POLITICS IN SINGAPORE

POLITICAL POWER STRUCTURE IN SINGAPORE

In 1989 political power in Singapore was in the hands of a small group of individuals who had been instrumental in Singapore's gaining independence. The leadership core ruled through a second echelon of potential successors, who tended to be technocrats, administrators, and managers rather than politicians or power brokers. The PAP leaders, convinced that a city-state without natural resources could not afford the luxury of partisan politics, acted after 1965 to "depoliticize" the power structure. Economic growth and political stability would be maintained instead by the paternal guidance of the PAP. Politics, as a result, was only exercised within very narrow limits determined by the PAP. Singapore was thus administered by bureaucrats, not politicians, in a meritocracy in which power was gained through skill, performance, and demonstrated loyalty to the leaders and their policies. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

At the top of the hierarchy in 1989 were fifteen cabinet ministers, who were concurrently members of Parliament and the CEC, the PAP's highest policy-making body. Among these ministers was an inner core of perhaps five members. Below this group was a tier of senior civil servants who, in addition to their official duties, filled managerial and supervisory roles as directors of public corporations and statutory bodies. PAP members of Parliament without cabinet or government portfolios also tended to function at this level of the power hierarchy, providing links between the government and the populace. *

Rifts within the leadership were rare. Although minor differences over policy may have existed, the top leaders presented a united front once decisions were made. The mode of decision making was consensus, and the style of leadership was collective, but in 1989 Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was by far the first among equals on both counts. The leaders identified themselves with the nation, were convinced that they knew what was best for the nation, and interpreted opposition to themselves or their policies as a threat to the country's survival. *

The overwhelming majority of the leadership were not propertied or part of the entrepreneurial class. They did not appear particularly motivated by profit, gained lawfully or through corruption (which was almost nonexistent), or by the perquisites of their office (which although increasing, remained less than could be achieved in the private sector). Their reward, instead, derived from their access to power and their conviction that they were working for the nation and its long-term survival. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his close associates were highly conscious of their roles as founding fathers of the new city-state. *

The power structure was extremely centralized. It was characterized by a top-down style, featuring appointment rather than election to most offices; the absence of institutional restraints on the power of the prime minister and cabinet; and more effort devoted to communicating the government's decisions and policies to the public than to soliciting the public's opinion. The high degree of centralization was facilitated by the country's relatively small size and population. Although members of Parliament were elected by the public, they were selected by the core leadership, often ran unopposed, and regarded their positions as due to the favor of the prime minister rather than the will of the voters. At the highest levels, the distinction between the bureaucracy and the political offices of Parliament was only nominal, and many members of Parliament were selected from the upper ranks of the civil service and the public enterprises. Many high-level civil servants had direct access to the prime minister, who consulted them without going through their nominally superior cabinet minister.

Political Culture in Singapore

Belmont Lay wrote in Yahoo News, “In parliament, we have the Nominated Member of Parliament scheme. One of the roles of the NMP is to serve as the token opposition. But of course, they aren't real opposition like the Chee Soon Juan type of opposition. It is kind of like an endorsed, "lite" version. Next, there is Hong Lim Park, specifically set aside so people can go and demonstrate with picket signs. Away from the streets and roads where other people cannot see them.[Source: Belmont Lay, The Flipside, Yahoo News, April 5, 2013]

Singapore possessed a distinct political culture, which fit into no simple category formulated by political scientists. It was centralized, authoritarian, and statist. It was also pragmatic, rational, and legalistic. In spite of possessing the superficial trappings of British institutions such as parliamentary procedure and bewigged judges, Singapore was, as its leaders kept reiterating, not a Western country with a Western political system. Although elections were held regularly, elections had never led to a change of leadership, and citizens did not expect that political parties would alternate in power. Nor was there a tradition of civil liberties or of limits to state power. The rulers of an excolony with a multiethnic population, and a country independent only by default, assumed no popular consensus on the rules of or limits to political action. Singapore was a city-state where a small group of guardians used their superior knowledge to advance the prosperity of the state and to bring benefits to what they considered a largely ignorant and passive population. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

