Reflections on the morning after

9 05 2011

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.

81-6 read the front page of the Straits Times on the morning after, but what should really have been on the front pages of the news was the erosion of support for the ruling party.

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.

Despite strong support on the ground for Mr Chiam and his wife Lina Chiam, his gamble to stand in a GRC leaving Mrs Chiam to contest in Potong Pasir, saw the Chiam's long association with the ward end. Mrs Chiam lost by the thinnest of margins of less than 1% of the valid votes.

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.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam of the Workers

The lead up to the General Elections saw the largest crowds attending the Workers' Party's rallies. Despite the rain and the muddy conditions on the ground - the crowd that gathered on the penultimate day of campaigning at Ubi Avenue 2 resulted in traffic jams in the area.

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.

A Worker's Party election campaign banner seen outside Parliament House on Election Day. Many Singaporeans want to see an wider representation in Parliament.

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.

Sunset on Election Day brought bright colours - perhaps signifying the optimisation many had for a mature democracy in Singapore.

A historical moment? The celebration at Hougang Stadium in the wee hours of 8 May:

A large crowd of Workers' Party faithful gathered at Hougang Stadium streaming in from as early as 5pm on Election Day in anticipation of the election results.

The crowd holding a poster of the WP candidates for Aljunied GRC.

Mr Yaw Shin Leong, WP's candidate for Hougang SMC who won with a margin of close to 30%, after his victory speech.

Lawyer Chen Show Mao - part of WP's team in Aljunied waving to the crowd.

A supporter trying to get a good view of the winning team's departure from Hougang Stadium - certainly not one who sat on the fence.

With 6 MPs now in Parliament, will the WP hammer away at the PAP's overwhelming majority in the future?


The story of Spain in and beyond the headlines

13 07 2010

Spain it is, and on the balance of how football’s World Cup was played, despite losing their opening encounter with the Swiss, Spain were certainly worthy winners. Although the final match against the Netherlands proved to be less entertaining than one would have expected between a polished Spanish team and the once masters of total football, the Oranje, the match did provide the excitement at the end, and some controversy too, the magnificent finish of Barça’s Andres Iniesta coming with an attack launched right after English referee Howard Webb missed a Spanish deflection on a Dutch free kick denying the Oranje a corner. This controversy and that the match was marred by what was seen to be roughhouse tactics employed by the Oranje to try to break Spanish control over the ball resulting in 13 yellow cards being brandished by Webb, 8 to the Netherlands and 5 to Spain, with Oranje Johnny Heitinga being shown a second yellow and hence a red, would probably dominate the news in many newspapers. But that really shouldn’t, and for most part, glancing at the front pages of the newspapers around the world, it is good to know that it hasn’t. I always enjoy glancing at the front pages after an event to grasp a sense of the mood of a nation in response to the event and in Spain of course, the newspapers would be splashed with the joy of a nation tasting World Cup success for the very first time, after years of misery and under-achievement. There is a story of Spain that perhaps the newspapers should really tell, not one of the narrow but sweet victory over a determined Dutch side, or the kung-fu kick Nigel de Jong landed on Xabi Alonso that Eric Cantona would have certainly been proud of, but one of unity in diversity.

The front pages of newspapers often provide an insight into the mood of a nation. "Reyes del mundo" or "Kings of the world" reads the La Vanguardia the morning after Spain's victory over the Netherlands.

Spain is indeed as diverse as nations go. The make-up of the national team itself is a reflection of that. With players made up of proud and independent thinking Catalunya, those from the Castillian heart of Spain, the far flung and rough Basque country, and even the Canary Islands, each with an outlook and identity as distinct as the landscapes are as you move from one region of Spain to another. What was on show during the World Cup was the unity the diverse members displayed as a team, combining into an unstoppable force that was able to overcome a German team that looked to be on its way to win the cup having demolished the fancied English and Argentinian teams putting four goals past each of them. It is from Spain that we see that the power of the team can defeat the teams where the focus held dwelt on individuals. So, where the Ronaldos, Rooneys and Messis flopped, what can be seen beyond the headlines is the triumph of teamwork and team spirit in the superb Spanish show during the World Cup.

"Lost"... The mood of the Netherlands summed up in the front page of Het Parool.

Elsewhere, in Netherlands, as one would have expected, the headlines on the front pages reflected a different mood, one of despair at their fall final hurdle for the third time in the quest for football’s ultimate reward. In Germany, with the exit of the national team at the hands of the Spanish in the semi-finals, the news was conspicuously absent from the front pages of the main broadsheets, and in the UK, the Times leads with the graphic image of Nigel de Jong executing the kung-fu style kick on Xabi Alonso, giving the game an appearance of a kick-boxing match, and a game which was difficult to officiate, drawing attention to the only thing England could contribute to the final, referee Howard Webb’s performance. Regional newspapers also tell a story,

Conspicuously missing from the headlines of the German broadsheets, news of the Spanish triumph over the Netherlands.

The Times leads with a very graphic image of Nigel de Jong's king-fu style kick, providing a negative impression of the game and bring attention to Howard Webb's performance in handling what would be seen to be a difficult game.

The pride of Catalunya, Carles Puyol on the front page of a regional newspaper from Catalunya.