How the web changed Singapore politics overnight – election of a ‘1st world parliament’

13/05/2011

By: Danny Meadows-Klue

Singapore’s general election proves to be the most democratic in 40 years as the PAP ruling party’s share of vote tumbles to 60%, with opposition members joining to parliament in the big regional wards for the first time. In Singapore, Danny Meadows-Klue finds out how Twitter, Facebook and independent online media have changed voter expectations and the political mandate forever.

Three layers below ground in a bustling Singapore shopping mall, my mobile has five bars of full reception. Luxury shopping malls line the downtown streets, with Versace and Armani outnumbering grocery stores ten to one. Affluent, busy and purposeful, Singapore continues to be the runaway tiger economy and regional headquarters to the world’s multinationals. It is the investment hub of South East Asia and on the weekends millions of Singapore dollars are changing hands as mall after mall fills with smartly dressed shoppers, laden with shiny full bag. The affluence is inescapable.

In Singapore the rich are getting richer and the middle class are getting richer. For a country without a welfare state or social healthcare programme, it feels odd not to see those who fall through the cracks sleeping on the sidewalk. But that is the order and efficiency of Singapore. Everything has a place, and everything is always in its place. Back in the mall, the only piece of litter I’ve seen all day is quickly picked up by a shuffling woman, with the appearance of a seventy year old. No welfare state means no retirement age, which in turn means no income unless you make one yourself. Spend time looking a little more closely at Singapore, and the façade is not quite so perfect.

Coffee in Starbucks has the usual mix of iced lattes and internet access. Wifi blankets cover the city state, and in the cafes iPads, tablets and mobiles outnumber the coffee cups 3 to 2. At the table next to me three teenagers are chatting while animatedly texting and tweeting, mums are taking a break from clothes shopping to check status on Facebook, and a Blackberry generation of older business folk are churning through email. It may be Saturday, but in Singapore where it’s all about the economy, email is still flowing. But May 7th is no ordinary Saturday. The past week of TV commercials have reminded us, it’s election day – and “voting is compulsory”.

2011 is an election like no other. Since 1963, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has been unchallengeable and for the most part unquestionable. Elections have been won 87 seats to 0 regularly in a cultural ritual that simply reinforced the authoritarian economic rule. Going into this election there were only 2 opposition MPs, each in ‘single wards’ (most seats in Singapore are clustered into group wards (GRCs), a process that makes it hard for minority parties to get any voice). In a country where compliance has been expected and decent risks reprisal, opposition parties’ access to the media has always been tightly restricted and their supporters often covert and nervous.

What’s different this time are those mums in the café on Facebook, those teenagers following the #sgelections tag on Twitter (http://twitter.com/#!/sgelection), and the business folk reading theonlinecitizen.com. Like the spread of liberalism across the Arab world, the web has changed many Singaporean’s expectations of government and democracy. Reading Twitter alongside the local TV news is like watching the stories of two different countries. TV anchormen paint a picture of government success and a modern evolving framework, while Twitter is aflame with cries of the ruling party’s disconnection with people’s needs, lack of freedoms and voice, and police clampdowns on those who step out of line. While many business folk simply want business to continue as usual, a large and swelling minority have shifted their expectations and are nolonger frightened to talk about it.

Healthcare, housing and the cost of living may have all featured as election issues, but online the election talk has been about process, democracy and enfranchisement. In answering the economic needs of its voters, the government has built all the covered walkways it can, given all the housing that was available, and brought in all the jobs that could be asked for. The one thing it can’t give is what people forming the opposition have been demanding in their slogans on the street: ‘a 1st world parliament’. In a country where nobody is hungry, political change has to beat the familiar enemies of apathy and cynicism. Structural change will also have to beat the strange electoral structure of regionally clustered of wards that have further entrenched the status quo since their introduction, which in practice means opposition parties could poll 60% of the vote and not win a single seat.

On Sunday, Singapore woke to an 81-6 parliament, with opposition members present for the first time. PAP’s share of the vote is down to 60%, and the culture of parliamentary democracy has begun. The freedoms of the web, Facebook and Twitter played a critical role in achieving this, and their seamless accessibility from shopping malls and apartments across the city will only swell the demand for change.

Danny has been coaching firms in digital marketing for over 15 years. More than 45,000 people have attended his talks and courses in over 30 countries. He set up and ran the UK and European IAB trade associations for almost 10 years, was the pioneering publisher of Telegraph.co.uk, held the Vice Presidency of NBC’s European internet business, and has been a government policy advisor in the UK. He is chairman of the Digital Training Academy that coaches marketing teams to improve their ROI and founder of the Digital Strategy Consulting practice that creates internet marketing strategies for brands. He is a Commissioner at the digital marketing regulator in the UK, and the publisher of Netimperative and Digital Intelligence. He now coaches management teams, helping them accelerate their businesses and transform their organizations. Contact him on Danny@DigitalStrategyConsulting.com or http://uk.linkedin.com/in/dannymeadowsklue


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