“Singapore's leaders were highly articulate and expressed their principles and goals in speeches, books, and interviews. Their highest goal was the survival and prosperity of their small nation. They saw this as an extremely difficult and risk-filled endeavor. Conscious of the vulnerability of their state and aware of many threats to its survival, they justified their policy decisions on the grounds of national survival. They viewed government as an instrument intended to promote national ends and recognized no inherent limits on government concerns or activities. They prized intellectual analysis and rational decision making, and considered their own decisions the best and often the only responses to problems. The senior leadership prided itself on its ability to take the long view and to make hard, unpopular decisions that either responded to immediate dangers or avoided problems that would become apparent one or two decades into the future. They valued activism and will, and tried to devise policies, programs, or campaigns to deal with all problems. In a characteristic expression of Singapore's political culture, the rising young leader Brigadier General (Reserve) Lee Hsien Loong, when discussing the threat to national survival posed by declining birth rates, said "I don't think we should ... passively watch ourselves going extinct." Passivity and extinction were linked and identified as trends the government's policies must counter. *

The leadership's conviction of the state's vulnerability to manifold dangers and of the self-evident correctness of its analysis of those dangers resulted in very limited tolerance for opposition and dissent. According to Singapore's leaders, their opponents were either too unintelligent to comprehend the problems, too selfish to sacrifice for the common good, or maliciously intent on destroying the nation. Although by the 1980s Singapore had the highest standard of living in Southeast Asia, its leaders often compared it with generalized Third World countries. They saw such countries suffering from widespread corruption and demagogic politics, both reflecting concentration on immediate payoffs at the expense of long-term prosperity and the common good. For Singapore's leaders, politics connoted disruptive and completely negative activities, characterized by demagoguery, factionalism, and inflammatory appeals to communal, ethnic, or religious passions. When they spoke of "depoliticizing" Singapore's government, they had this view of politics in mind. *

Political Succession in Singapore

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew marked his sixty-fifth birthday in October 1988 and celebrated thirty years as prime minister in May 1989, and the question of political succession received increasing attention. The prime minister and his long-time associates devoted a good deal of their attention to the issue during the mid- and late 1980s. They continued their efforts to identify promising younger leaders and bring them into the cabinet. The process of selection was an elaborate one, which began by identifying welleducated administrators from the public service or private sector. Those people selected would be promoted to managerial positions, often when in their thirties; those who succeeded would be considered for appointment to a government position, often by being designated a parliamentary candidate. In addition to identifying good administrators, the older leaders tried to select persons of integrity and good character who were able to work as members of a team. Second-generation leaders were then tested by being given ministerial portfolios and encouraged to go out and meet the common people. The selection favored technocrats and administrators and rewarded those able to defer to senior leaders and get along smoothly with their peers. The senior leaders were aware that the process did not test the ability of the second-generation leaders to cope with a severe political crisis, but apparently could find no way to select for that skill. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The first-generation leaders were confident of their own rectitude and ability to use their very extensive powers for the common good, but they were not confident that their successors would be so self-restrained. Throughout the 1980s, they considered various limits on executive power that would minimize the possibility of arbitrary and corrupt rule. These included constitutional changes such as a popularly elected president with significant powers. The leaders claimed, perhaps with hindsight, that their refusal to build up the PAP as a central political institution and their efforts to bring a wide range of low-level community leaders into the system of government advisory bodies reflected a deliberate effort to disperse power and, in this sense, to "depoliticize" the society. The effort to encourage the circulation of elites between the government and the private sectors and between the military and the civilian structures served the same end. In so centralized a system, much depended on the decisions of the prime minister and undisputed leader, who was reluctant to appoint a designated heir or to approve any measure that would diminish his authority. The expectation clearly was that a much more collective leadership would replace the old guard. *

The next generation of leaders, called the "new guard," was led by Lee Kuan Yew's son, Lee Hsien Loong. A brigadier general in the army, he first attained prominence in mid-1984 when he was cited as a possible candidate for the December 1988 general election. His prominence soared when, as minister of trade and industry and second ministor of defence (services), he was appointed head in 1986 of the critical Economic Committee assigned to redraft Singapore's economic strategy. *

