The YouTwitFace* Elections
Much ado has been made about this year’s “watershed” election that seemed, overnight, to have vanquished the average Singaporean’s reputation for political apathy and saw an unprecedented six opposition candidates winning Parliamentary seats.
Three things made this election vastly different from its predecessors: the relaxed rules on political campaigning via the Internet, the nature of Web 2.0 that enables and encourages two-way discourse, and the sudden dissipation of the “climate of fear”.
Although the Internet had already become an important part of our lives at the last elections in 2006, the many obstacles such as restrictions faced by bloggers on the distribution and sharing of podcasts and vodcasts and other regulations simply proliferated this “climate of fear”. Although there was online coverage of rallies and the like, many still believed that associating themselves with the opposition would mean the end of their livelihood and future.
This has changed greatly in the lead up to the latest election. I saw civil servants, once the most fearful segment of the electorate, openly and even proudly supporting opposition parties and candidates, and criticizing current policies championed by the incumbent. Young people, once muzzled by parents and their own apathy, began taking an active interest in politics, as if realizing for the first time that these policies would have the most impact on them. They made their voices heard through articulate Facebook notes and blog posts.
The ongoing revolutions in the Arab world have lent a certain credibility and legitimacy to Facebook and Twitter, social networking sites that are often dismissed as promoting narcissism and self-centredness. In the hands of technologically savvy political activists such as Egyptian Wael Ghonim, these seemingly frivolous sites were repurposed as tools for galvanizing disgruntled citizens.
Inspired by its ability to reach out to youths—an influential segment of the population that has traditionally wielded the ability to enact social and political change—politicians and interest groups in Singapore embraced the opportunity to engage with new members of the electorate.
The opposition parties used Facebook, in particular, to great effect, setting up ‘Pages’ through which they could disseminate their manifesto, share photos of themselves pounding the pavement in their contested wards, and, most importantly, interact with and address the queries of concerned voters directly and personally. Star candidates like the National Solidarity Party’s Nicole Seah, and the Worker’s Party’s Pritam Singh and Chen Show Mao quickly overtook People’s Action Party candidates George Yeo, Tin Pei Ling, and even Lee Kuan Yew in Facebook ‘Like’s. Lamentably, People’s Action Party candidates like Vivian Balakrishnan and George Yeo took to deleting unfavourable or dissenting comments, exercising censorship on a platform that eschews such behaviour.
Facebook also served as a key platform for alternative news outlets like The Online Citizen (TOC). Despite having been gazetted as a political association by the Prime Minister’s Office just months before—a move construed by many as a sign that the government saw the publication as a threat—TOC flourished on Facebook in the weeks leading up to the elections. The site’s administrators shared relevant articles and analysis almost on an hourly basis, turning their Facebook page—and, by extension, their followers’ news feeds—into a news aggregator in the style of the highly successful U.S.-based website The Drudge Report. These websites gave much needed attention to opposition parties and candidates, who are unable to depend on mainstream media sources for positive publicity and coverage.
YouTube also became a surprisingly useful resource in GE2011. Videos of almost every candidate’s rally speeches were uploaded to the site with the kind of immediacy we’ve come to take for granted in this day and age. You could attend a Worker’s Party rally in the evening, and then go home to watch all the other rallies on YouTube. An excellent Al Jazeera special program on the elections was also widely watched and distributed online, the only medium through which Singaporeans can access Al Jazeera since SingTel’s mio TV stopped broadcasting the channel last year.
YouTube also allowed us to enjoy the lighter side of GE2011 through viral videos; netizens went to town making crazy remixes and mashups of PAP candidate Tin Pei Ling’s infamous “I don’t know what to say” video and Returning Officer Yam Ah Mee’s monotonous election results announcements. A hilarious and somewhat heartwarming satirical video by first-time voters Munah Bagharib and Hirzi Zulkiflie enjoyed over 41,000 views.
In the last hours of election fever, Twitter drove home the redundancy and ineffectualness of the mainstream media. Unofficial election results were tweeted by reporters and supporters staking out at the counting centres hours before MediaCorp broadcasted the official announcements. Eagerly anticipated results for hotly contested constituencies like Aljunied were announced by the national broadcaster almost three hours after candidates in these constituencies themselves conceded defeat. MediaCorp’s defense—that they could only broadcast official results to maintain their credibility—is justified, but doesn’t really change the fact that most people depended on sources like Twitter for news that night.
Another key difference between this election and the last is the ubiquity of smartphones in 2011. With Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the Internet in general accessible to us at all hours of the day, the majority of voters were kept abreast of every development throughout the course of the election.
This has been an election where more people than ever have felt comfortable expressing their views and their preferences. The significance of 40% of the over two million voters voting for a party other than the incumbent cannot be overstated. The message sent out by the electorate was clear: we will no longer sit back and let things happen to us; we will make things happen.
Shahirah is an aspiring journalist who is interested in social issues, women’s rights, the Middle East conflict, and Islam in the Western world. She is also interested in languages and is currently studying the Arabic language.