A new hope

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Steffen Toh /

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, as the dust of the just-concluded battle royale in Aljunied barely settled, a friend on Facebook wondered, with more than a tinge of sadness, if ‘Singapore and Singaporeans have won tonight.’ The answer is that we won’t know for sure; we can only hope, but my word, do we have many reasons to be hopeful. This general election is a watershed in so many ways, and I cannot help but see silver linings peeking through everywhere.

The first concerns the changing dynamics of the interplay between conventional and new media in the fulfilment of the role that mass media as a whole and journalism in particular are supposed to play, as objective reporter and vigilant watchdog.

There have been much talk and analysis about how local print media, for instance, have been fairer in their coverage of the opposition compared to the previous general election. The inclusion of wide-angle photographs that accurately depict the size of the crowd gathered at Workers’ Party rallies and the slightly more comprehensive coverage of various opposition parties’ plans and ideas are two examples. Of course, most neutral observers will argue that there is still much room for improvement, but improvement is highly probable, given the meteoric emergence of online media in this election.

One reason being offered for conventional media’s more even-handed approach to covering GE 2011 is that any news that they fail to report that might be seen to give the incumbent an unfair advantage would very quickly be picked up by new media and promulgated through cyberspace. For instance, popular blog ‘Yawning Bread’ have reported on and contrasted crowd sizes at opposition rallies versus those at PAP rallies as well as published investigative reports that debunk myths that property in Hougang have lower value than nearby precincts. Ms Tin Pei Lin’s sophomoric slip on cooling-off day and her subsequent attempts to rectify that faux pas were also very quickly spotted and reported by watchful netizens. Of course, the nascent capability of new media to play the role of reporter cum watchdog is still currently held back by a tendency for emotions and rhetoric to rule the day. However, this election would serve as a dress rehearsal for new media and their users for future elections and other democratic discussions that will better prepare them for that role.

The second silver lining is the maturing of the electorate, the first in the galvanising of a people long-derided for apathy into a spontaneous and passionate support for their chosen party; the second in the courage and ‘enlightenment’ shown by the residents of Aljunied in making the choice they have made.

Over the past eleven days, there has been an outpouring of passion that Singapore has not recently seen the likes of: in offices and schools, coffee shops and wet markets, flood-lit stadiums and online forums. I was on my way to a stadium the night before cooling-off day to attend a rally and I saw Singaporeans of all ages, including multi-generational families with grandparents and grandchildren in tow, young professionals still togged in office wear, even groups of teenagers, all streaming towards the stadium. I had this fleeting sensation that Singapore was a real being, and alive, and we, the people, represented blood coursing through its veins. Cynics will say that unhappiness with certain government policies gave the people something to focus on, and that this effect will not last long after the election is concluded.

There are encouraging signs however, that this passion will not die out like it did previously. There is the boldness, passion, and commitment displayed by a bumper crop of young politicians in the opposition ranks, the Nicole Seahs, Yaw Shin Leongs, and Pritam Singhs. They had enough passion to prompt them to take the highly arduous route of serving Singaporeans whilst flying opposition colours, and enough humility to acknowledge the good work done by the ruling party and those who came before them whose shoulders they now stood on. There is also the passion shown by many young Singaporeans, in public spheres and cyberspace, in discussing and debating ideas and ideologies offered by both the ruling party and the opposition.

And then there is the laudable mettle that the voters of Aljunied have shown, and are rightfully earning online plaudits for. Their role in consigning a highly respected politician in Mr George Yeo to defeat should not over-shadow the significance of the choice they have made, on behalf of the community beyond their own. It is a choice most definitely not based on ‘self-interest’. In rejecting the PAP team, they showed that they were willing to put aside the incumbent’s best-laid plans for their own GRC, a strategy meant to appeal to their self-interests.

In picking the WP team to represent them, they are endorsing the opposition team’s vision to provide more balance in Parliament and the man-in-the-street with a louder voice in the debate and formulation of policies that affect his everyday life. Their choice is an ‘enlightened’ one, because they have shown a concern beyond a self-serving consideration of whether or not the GRC would get new linkways or park connectors or a fresh coat of paint. They have borne well the ‘burden’ which Mr Yeo spoke of early in the campaigning, and much work remains to be done by Mr Low’s team, both in Parliament and in the town council. However, the encouraging blend of experience and talent in the newly elected team bodes well, and hopefully the Aljunied residents’ choice would also demonstrate to the rest of Singapore how not to vote in elections to come.

I have saved what I feel is the best lining for the last. The incumbent has been pushed hard this election, despite all the talk of a ‘clear mandate’. The groundswell of unhappiness or what Dr Balakrishnan calls a ‘national tide’ surely cannot be ignored by the ruling party, and indeed, has already prompted PM Lee to call for some ‘intense soul-searching’. Whether or not this soul-searching would translate into true reform or give rise to a slew of tokenistic measures to engage the people remains to be seen. However, the reasons for a greater commitment to change surely cannot be more compelling for our government. The confluence of factors discussed above, from the rapidly increasing potential of new media to be used as an instrument of democracy, to the swaying of the tide in the opposition’s favour in terms of attracting young, bold and engaging candidates, to the coming of age of the Singaporean people in matters to do with politics, sets this general election apart from previous ones. For these reasons, I believe the government would make a more sustained and authentic effort to change, perhaps including a shift to better engage Singaporeans as actors in the Singapore story.

Change is always disconcerting, and often frightening, and sometimes may not pay off. However, we will never know the outcome or reap any rewards that may come if we don’t take the plunge. If Singaporeans have not taken the leap of faith and picked a young and relatively unproven Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his party to chart their future, the Singapore of today would not exist.