Lee Hsien Loong's ascendancy and his consolidation of administrative and political power assisted the political fortunes of bureaucrats who formerly had served in the Ministry of Defence (known as the "Min-def mafia") and ex-army officers who had served with Lee when he was a brigadier general. The ascendancy of the socalled "Min-def/ex-army officer group" under Lee initially was suggested by some observers when the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) appeared to assume new importance in government policy decisions. In March 1989, when the government announced a substantial pay raise for the civil service, the military received an even larger raise with guarantees that future raises would be consistently higher than those allotted for the civil service. The government also announced that the policy of assigning SAF officers to twoyear rotations in civil service positions would continue. The policy ensured that the SAF would be represented in all branches of the government and that the distinction between the civilian and military bureaucracies would be less clear. *

The younger Lee's ascendancy to positions of greater power both in the PAP and the cabinet demonstrated his increased political stature. He was elected second assistant secretary general of the party in 1989, a post that had been vacant since 1984. This position placed him second in line in the party hierarchy behind his father and Goh Chok Tong, who was first assistant secretary general of the party and deputy prime minister and minister for defence in the cabinet. Lee enhanced his position in the cabinet when, as minister for trade and industry, he was named chairman of a special economic policy review committee. In this capacity, he gained the power to review the policies of all the ministries for their economic impact on Singapore. Previously such reviews were conducted only by the Ministry of Finance. Some Singapore observers speculated in 1989 that Lee would one day be appointed minister for finance and add control of Singapore's purse to his influence over the armed forces. *

Generational ties supplemented the institutional links. Lee Hsien Loong and his associates were in their mid- to late thirties in 1989. Lee's nearest rival for power was Goh, who was forty-seven years old. Goh and his few allies in the cabinet, who were in their mid- to late forties, appeared to be increasingly losing ground to the younger group, however. For those with a military background, the military connection remained important even though they had resigned from the military before undertaking their civilian posts. The obligation of all males to periodically undergo reservist training assured that the military connection was not severed. If the army became a source of future cabinet ministers, some political observers expected that ethnic Malays and Indians would find it even more difficult to gain access to senior government positions. Ironically, the army in pre-independent Singapore was predominantly Malay and Indian. After independence, however, the government changed this bias by increasing Chinese representation through universal conscription. *

Politicians in Singapore

In 2006, Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Unlike politicians elsewhere, the MPs in Singapore are co-opted into politics without party experience or having to campaign hard to win votes. During Lee’s popular past, this posed few problems. PAP candidates were virtually always automatically elected. A popular joke in those days was “Even if it fields a monkey, it will win.” Today, with the unfettered reach of a critical Internet and an educated electorate, every comment or behaviour of an MP comes under intense scrutiny. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, October 22, 2006]

“In the past 40 years, Singapore has produced a good number of bankers, engineers and scholars, etc, but fewer career politicians than other developed nations. With few exceptions, representatives of the People’s Action Party (PAP) are co-opted from outside the party rather than the best being allowed to come from the ranks. The politician in most of them somehow never quite emerged from their years of Parliament experience; most remain technocrats and problem solvers. The fledgling opposition parties are no different. Only a few leaders are battle-hardened, the rest being newcomers who move straight from the professions or business to stand in elections. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, November 19, 2006]

“As a result, most of Singapore’s politicians lack campaign or debating skills or political acumen. That’s the way politics was designed here. Lee Kuan Yew had long steered the country away from “debate” politics either in or out of Parliament. There’s another reason. Few citizens are interested in entering – or even discussing – politics, and those who join parties nowadays are mostly young, inexperienced people with questionable staying power.”

