Many had thought, or at least hoped that Singapore’s General Elections held on the 7th of May 2011 would be a watershed for politics in Singapore. With the dust now settling after what must have been one of the most exciting campaigns for a long time, the scorecard of 81 to 6 does make it look as if nothing much has changed, with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) holding an overwhelming majority, and the opposition left to contend with an ineffective representation in Parliament. We do have to look a little further than the headlines on the front page though, to realise that the elections is indeed a watershed for Singapore in many ways.
Besides the PAP which retained its hold on power, the other party that perhaps had a victory of sorts was the opposition Workers’ Party, adding five more seats from winning in a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) beyond the Single Member Constituency (SMC) that they previously held in Hougang. In that we also saw a big shift in the positions of the opposition parties, with the Workers’ Party (WP) increasing their share of the votes and giving a good a good account of themselves; while veteran politician Chiam See Tong’s decision in his twilight years to contest in a GRC and have his wife Lina stand in Potong Pasir, a seat he has held for some 27 years, saw him and his Singapore People’s Party (SPP) lose their previously held seat by the narrowest of margins. There is no doubt that all that is significant and does show that there is a huge shift in the political landscape, with the WP showing that it is a force in politics, and with the PAP losing a GRC the first time since their introduction in 1988, but also a senior member of the Cabinet, Foreign Minister George Yeo. The GRCs, which account for the majority of constituencies in Singapore’s electoral map, is a grouping of three or more constituencies in which its MPs are voted in as a group, the purpose of which is to ensure adequate representation of minorities with at least one member of the group being from an ethnic minority group. The system has been much criticised by opponents on the grounds that it serves as a huge barrier to what were previously fragmented opposition parties who had difficulty in putting together a large enough group of candidates to contest in the GRCs.
One of the important statistics related to the outcome of the elections would be the 6% fall in the ruling party’s share of votes to some 60.14%. The party had up until 1981, enjoyed 13 years of absolute control of Parliament, and had long had strong support from the population. Of late, voter disaffection and the increased awareness of a hitherto apathetic electorate, plus a desire to have greater representation for alternative views in Parliament has seen support eroded from over 75% of the popular vote at its highs to a historical low of close to 60% this election. While this and the huge majority it has in Parliament does indicate that there is still popular support for the party which has ruled Singapore since its independence, the fact that support is being eroded so much so that now 4 out of every 10 Singaporean voters have voted against the ruling party, signifies a worrying trend for the party.
This time around, the social media provided a powerful platform for an airing of the opinions of the disaffected, where previously there was none. It was in fact with the social media that the rules of engagement had changed. This was recognised by all parties as a means to reach out to a new generation of social media savvy voters, with a fifth of the electorate below the age of 30. Where in previous elections, the airing of opinions did not go beyond exchanges within one’s circles of friends and relatives, and perhaps on the backseat of a taxi, the social media was able to extend the reach much further to many who shared similar views. This in a sense provided a previously apathetic electorate with a platform for a political awakening and in a collective desire by like minded people to perhaps challenge the status quo. One factor that may have played a part in the small but noticeable swing of votes may have been the platform not being understood well enough by certain quarters of the ruling establishment.
Whatever it was, the election was a watershed for me. I am one who believes that all voices should be heard and that the task of running the country I was born in shouldn’t be left to one group of people who belong to a single party, no matter how well qualified they may appear. I do not dispute that the ruling party which has ruled Singapore since independence has done an excellent job in transforming Singapore into an economic success that many at the point of independence would not have imagined, as well as in addressing the needs of a population that has steadily risen from some 1.9 million during independence to just over 5 million at the end of last year. I don’t think for a moment that I, or for that matter many other like minded voters who cast a vote for change, are being ungrateful, or have forgotten what the previously leadership has done as some would like to think. There is certainly no doubt in my mind that as of today, there is no party that is better positioned to manage a nation that has been so well managed. What I did was, to cast a vote for a future which will include a voice for what has long been a voiceless minority; for a system that has the capacity to address the genuine concerns of the many on the ground who have fallen by the wayside; and for some sensibility to return to the leadership of a country that has become so consumed by their success that they have forgotten what the party had stood for all those years back, It is only by having an alternative voice in Parliament that can engage the ruling party as equals, not just for now, but for time to come that this can ensure that this happens. I am proud to say that I am one of the four out of every ten that said yes to this, and while this on a National level hasn’t translated to more than a handful of alternative voices in our next Parliament, it has seen what I hope is a new dawn – a “shift” as Prime Minister Lee put it in politics that I hope will also transform those in the ruling party to recognise what the people of Singapore are asking for. The signs so far are positive and as PM Lee himself has indicated in his post victory speech: “We hear all your voices” and that it was a “time for healing and for acceptance of the people’s decision, not just for the PAP but for all Singaporeans”. I was there to celebrate the victory of the WP team of Aljunied, and when the official announcement was made that the WP had been successful in winning Aljunied GRC, I found a cause to celebrate, as I did with that by-election victory in Anson all those years back. It did take 30 years to arrive where we are, but with what is recognised as a new political climate in Singapore, what I hope comes out of this is the start of a shift towards a more open and inclusive political system, one that Singapore as a first world country should ultimately have.
A historical moment? The celebration at Hougang Stadium in the wee hours of 8 May: