far cry from the opposition candidates of yester years, many of whom were from the working class.
The fact that the opposition parties are attracting young and highly qualified slate of individuals is symbolically important. It has debunked the myth that Singaporeans are too afraid to be associated with opposition politics and that the ruling PAP has the monopoly over qualified candidates.
The younger slate of candidates stepping up to the opposition plate also sends the message that younger Singaporeans are looking at Singapore politics in potentially different ways. It gives the impression that there is a new generation of voters who are driven by values, beyond the bread and butter issues of survivability and material wealth alone.
There are notable changes to the voter profile. Some 600,000 among the 2.35 million who will vote are between the ages of 21 and 35. This translates into one in four voters coming from a segment of society that were born and educated in a time when Singapore has enjoyed tremendous growth and wealth.
Even the ruling PAP has adapted their campaign strategy in response to these shifts. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong openly admitted that there was a need for the ruling PAP to admit its past mistakes
and rethink some of the fundamental points in his plan for Singapore’s future.
He spoke at a lunchtime rally distinguishing himself and his team from that of his father, and has been promising voters that the ruling party will respond to the voices of discontent among younger Singaporeans and the middle class.
Whatever the outcome of Singapore’s general election today, the shifts in Singapore’s political scene are worth noting. The PAP may continue to entrench its dominance further on May 8th by winning all the parliamentary seats, but the currents of change are already in the air.
Suzaina Kadir is a lecturer at the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS, Singapore. Zulkieflimansyah is a lecturer at the University of Indonesia’s School of Economics.