Female Politician in Singapore

Lim Hwee Hua, a female politician, served a the Deputy Speaker in the Singaporean parliament and leader of the PAP's women's wing. In 2010, Clement Mesenas wrote in the Singaporean magazine Today, “Mrs Lim herself made it to the inner ranks of the PAP for a second time recently — the only woman to have made it to the central executive committee. She had to go through the struggle of combining the effort of raising children with the demands of a career. In this respect, she was grateful for an understanding husband who shared her decision to stay at home after the birth of their second child — for a period of four years, under a Government scheme that permitted such a break from work with no pay.[Source: Clement Mesenas, Today, December 21, 2010 \*/]

“The Lims have a son, aged 23 today, and two daughters, 21 and 15. "I had to decide what was important — career or family. I was aware that I would be up against younger people when I returned to work," said Mrs Lim, who eventually decided that a mother's bonding with her younger children was crucial towards their development. \*/

“On how more women are assuming roles of authority, and how men have been adjusting to the trend of having women as bosses, Mrs Lim recalls an interesting episode when she assumed the post of leader of the PAP's women's wing. There was a bit of bother over how she should be addressed: Should it be Chairperson, or Chairwoman? "Just call me Chairman." Mrs Lim permitted herself a rare smile as she recalled her pragmatic advice to her committee, explaining that the title was indicative of the position, not the sex of the incumbent. When she was made Deputy Speaker in Parliament — the first woman in the post — there was again the question of how she should be addressed. Should be it Mr Deputy Speaker? After due consideration, Madam Deputy Speaker was deemed about right.” \*/

Female Politician’s View on Women in Government in Singapore

In 2010, Clement Mesenas wrote in the Singaporean magazine Today, “She often comes across as a tough no-nonsense figure, but in conversation, she projects warmth and understanding, although in a cool-headed style. But if there's one thing that perks up Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, it's the women's role in Government. The role of the family is not far behind, though. "We need to have more women coming forward to serve — in positions from Members of Parliament to grassroots leaders," Mrs Lim, who was appointed Minister of State for Finance and Transport in 2004, told Today in an exclusive interview recently. [Source: Clement Mesenas, Today, December 21, 2010 \*/]

“There's a sense of urgency in her words that women have a third role to play — in addition to managing careers and homes — in shaping the future of the country; Singapore, she says, "belongs to both men and women and it's a matter of responsibility that women of all ages come forward and provide feedback, and help with policy formulation". Too often, it's the same women — in the older age group category — who stand up to be counted. "We need more younger women, working women in their 20s, to play a role in community to shape the future of society," said Mrs Lim, adding with a touch of humour that being 47, she would not presume to know how women in their 20s think. \*/

“Notwithstanding the fact that she is often seen in black pantsuits, Mrs Lim is a woman's woman in the sense that she strongly believes that more women should be part of the national decision-making process. The People's Action Party (PAP) and grassroots committees are seen by some as being male-dominated, admitted Mrs Lim, who was elected MP for the Marine Parade GRC in 1996 and then won re-election this year as an MP for Aljunied GRC Against the backdrop of the rising number of women leaders in the services sector, the number of women MPs also needs to go up. \*/

"A total of 17 women MPs out of a House of 84 is just 20 percent, whereas the number of women leaders in the services industries is closer to 33 percent," said Mrs Lim, whose various jobs included that of an investment analyst before joining Temasek Holdings as a managing director. Stressing that she does not believe in quotas — "otherwise some might think that my presence in the cabinet is a result of having to fulfil a quota" — she says that filling up a third of Government positions with women would be a good target to aim for, without disclosing a timeframe for such fulfilment. \*/

“Surprisingly, she does not pity Singaporean women, some of whom complain of being caught up in a never-ending struggle of having to balance the demands of career and home. "The women of Singapore today have it so good — with access to education and employment opportunities — compared to their counterparts in the region," she said. Although the Government has put in place pro-family policies, she feels that career opportunities open to women means that more will choose to settle down later rather than sooner. But Mrs Lim is confident that once a woman decides to tie the knot, having children is a natural extension of getting married. Part of the solution in helping working women decide to have families lies with how husbands help out with the chores at home, and in this respect, she gave full marks to the Singapore men in general. They push strollers and they feed babies as a matter of course, she observes.” \*/

Study Finds 30 percent of Singapores Are ‘Cynics’ About Politics

One gay advocate said, “Singaporeans as a whole are not a very vocal, politically inclined bunch of people...They’re not outspoken.”

