As Singapore Gets Ready to Vote, New Media Amplifies Voice of Opposition

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SIMIN WANG / AFP / Getty Images

Supporters of opposition Singapore People's Party cheer during an election campaign rally at Bishan Stadium on May 2, 2011

Elections in Singapore rarely surprise. The ruling People's Action Party (PAP), created in 1954 by Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father, has won every general election since 1959. And though it's facing an unprecedented challenge for 82 out of 87 parliamentary seats in May 7's upcoming poll, the scattered state of Singapore's political opposition makes it virtually certain the ruling party will once again retain its majority.

Still, as this week's election nears, there is a literal crackling in the air rarely seen before in a city state that has been ruled for so long by one political party. At a recent opposition rally, a whirring wall of i-Phones rose into the dusk sky, transmitting the scheduled political rally's voices and images to Facebook. As opposition candidates from the Workers' Party spoke from the dais about Singapore's rising cost of living, word about the rally was spreading in cyberspace, helping to swell the crowd until it filled a 3,800-seat sports stadium in an eastern suburb of the city. "From day one of this campaign there were huge crowds at the opposition rallies," says Cherian George, an associate professor of journalism at Nanyang Technological University. "That's largely due to social media."

Singapore is one of the most wired countries on earth. Nearly every resident of the city state carries a mobile phone (some carry two) and enjoys broadband internet access. Singapore also has a sizable chunk of voters who will vote for the first time on May 7, according to Citigroup, because they are just reaching voting age. Some are also voting for the first time because in previous elections, like the 2006 polls, far fewer seats were contested by the opposition. (In uncontested seats, the running party wins automatically.) More than a quarter of Singapore's 2.35 million eligible voters are between the ages of 21-34, according to Citigroup. Opposition parties believe that first-time voters may be more open to political change, unlike older voters who have generally been stalwart supporters of the ruling party. Those same older voters remember how the PAP built Singapore from its perilous beginnings in 1965 to the prosperous city state that it is today. Even so, analysts caution that even outspoken younger voters who may not fully share their grandparents' respect for the ruling party may change their minds once they step in the voting booth. "Every election has its share of grumbling," says George. "In the past this would have taken place in coffee shops. Now the online media has provided a forum for that."

Unlike a spirited coffee shop discussion, however, sites like Facebook lift the veil of anonymity from the critics of government. Yet many younger voters appear undaunted. "I've got no worries," says Walid Jumblatt, a graduate student at the National University of Singapore, when asked about whether he hesitated to air his views on public blogs. Others say the pugnacious exchanges online are having an impact on the way that leading media organizations are covering the election. "You can really see the impact of new media in these elections," says Muhammad Haikal, another graduate student at the National University of Singapore. "The mainstream media has been giving more space to the political opposition. There is more balance."

Singapore's high cost of living, reflected in rising prices for public housing, transport and food, has sparked the most dissent this election season. To counter the rising cost of public housing, the Workers' Party, one of several opposition parties, proposes to align the price of new public housing flats to median incomes, a policy the ruling party counters will "devalue" the assets of existing owners. The government has instead pledged to build more flats to relieve the upward pressure on prices. Because 85% of Singapore residents live in public housing, the issue is an emotive one. "I'm not sure I'll be able to afford a flat when I want to buy one," says Haikal.

The opposition also question the fast pace of immigration into the country in recent years. According to investment bank Credit Suisse, Singapore's population grew 18% from 2004 to 2008, and more than three-quarters of that growth came from newly arrived foreigners. Some came to take high-paying jobs at private banks, hedge funds, oil-exploration firms and shipping companies; others came to fill lower-end jobs in construction and retail. In all, foreigners filled 61% of the 796,000 jobs created in Singapore during that four-year period, the bank estimates.

Few dispute that this rapid influx of foreigners has helped boost Singapore's GDP growth to record levels and seeded a host of new industries like private banking. But the inflation that came with such torrid growth also cascaded downwards, affecting the cost of living across the country. It also increased congestion on the country's roads, subways and buses, feeding a mood of discontent among lower-income voters that has, according to an April 25 report written by Citigroup economist Kit Wei Zheng, "already manifested itself in the form of tightening of immigration inflows." More curbs on immigration can be expected, Kit adds, if the opposition gains a more powerful platform in parliament.

Will that happen on May 7? Maybe, though most analysts say the ruling party will not lose more than a handful of seats. "Victory for the incumbent PAP government is not in doubt," writes Kit. Indeed, even the expectations of the opposition itself are relatively modest. The Workers' Party is only contesting 23 out of 87 parliamentary seats, thus making it virtually impossible for it to form a government on its own. Rather, the party's leader, Low Thia Khiang, wants to be able to check the power of the ruling party, likening himself in front of the crowd at one rally to a "co-driver of a bus" who might "slap" the main driver at the wheel if he falls asleep. The government was quick to reply at its own event, where a senior official said such tactics might cause an accident and "kill all the passengers." Such campaign rhetoric might appear tame in other countries, but not so in Singapore. As these remarks were lobbed at two consecutive rallies, more i-Phones rose into the air, injecting a bit more drama into a campaign whose final outcome may not prove to be so dramatic after all.