Politics in the Lion City: Toward an "Orchid Evolution"?

May 24, 2011, 2:07 p.m.

The recent general elections in Singapore on May 7 showed an increase in political participation.  The main opposition party captured a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) for the first time.  Singapore's elections show increased openings for the opposition.  The report states that over time the opposition has continued to win more of the popular vote.  The recent elections had a high voter turnout with a record at 80 percent.  Eighty two of the 87 parliamentary seats were open to be contested; up from 48 contested seats in the past.  While Singapore is still predominantly a one party system in-roads have been made for increased space for the opposition to have a voice and a more open political system to take form.

What is in store for Singaporean politics? More than 80 percent of Singaporeans voted this time, many of them—in their 30s and 40s—firsttime voters, because their constituencies were contested for the first time. In the past four elections—in 1991, 1997, 2001, and 2006—the percentage of eligible voters who lived in uncontested constituencies was 49.9 percent, 59.3 percent, 66.8 percent, and 43.4 percent respectively. Thus for decades a large proportion of the eligible electorate was denied the opportunity to vote. This large-scale disfranchisement led to political alienation, which the ruling party incorrectly diagnosed as political apathy among the young. Anecdotal evidence suggests that voters were indeed engaged, listening to the debates and weighing the pros and cons before they cast their vote. Gone are the images of docile, passive, and apathetic Singaporeans. The alienation and disenfranchisement that resulted from the inability to vote because of the numerous walkovers in uncontested GRCs dissipated. Singaporeans were thinking about the future of their country and voting with their hearts and their minds. The casting of the ballot is merely an external act. What is more important is the decision making process that takes place within each voter. There was an awakening, a desire among Singaporeans for their voices to be heard, and if I may venture, this was the first time that a strong Singaporean identity was forged.

The last and perhaps most significant development in this election was that, for the first time, Singaporeans were engaged. The election rallies during the nine-day campaigning period were well attended. In particular, opposition rallies were held in full-capacity stadiums. The SingaporePeople’s Party last rally, led by Chiam See Tong, was reportedly attended by 30,000 Singaporeans. Young Singaporeans in particular were engaged in heated debates in new media forums such as Facebook. For the first time, the opposition parties were able to use the Internet to mobilize supporters. As an indication of the speed with which the Internet was able to galvanize support, numerous Facebook pages sprung up overnight after the announcement of the election results calling for Tin Pei Ling’s resignation from Parliament for allegedly violating cooling-off day rules.

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