Round-up: Singapore elections & social media stories
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Round-up: Singapore elections & social media stories

This weekend saw the long awaited results of the watershed 2011 Singapore general elections which will go down in history for the role that the internet, and social networks in particular, played during the electoral campaign.

The dominant PAP party win once again, but some of the figures are very interesting:

  • a record 93% of the electorate (2.06 million people) cast their vote, the highest number ever
  • a record number of seats contested by opposition parties (82 of the 87) meant many citizens were voting for the first time
  • a record six seats won by opposition parties
  • the first ever non-PAP group representation constituency (GRC) victory, which are traditionally seen as a “cornerstone” to the one-party dominance system and saw the departure of Foreign Minister George Yeo
  • Reduced support for government: The PAP share of the vote dropped to 60% from 67% in 2006

As I mentioned in my latest blog on the election campaign, the big question – despite the buzz and (proportionally) large anti-PAP voices online – was how popularity on social media would translate to votes.

So did social media play a big role in the election?

The answer is yes and no – depending on who you ask.

Undoubtedly the progress made by opposition parties has a large part to do with them contesting a record number of seats. Though the strength of voices in favour of the opposition parties did not manifest in equivalent share of votes,  social media is so often a dumping ground for ranting and raving – as Social Media NZ points out – so any expectation that Facebook ‘Likes’ would translate into equivalent votes would have be optimistic at best.

Though one can question the influence Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others played on the final vote, social media did have a strong influence on the election:

  • motivating the country’s electorate to case their vote
  • raising and discussing national and local issues in public
  • criticising the government without fear of repercussions
  • galvanising the protest vote against the government
  • getting young people interested in politics (which many other countries fail to do) as this blog post from a young non-voting Singapore girl shows

But… it is important to note that mainstream media still carry greater weight than digital media across much of Asia, while those that use Facebook and Twitter make up just one element of the electorate. It proved enough to help bring about a major swing, but not the radical wholesale changes that many believed were possible.

A list of notable summary articles and a selection quotes on the the role of social in the election are below.

“Singapore General Election: the social media disconnect” Social Media NZ

Still, hopes were high for a stronger showing from the opposition. After all, “the people have spoken” and isn’t social media where people go to speak these days?

So, what happened?

Well, for one, I think that the disconnect between the voices on social media, and that on the ground, is significant. The case is similar in Malaysia. While voices on social media appear to be pro-opposition, Barisan Nasional had won many of the (equally many) by-elections since the March 2008 General Election, where the opposition had its biggest showing ever. During the Sarawak state elections recently, there was a massive online “revolt” against the Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud yet his party did well.

The second point was really something I only noticed as some of the official results came in. Some of the people I was following on Twitter, who I previously thought were pro-opposition, celebrated PAP’s victories. I mentioned this to a Singaporean friend of mine, who shared her thoughts: Everyone wants to be taken care of by PAP personally, but want change as well so they used Aljunied as a scapegoat of sorts.

“Oppositions makes inroads in Singapore” New York Times

In what seemed an attempt to embrace the future, Singapore loosened its grip on political discourse in the unruly world of the Internet.

Government opponents are often sued for defamation, and public speech has been permitted only in a small park called Speakers’ Corner (which was shut down in the campaign). But experts say the new opening, if only in the virtual world, appears to be a redefinition of what are known as “out-of-bounds markers.”

Following changes to the Constitution and election laws, campaigning is now permitted throughout cyberspace — in podcasts, videos, blogs, instant messaging, photo-sharing platforms like Flickr, social networking sites and electronic media applications like those on cellphones.

For the first time, campaign recordings could be posted as long as they were not “dramatized” or published “out of context.” Video taken at an election rally was able to be uploaded onto the Web without being submitted to the Board of Film Censors.

Social media have lowered the barriers of entry into political discourse everywhere,” said Mark Cenite, an assistant professor of communication and information at Nanyang Technological University. “But that’s particularly significant in Singapore because here the barriers to entry into political discourse and the accompanying risks have been so high.

Rather than trying to suppress online political organizing, as China and Vietnam have done, Singapore has taken a gamble on making it part of the legal campaign system.

Opposition Web sites and Twitter accounts were used to urge people to attend election rallies. They also sent out streams of comments from rallies, increasing their audience. The site Gothere plotted out the locations of rallies on a map.

The site Party Time gathered conversations about the elections and graphically presented who was getting the most buzz online.

Facebook is estimated to have up to three million members in Singapore, whose population is more than five million. All seven competing parties have their own sites. By one estimate, there are 900,000 local users of Twitter.

Online coverage pushed the main pro-government newspaper, The Straits Times, to publish fuller and not always critical news and photographs of opposition campaigns, said Alex Au, a prominent blogger.

The Straits Times also dedicated a portal on its Web site to extensive electronic election coverage, and collected comments from the social media on a page called Buzz.

Post mortum: moving towards a two party system The Temasak Review

The new media has revolutionized elections all over the world. The political tsunami which hit Malaysia in 2008 is a sign of what is to come in Singapore which has a higher internet penetration rate.

