Singapore’s polls, where politics intersects with technology
By Benjamin Cher September 11, 2015
- Some unsavoury bits, but the Net has led to greater political awareness
- Singaporeans also helping out their fellows via the use of technology
SINGAPOREANS love to do things online, and anything that requires them to physically go to a place often makes people grumble, especially since most government and banking services are available via the Internet.
Yet once every five years or so, they will gather en masse at vacant fields, enduring the sweltering tropical heat and humidity, to hear speeches and manifestos being blasted at them.
Only the general election can do that. Today, Sept 11, Singaporeans go to the polls for the 17th time, and the 12th since Independence in 1965.
The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is seeking its 14th consecutive term in office since 1959. The last general election in 2011 was described as a ‘watershed moment,’ because the leading Opposition party, the Worker’s Party, won six seats, plus an additional one from a 2013 by-election.
But the 2015 general election is also being described as a watershed moment, not just because all wards are being contested for the first time since Independence, but also for how technology has now become part and parcel of elections.
Voting services are available online, allowing citizens to check their name against the electoral rolls or to find out where their polling station, all thanks to the Elections Department.
But the major difference is how technology has made an impact on the everyday lives of ordinary Singaporeans who hunger for alternative avenues of discussion and expression.
Rise of alternative media
Alternative media sites such as The Online Citizen and The Real Singapore, now known as States Times Review, rose to prominence in the last general election because they gave a platform to the Opposition, which is often ignored by the government-controlled mainstream media.
Their articles, often critical of the PAP, were shared across social media, leading to the birth of pro-PAP Facebook pages such as Fabrication About The PAP and Fabrications Led by Opposition Parties.
A new alternative media site promising to report factual, moderate views has also emerged. The Middle Ground (pic above), headed by former Straits Times editor Bertha Henson, hopes to fill the gap for objective and balanced coverage of the political landscape in Singapore.
All this has resulted in greater political awareness among Singaporeans, who had for so long been restricted to government-sanctioned media and information.
“I think people are more aware of the issues and their implications,” says Abdul Rahman Mohd Said, a former technology journalist and public relations consultant.
“They're beginning to see different perspectives of the same issue, not just what they read in the papers or see on TV, and they will make more informed decisions when they vote,” he tells Digital News Asia (DNA) via online chat.
With Singapore Internet penetration hitting 81% according to a survey by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), alternative media sites are easing the stranglehold the mainstream media has had on the Singaporean public.
“We have only two sources of media – SPH for print and MediaCorp/CNA for radio and television –both are either government-owned or unabashedly pro-government,” says Abdul Rahman.
He argues that while the mainstream media covers both the PAP and the Opposition, it is selective, with a bias towards the PAP.
“A tight shot of the audience in a PAP rally gives a different story from a long shot of that same rally being held in a small corner of a big stadium,” he argues.
“Conversely, a capacity crowd in a stadium for a Workers’ Party (Opposition) rally doesn’t get shown,” he adds.
But with the Internet now available for expression, a lot of the campaigning and discussions can get … aggressive, to put it mildly.
Abdul Rahman (pic) points to the differences between the two camps in how the election is playing out in social media.
“My timeline keeps getting clogged by tags from pro-Opposition friends – they’re not official party posts but are by supporters,” he says.
“I don’t see an equivalent ‘flood’ of posts by pro-PAP supporters, but I do see innuendo being posted by PAP supporters on Opposition candidates who supposedly support LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) issues.
“There’s a lot of the FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) factor being peddled,” he adds.
It is not just media sites that are covering the election and the issues that are of concern to Singaporeans. Ordinary people are leveraging the Internet to provide insights and information to a hungry electorate.
The Internet has the tendency to either dumb down issues or provide thought-provoking debates. Abdul Rahman reckons we have seen both occur in the lead-up to this election.
“We have, on the one hand, kneejerk reactions from supporters, with many venting their feelings in language unsuitable for print,” Abdul Rahman says.
“On the other hand, we also have some serious think pieces by analysts and ex-journalists such as Dr Cherian George, Dr Derek da Cunha and Ismail Kassim,” he adds.
But it is not just about venting or discussion. Technology is also being used to build tools to help voters better understand the issues, and what’s happening around them.
A constituency overlay map was made for Google Maps (pic below) by one Yudhishthra Nathan, showing voters where their constituencies ended and where others’ began. In the same map, another overlay was made by Kuek Jinhua to show each party’s rally sites during the campaigning period.
An independent group Singapore Matters also sought to live-stream every single rally in Singapore. The crowdfunded group first did so for the 2011 general election.
Even a startup has got into the thick of things. Property portal 99.co researched housing prices, and its blog post Do Opposition GRC Properties Appreciate Less? sheds some light on the impact of housing prices in Opposition wards.
[Spoiler alert: There’s no correlation between Opposition wards and slow appreciation of price.]
99.co also marked out properties on the constituency map, showing prospective buyers and renters which Member of Parliament was responsible for which ward.
The 17th general election is also kind of messy because there are nine political parties contesting, including the incumbent. They have wildly different manifestos and policies.
Poring through these would have most people in a daze, so students from the Yale-National University of Singapore college drafted an online questionnaire for voters to determine which party policies they are most closely aligned with.
Cut through the rhetoric and get to the meat-and-bones, as it were.
Come Sept 12, Singapore might have a new government, or things might go back to the usual. But technology and politics will likely continue their tango in Singapore, and the voting public will be better off for it.
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