A 2011 study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) found that some three in 10 Singaporeans are cynical toward the country’s political leaders. Jeanette Tan wrote in Yahoo News, “And while the figure is not huge – liberal democracies such as the US see between 47 to 75 percent of their populations to be cynics – researchers said there is still cause for concern for the ruling People’s Action Party. Since the study did not find any significant relation between a cynic and demographic factors such as race, education and income, it means that cynics here cut across the entire cross-section of society. The party needs to find new ways to convey their messages to Singaporeans convincingly, said researchers. [Source: Jeanette Tan, Yahoo News, September 16, 2011 ==]

“The study, conducted in July and August 2010, “surveyed 1092 participants, representative of Singapore’s population. The definition of cynics included people who think that politicians often manipulate them; that politicians forget their election promises and that politicians think having power is more important than catering to people’s wishes. The study did not differentiate whether the politician belongs to a ruling or opposition party, however, as researchers were unable to anticipate the impact of opposition leaders in the months leading up to the general election this year. ==

“Pointing to recent dissatisfaction with transportation and housing, for instance, IPS deputy director Arun Mahizhnan said, "So to what extent are these permanent features? To what extent are these immediate reactions? This is yet to be determined. “But this survey suggests that there is a significant minority who are cynical and there are ways in which the cynicism could be addressed," he said. ==

National University of Singapore's assistant professor of communications & new media Zhang Weiyu suggested that the government not only tap on new media but also place more emphasis on interpersonal communication, for instance, through the Meet-the-People sessions. The government should have more consultation panels with citizens, to hear directly from them, she added. "We need to encourage interpersonal discussions directly between politicians and citizens. So it's not just politicians trying to send their message through mass media to the citizens because we find that interpersonal talk has a big influence," she said. ==

“The study found that cynics have lower trust in mass media, compared to those who are less cynical. “People who are cynical may tactically turn to the Internet for alternative information and viewpoints, or it could be that political cynicism is increased by exposure to these online channels,” she added.

Public Apathy and Uncontested Seats in Singapore

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Dr. Geh Min has never voted in a general election since Singapore became a self-governing state 50 years ago. The former president of the Nature Society said that non-participation in the voting process was depriving Singaporeans of diversity and choice. The story of Dr Geh, a nominated MP, is not unique. It is shared by more than half the electorate. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, June 6, 2009 |~|]

“These non-voters were not disenfranchised, but merely the casualties of a regular feature in Singapore politics – the election walkovers. During the last four general elections, an average of 54 percent of Parliament seats were uncontested. In 2006, voters in 37 wards out of 84 constituencies were mere spectators. Earlier, in 1991, 1997 and 2001, the percentages of walkovers against total contested seats were 50.4 percent, 56.4 percent and 65.4 percent, respectively. |~|

“Why is this economically advanced city so backward in political development? Public apathy is one reason. People prefer making money than going into politics, let alone risk their careers by opposing the government. Realising this, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) offers large financial inducements to attract top candidates, something no opposition party can match. There is, however, a bigger reason. It is the government’s history of crackdowns on political opponents and laws that make it tough for the opposition to fight – let alone win – an election. |~|

“Although the recession-hit electorate has of late displayed unhappiness over a series of mistakes and unpopular decisions made by the PAP, there is no sign of mass disaffection. The cloud of apathy and lack of public interest in cooperating with it, however, can be very damaging to the nation after Minister Mentor Lee is no longer around. Despite its history of past achievements, surprisingly not many of the ruling scholar-class elites are particularly liked by the public. After a generation of top-down government, many Singaporeans are apathetic and have little interest in the government or what it does. |~|

“A survey conducted by a body affiliated to the government found that: 1) Some 63.4 percent of Singaporeans knew little or nothing about the Constitution and the organs of state; 2) Two-thirds, or more than 66 percent, of Singaporeans believed that they had little or no influence at all on national issuesl 3) A whopping 92.7 percent had never given feedback to the Government, and 94.9 percent had never written letters to a newspaper; and 4) 94.5 percent don’t know what it’s like to sign a petition. |~|

“Institute of South-East Asian Studies fellow Terence Chong said most Singaporeans tend to automatically “switch off” when it comes to matters related to politics. Letter writer David Cai suggested that the government had an image problem and should take stronger measures to shed its totalitarian image. Unless this was done, people would continue to feel marginalised, disenchanted and estranged from decision-making, he added. Singaporean Faye Tan, a 37-year-old mother of two, admitted to a reporter that she did not know who her MP was. “I’ve never met him before. Unless you have issues, you probably won’t bother to find out,” she said.

