Crowd sings the national anthem at Speakers' Corner protest.

2014, the year of New Power in Singapore?

Ngerng addresses a crowd of thousands
Ngerng addresses a crowd of thousands

By Gangasudhan

Singapore has predominately been based on ‘old power’ from independence into the 21st century, where a top-down, wealth-driven structure dictates the way things are done for the entire population on the island. This is not unique to Singapore though, and many corporations and nations alike still adhere to such a paradigm.

However, many places around the world have seen the horizon change with the advent of people-driven, bottom-up movements coordinated using social media. For example, the January 2011 mass protests that led to President Mubarak stepping down started from a YouTube video blog by Asmaa Mahfouz, followed by the mobilization of people through Facebook. Similarly, the Occupy Wall Street movement – as well as the many other iterations of this peaceful protest strategy, has been primarily coordinated through social media.

But Singapore has strongly held onto the status quo that was established early in our post-independence history. In spite of all the rhetorical grandstanding using fashionable terminology such as “light touch” in regulating internet discourse and enacting token policy changes such as creating the Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park as a “free speech platform” in 2000, the government is still pretty much an old power institution that couldn’t handle a prominent blogger, mrbrown, being light-heartedly critical of the government in a mainstream print newspaper – arguably getting him fired from his columnist role at TODAY in 2006.

Protesters expressing their displeasure about CPF
Protesters expressing their displeasure about CPF

The time is now for New Power

New power in Singapore has been emerging since at least the turn of the century but it has been a slow and painful process for the most part – and some would argue, still very much is. The government has tried continually to clamp down on ‘dissent’ – as it sees new power as being – by prosecuting ‘instigators’ under sedition charges, creating incredible hoops to jump through before being granted a highly-restrictive licence to “news websites” (which are conveniently defined by the state machinery), or taking critics to court under the open-ended caveat of defamation.

But new power has shown time and again that its energy cannot be subdued forever, especially in recent times – perhaps, much to the disappointment of the government. From being described as ‘unhappy people’ and the ‘vocal minority’, we are regularly blanket-labeled as just ‘netizens’.

However, the reality is that new power has begun to impact the policy decisions and general administration of the country.

sim lim square todayIn the Sim Lim Square saga where unscrupulous practices of a number of electronic shops came to light, the excuses of the old power mechanism could not outwit or outlast the raw energy of the collective, forcing Ministers to backtrack on their initial pragmatic course of ‘allowing due process to prevail’. When new power transformed online criticism and condemnation into physical activism, the authorities were suddenly empowered to shut down the offending stores and seize the equipment used in the commission of the offence.

Earlier in the year, when the National Library Board (NLB) tried to act as Singapore’s moral guardian and remove three books depicting same-sex families (or, against its ‘strong pro family stance’, according to the library), the online condemnation also similarly turned into physical activism of peaceful protest in the form of a book-reading event. Eventually, with the negative publicity not abating, NLB reversed its decision to pulp the books altogether and instead, moved two of them to the adult section.

Let's Read Together NLB 1 Andrew Loh
“Let’s Read!” event at the National Library (image – Andrew Loh)

And who can forget the civil suit by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong against blogger Roy Ngerng with regard to the latter’s assertions regarding how Central Provident Fund (CPF) monies are channeled into investment by the government. The online support for the blogger translated into over $100,000 in funds raised to help the blogger defend himself in the civil suit and pay for any potential damages, and sparked a fervent and ceaseless discussion on the matter that reached parliamentary proceedings. 10 questions were raised from 7 members of parliament regarding the CPF – including the statistics on CPF members’ use of their funds for housing, the withdrawal age and minimum sum requirements.

Out with the old, in with the new

These are just a few examples of how new power is changing the face of the Singapore landscape, especially in politics. If you thought the impact of online campaigning in the last general election was remarkable, wait till the next one comes along, riding the wave of new power. The impact will be very much more significant and game-changing than the old-school establishment is anticipating.

If the Singapore government continues to invest most of its energy in finding ways to ‘fix’ new power to fit into its old power model, it will end badly for its future.

Instead, it needs to embrace new power wholeheartedly (i.e. not merely the facade of cooperation served by lip-service) and work with it to form a whole new kind of relationship if it intends to survive the next bout of elections. It needs to recognize and reconcile with the fact that new power’s raw energy is just too unbridled to be contained – but it can be harnessed, with genuine sincerity.


For an overview of what the terms old power and new power mean, watch activist Jeremy Heimans’ Ted Talk, What New Power Looks Like.