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Social Media in Singapore Politics: It’s Serious Business Folks!

This article was originally posted on 24 May 2011 on Economy Watch . TOC thanks Economy Watch for permission to publish this in full here.

Raymond Tham/

Singaporeans Find Their Voice (Credit: Stell Woll)

It takes a brave person to write about politics in Singapore.

Over the years, publications and journalists have been sued - and even jailed for criticising the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), who have been in power since 1963.

The older generation of Singaporeans believe criticising the government only means trouble. Even in private conversations, many older Singaporeans resist talking about the government in the fear “big brother” may be listening.

In past interviews, former Prime Minister and founder of the PAP, Lee Kuan Yew has made no attempt to mask the fact that his government has deliberately bred a culture of fear within the Singaporean society.

"I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader," Lee wrote in his autobiography published in 1997.

"Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I'm meaningless."

Yet surprisingly in the build-up and aftermath of the 2011 Singapore General Elections held on the 7th of May, Singaporeans were not afraid to criticise the PAP openly and in media. Instead, the biggest fear was publishing anything that could be construed to support the PAP.

The Social Media Revolution in Singapore

The 2011 Singapore General Elections was a water-shed event in Singapore’s political history. Not because for the first time ever, an opposition party (the Workers’ Party or WP) managed to secure a Group Representative Constituency (GRC) from the PAP. Nor was it because the PAP’s popular vote had fallen from 67 percent in 2007 to 60.1 percent.

Rather, it was a result of Singapore’s political landscape being dramatically altered with the advent of social media and the Internet.

The Internet and Social Media sparked a new way of thinking for Singapore, especially in the political arena. While older Singaporeans relied on state controlled media agencies for their news and information, the Internet opened up a source of independent information that could not be tightly regulated or controlled  as  traditional media platforms.

Singapore’s World Press Freedom Index  ranking is a dismal 136th out of 178 countries (assessed by Reporters Without Borders) and 151st out of 196 countries according to the Freedom of the Press 2010 Global Rankings report.

As Singaporeans began to seek alternative viewpoints that were not expressed in the local media, websites like the Temasek Review and The Online Citizen cropped up. These sites gained popularity and support for publishing articles that were critical of the local government for the first time.

Soon, the Internet became a platform for Singaporeans to not only vent their frustrations at the PAP, but also share political opinion and connect with other like-minded individuals.

The Irony of the Social Media Revolution in Singapore

Despite representing the dawn of a new age of political awareness in Singapore, social media was also responsible for a level of hypocrisy that began to spread as effortlessly as the original call for political change among Singaporeans online.

Anti-PAP sentiments on Facebook and Twitter had reached such incredible heights that people who “dared to criticise the opposition” or advocate the capabilities of the PAP, would be ostracised by the online community.

Moh Hon Meng, wrote on his Facebook note entitled “In Defence of the PAP”, “When did this happen? It used to be that if you spoke up against the PAP, you feared for your life. But now online sentiment for the PAP has turned so overwhelmingly negative that I'm afraid to post this!”

Similarly, popular local blogger Wendy Cheng, a.k.a. Xiaxue, was “flamed” by the online community after she had expressed support for the PAP on her online blog. The online resentment towards her was so intense that advertisers had to pull their ads from her blog in order to avoid any potential backlash.

So what is the irony of it all?

Well on one hand, Singaporeans have complained about the PAP clamping down on their right to free speech and how their views are not being heard by the government - and how they’re afraid of government reprisal if they express their opinions.

Yet in the recent elections, when the government allowed Singaporeans to use social media as a political tool, Singaporeans did the very things they have been criticising their government of: intimidation, and ‘penalising’ individuals with opposing points of view.

Furthermore in what must be the most blatant demonstration of irony ever, Singaporeans who have often complained about how biased and one-sided the local media is, then proceed to fill Facebook news feeds and Twitter timelines with strictly anti-PAP/pro-opposition articles or status updates.

But perhaps the biggest exhibition of hypocrisy must come from the Singaporeans who have been banging on about the virtues of a “true democracy” prior to the elections.

Thousands of Singaporeans then converged on a single constituency to demand a by-election because voters in that constituency voted for the PAP, albeit by a small margin of slightly more than a hundred votes.

Singapore’s Political and Economic Situation

Although I may be critical of the behaviour of some Singaporeans on social media, I can also understand where they’re coming from.

After all, politics is a subject that inherently stirs up emotional responses. Even rational decisions are often only rational to the particular individual and not to anyone else.

I found it extremely hard to decide who to vote for in my constituency. There was really only one party you could vote for: the PAP. The problem with every other political party in Singapore is that they tend to be merged into a single entity: the opposition. As  individual parties, none of them truly stand out or have distinct ideological differences from each other.

Therefore when you enter the voting booth, you are indicating your belief on whether you think the ruling party is doing a good job, or whether you think someone else can do a better job.

The undeniable fact is that ever since the PAP came into power 48 years ago, Singapore has been a shining beacon of what a guided economy should turn out to be. Despite having little to no natural resources available in Singapore, Singapore’s economy is incredibly successful owing to government intervention and guidance.

According to the Heritage Foundation, Singapore is the 2nd freest economy in the world.Singapore is also only Asian country with AAA ratings from Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings. Apart from that, Singapore also has the 3rd highest GDP per capita (PPP) in the worldthe 2ndhighest real gdp growth rate in the world for 2010the 3rd highest industrial production growth rate in the worldthe 9th largest current account balance in the world, the 11th largest reserves of foreign exchange and gold in the world, and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. Despite not having a drop of crude oil on their soil, Singapore somehow is also the 18th largest exporter of oil in the world.

However many Singaporeans feel that the economic success we enjoy have come at a high price where unpopular policies are implemented for the sake of the economy. These unpopular policies, including the high influx of foreign workers and the increasing cost of living, have negatively affected the day-to-day lives of Singaporeans.

[Ed: This is reflected in the fact that Singapore has fairly high income inequality, meaning that as the rich have got richer, the income of the poor has tended to stagnate. See: Singapore's Gini Index figure of 0.48,meaning slightly more inequality than the US which comes in at 0.45.]

Despite winning 81 out of 87 seats in parliament, the PAP has recognised the need to reconnect with the local population. However, based on social media sentiments, this looks to be an increasingly hard task.

Singapore is growing into a true democracy, and freedom of speech is finally here. So how will Singapore’s political system and economy change in the next five years?