Political Changes in Singapore

In the last election in 2011, the PAP, the party of Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong, lost some seats. When asked Post if he would have to manage a political transition with a younger generation, which expects more, Lee Hsien Loong told the Washington Post: “It’s a different generation, a different society, and the politics will be different. . . . We have to work in a more open way. We have to accept more of the untidiness and the to-ing and fro-ing, which is part of normal politics.” [Source: Washington Post, March 15, 2013]

Is that hard for you? “It is a major change, of course, which we hope we will be able to navigate safely over a period of time and not suddenly.” On making the government more transparent and open to social media, Lee said: “It’s completely open to social media. Previously, everything was orderly and predictable. Now there are many more voices, views and interests . . . and the outcome is a lot more difficult to predict, and the reactions are more difficult to judge. [Ibid]

On how Singapore’s ruling party (the PAP) was preparing for change, when Singapore suffering during the Lehman Brothers financial crisis, Hopporn Wong-Anan of Reuters wrote: Analysts say future risks include political change after the current generation of ageing leaders, possibly even from a split in the ruling party, and external threats such as conflict with neighbours and competition from cheaper manufacturing centres. "It won't be as stable and as unchangeable as people think," said Roman Scott, who runs a private equity firm in Singapore. He is bullish on the country's long-term prospects, but said terror attacks or political changes were the biggest risks. "Even in Singapore, nothing lasts forever." Singapore is favoured as a base for its dependability, efficient bureaucracy and clean environment. Few investors expect shocks in a region where stability can quickly turn to chaos. [Source: Hopporn Wong-Anan, Reuters, June 27, 2009 +++]

“The government recently offered to nominate more opposition members to parliament, a move analysts said could be a release valve for criticism but may also stimulate some fresh ideas. "It needs to accept a level of accountability and debate that it currently will not do," said Bob Broadfoot of Political & Economic Risk Consultancy. The government has been looking for younger stars, and cadres have started speaking about Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew. "We don't see any dramatic or unstable political change in Singapore in the coming 10 years," said Vincent Ho of Fitch Ratings, which gives Singapore its top sovereign rating of AAA. +++

“Pierre Cailleteau, managing director for sovereign risk at Moody's Investor Service, said its AAA rating for Singapore hinged on strong financial fundamentals, a pro-business stance and the ability to adapt to changing economic conditions. "We don't look at the rulers of a country, but the way the country is ruled. For Singapore, we don't see reasons to believe there will be any change in the degree of predictability if there is a change in leadership," he said. Even if future Singapore leaders became more vulnerable to public pressure and engaged in populist policies at the expense of economic goals, the shift would take place over a period of years rather than months, he added. +++

In 2009 Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced changes in the Singapore electoria system that could result in a bigger election turnout and a greater opposition role in Parliament. Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “The most significant is the reduction of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC), which is a major cause for the poor election participation. The number of single wards will be increased from nine to 12 (the demand is for all of them), while multiple-MPs constituencies will be capped at five instead of the present six. Another is an increase in the number of non-elected MPs (NCMPs) from three to nine in the event of a poor opposition showing. This means that, for example, if the opposition were to win only three seats, six of its best losers could go in as NCMPs – but without being able to vote on major issues. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, June 6, 2009]

“The GRC system was started in 1988 with the first three-candidate GRC aimed at ensuring minority representation in Parliament. It groups three stipulated wards into one by adding up their votes. The fear 20 years ago – not without justification – was over the possibility of Chinese voting along racial lines and keeping out Malay and Indian candidates. Since then, it has moved some distance away from this aim as GRCs began to expand from three to six Mps. Each expansion spelled more gloom to opposition politics and more PAP candidates were declared winners on Nomination Day. In 2006, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong admitted that the system would help new PAP candidates to win. The changes are unlikely to alter the political landscape. The ruling party continues to outgun the fractious opposition. [Ibid]

Social Media Changing Singaporean Politics?