Despite its absolute control of the mainstream media in Singapore, the PAP’s propaganda machinery proved to be no match for the social media which allows the opposition candidates with limited resources to reach out to large number of people in a short span of time and to counter the blatantly biased coverage in the mainstream media.

Tin Pei Ling’s ‘honest mistake’ in posting a comment on her Facebook on ‘Cooling off’ day would have been swept under the carpet had not alert netizens took a snapshot of it and socio-political sites with a large readership like Temasek Review blow it up that the mainstream media can no longer afford to ignore the matter.

In a sense, the new media has levelled the playing field and tilt it in favor of the opposition parties such as SDP which are more adept in utilizing it as communication tool to get its message across to the electorate than the PAP.

“Singaporeans in New York among first to vote worldwide” Today Online

Mr Jack Chia, 28, said that he took a four-hour bus ride from Boston to New York to be part of GE 2011. He was proud to be part of overseas voting for the first time, having followed the election news on social media even though he could not be back in Singapore for the rallies.

“Singapore ruling party retains absolute majority in watershed general election” Xinhua

In an age of the new media, the young generation were voicing their opinions on issues such as the cost of living, affordable housing and immigration policies on social network websites and online forums. Many candidates and parties had Facebook pages and Lee also chatted online with netizens.

Eugene Tan of Singapore Management University also noticed that the PAP has made commitments to better communicate with the voters.

“The PAP also made the commitment to listen more, listen better, speak with rather than speak to Singaporeans,” Tan said in live broadcast by local Channel NewsAsia.

A voter at the rally late Saturday said the PAP won not without a contest, with hot-button issues discussed.

I think that the most important is that the government has heard the concerns and voices of the younger generation,” he told Xinhua. “We are also electing the core of a capable next generation leadership to lead us in the future.”

“Singapore opposition makes election breakthrough” AFP

The opposition also relied heavily on the Internet, particularly social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, because the mainstream local media are widely regarded as PAP mouthpieces.

“New media transforms Singapore election” Radio Australia

In previous elections, the mainstream media has been very very partisan, and there was no alternative. Now, because of things like Twitter and Facebook, people have the ability to share information, you have citizen journalists going out. As a result of that, the ruling party has been unable to control the narrative quite as much as they used to be able to in the past. The ruling party ..has had to scramble to respond to other alternative narratives. It hasn’t been able to control the dominant political discourses as it used to do.

For a long time, the govt never quite believed that the online media can challenge the mainstream media in terms of influence and readership. So they were complacent enough to say, ‘oh, let them be, they’re not going to change the world’. I think this is one election where they may have reason to rethink some of their assumptions. But perhaps it’s already too late, perhaps Singaporeans are so used to the idea that a free internet is part and parcel of their lives, they’re not going to accept any going back.

“George Yeo, Aljunied GRC, The Singapore Elections And Social Media” Unique Frequency

To set the context: Aljunied was a hotly contested space in the elections that ended two days ago. I saw in the papers that George Yeo, who was previously elected, used a video to speak “directly” to the young voters both on Facebook and YouTube.

According to the papers, it went viral. I watched it and it was a good video – everything social media is about: sincerity, being personal and being authentic.

But two questions ran through my mind when I watched it two days before polling day:

1) Is it too little too late?

2) Will it reach the right audience, or is the social media/Facebook/YouTube audience below the voting age?

The answer to both questions seems to be yes and no respectively, seeing as George Yeo didn’t get re-elected and Aljunied went to the Workers’ Party instead.

It’s very tempting to blame social media and say “well, that didn’t work”. After all, George Yeo is one of the few ministers who blogs and even manages his own Facebook page. If his efforts didn’t pay off, is everyone else destined to fail too?

Why then, didn’t it work?

I think perhaps it’s a little bit to do with not knowing your target audience. It’s very easy to get caught up in posting content on Facebook or tweeting on Twitter. But how many of those people are able to vote for you? (ie within your constituency?). Would time have been better spent on focusing on residents instead?

I think George Yeo’s “young advisors” made a wrong move by believing that creating something like this that late in the game would push the needle.

It certainly worked on someone like me – I was truly impressed by the video. But I don’t live in Aljunied and couldn’t vote for him even if his personal message moved me.

Vote Forces Singapore’s Leader to Reconsider Style New York Times

“Nicole Seah: Tonight and the Next 5 Years” The Temasak Review

Social media dents invincibility of Singapore’s rulers Social Media NZ

“Singapore opposition make ‘landmark’ election gains” BBC News

“Young voters speak their minds” The Star (Malaysia)

“Singapore’s Election ’Watershed’ May Loosen Political Hold of Lee’s Party” Bloomberg

“Opposition gets boost in Singapore poll” Sydney Morning Herald

“Politician Tin Pei Ling Faces Facebook Petition” Penn Olson

And finally, a mixed bag of tweets of the significance (or not) of social media during the 2011 Singapore elections, all of which come courtesy of the #sgelections hashtag:

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