In 2011, Shibani Mahtani of the Wall St Journal wrote: “Plenty of media analysts rushed to describe the opposition parties’s relatively strong performance in Singapore’s general elections in 2011 as a breakthrough moment for the power of social media in the city state. But a new survey conducted by Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies, a think-tank within the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, finds that the influence of the Internet – and the alternative voices it enables – a little overrated. [Source: Shibani Mahtani, Wall St Journal, October 6, 2011 />/]

“According to the survey of 2000 Singaporean voters, only 41.1 percent of people read election news online. Moreover, only 30 percent of the respondents turned to media such as Facebook and political blogs for information on the May vote, and, of these, 90 percent continued to use traditional media such newspapers and television as a source of information. “We are surprised. We had thought that the consumption of the Internet, social networking sites and party political websites would be higher,” said Tan Tarn How, senior research fellow at IPS and one of the principal researchers of the study, in an interview. “Mainstream media was still the dominant media during the election.” />/

“The ruling People’s Action Party won the election with 60 percent of the vote, but it was its slimmest victory since 1965. They lost six seats – an outcome many political activists attributed to the rising influence of websites and political blogs as an alternative to what observers say is Singapore’s heavily state-influenced mainstream media. Mr Tan said the use of social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter as a source of information during the election was significantly higher than in the last election in 2006. The readership of political blogs offering a wide range of different views, such as The Online Citizen, Yawning Bread and Temasek Review, has also grown since 2010, when IPS carried out its previous survey. Then, only 13 percent of respondents read political blogs compared with 21 percent in the latest poll. />/

“Yet while the Internet helped raise political awareness in Singapore in the two years leading up to the election, the web’s influence during the campaign itself was “not as much as a lot of people thought,” Mr Tan said. Unsurprisingly, the 30 percent who tended to turn to blogs and social-media sites for their information were younger, better educated and more politically knowledgeable but also more cynical about all the information they read – including information disseminated in the “alternative press.” />/

Some political observers felt that the survey did not measure the more important way in which politics in the city-state has changed – the impact it has had on Singapore’s government which has generally enjoyed very little bottom-up pressure on its policies. “There were spillover effects from social media raised around the country,” said Bridget Welsh, a professor of political science at Singapore Management University. “Things have shifted, social media has definitely become an agenda-setting device. It is not just a numbers thing.” Some bloggers, too, were hesitant to accept the conclusions of the survey, particularly those who had been and continue to be active on politically dissenting blogs. Writing in the Online Citizen, better known as TOC, a widely read political blog, Howard Lee took issue with one of the conclusions of the survey, which was that the mainstream media was more trusted than the alternative media as a source of information about the elections. “Was the survey referring to trust in the accuracy of the information, or the perceived fairness of the information presented?” Mr Lee wrote. “The survey did not elaborate on this, which… could have yielded very different results.” />/

“Singapore’s television news and newspapers scored 3.45 and 3.44 respectively on the scale of trustworthiness, with 5 being “very trustworthy.” Blogs scored at 2.76, slightly below party brochures at 2.78 and Facebook and Twitter received 2.51 and 2.28, respectively.

Demonstrations and Protests in Singapore

Political activity, such as public speech and assembly, is curtailed and closely controlled by the government, but 10 days of outdoor rallies are allowed ahead of parliamentary elections every five years and presidential votes every six. Under Singapore law, public gatherings of more than four people require a police permit. It is illegal to hold a public gathering of five or more people in Singapore without a permit, meaning demonstrations seldom occur.

In April 2001, 2,000 people attended an anti-government rally at a stadium. I was the first such event since Singapore became independent 35 years earlier. Speakers demaouned th People’ Action Party and called for more civil rights.

Human Rights and Politics, See Separate Article on Human Rights

See World Bank Protest, History

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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