How Social Media is Shaping Singapore’s Politics


The Singapore Government cares more about
public perception than an Instagram model cares about ‘likes’. And it’s not afraid to
wield the long arm of the law to take down anyone who’s trying to tarnish its image,
which has, unsurprisingly, led to a self-censoring public. It’s easy to see why you might want
to discourage people from even talking about you. If you can reduce the criticisms and
accusations against you, you’ll have fewer disgruntled voices to deal with, which frees
you to do your job more efficiently (says the dictator).
Singapore seems to have benefitted from keeping free expression on a leash, especially when
judging against how far along living standards have improved. But this unconventional ruling
style has left Singapore with a unique problem as we settle into this social media era, where
facts, falsehoods, opinions and reactions to those facts, falsehoods and opinions are
shared faster than we can process them. People of Singapore used to only hear about
the “bloody Gahmen making life difficult!” from taxi drivers or that self-employed uncle
you see once a year at family gatherings. But today, such sentiments are everywhere
online from alternative media sites to private messaging groups. Technology has given everyone
the ability to share whatever’s on their minds in an instant. As you might expect, the Big
G has expanded anti-speech legislation to cover online media, but for now, it’s focused
on banishing content that’s popular. Good strategy—why target YouTubers who have
less than a thousand subscribers. (Right? I mean what’s the point?) It would be futile
and a waste of resources to try to cleanse the Internet of every opinion you disagreed
with. This partly explains why despite the rise
in socio-political chatter in the virtual world, we aren’t seeing a significant uptick
in lawsuits or apology demands from Singapore’s authorities.
There is also evidence to suggest that the Big G is not yet convinced that a free-playing
cyberspace is an imminent threat to its rule. To explore this hypothesis further, we have
to go back to this picture. It’s a photograph of thousands of people gathered at a Workers’
Party rally in Hougang during the 2006 General Elections. The picture was taken by Alex Au,
who featured it on his blog, Yawning Bread. The photo quickly spread to other alternative
media sites and became a hot topic of discussion among the masses because it showed that perhaps
Singaporeans aren’t sheep who only respond to one shepherd. And yet the picture wasn’t
featured in any traditional mainstream media outlets.
Many Singaporeans felt vindicated by the picture because this was, for them, the first irrefutable
evidence that everyone could point to as proof that traditional media was clearly biased
in favour of the ruling party. Beyond that, the photo was a lightning rod that gave repressed
voices the first real opportunity to acknowledge one another.
Remember that before the Internet, the average citizen had no way to find out how many of
their fellow citizens shared their concerns about the Big G. There were no large-scale
public discussion platforms. Local newspapers and television shows didn’t feature stories
that implicated the Big G for society’s failings. Public assemblies and protests were and continue
to be illegal under most circumstances. Things took a slight turn for the better in
2000 when the Speakers’ Corner opened and allowed Singaporeans to apply for speaking
permits to air their grievances to anyone who’ll listen.
The photograph incident in 2006 seemed like the beginning of a paradigm shift in the way
Singaporeans discussed politics even though, back then, social media was still in its infancy.
2006 was a time when Facebook wasn’t evil, vlogging was for people who couldn’t write,
and WhatsApp was still a young programmer’s wet dream. The initial excitement of the everyday
person being able to create and share content to anyone and everyone at no monetary cost
came with a fear that the Big G would tighten free speech regulations.
However, these fears turned out to be largely unfounded. The authorities realised that despite
the constant churn of dissent in certain corners of the web, netizens weren’t manifesting their
gripes in a manner that was threatening peace and order in society. The big question was
whether these armchair critics would reflect their frustrations at the polling booths by
voting for a new political party. Turns out, this hasn’t happened yet.
In 2006, the PAP snapped up 82 out of 84 parliamentary seats. As the online media landscape matured
and became more entwined with the lives of Singaporeans, the ruling party continued to
dominate the elections, claiming 81 out of 87 seats in the 2011 GE, and then won 83 out
of 89 seats in the 2015 GE. So, we can surmise that thus far, the digital
communications revolution hasn’t posed a threat to the incumbent rulers. But if we pay close
attention, Singaporeans might be more conflicted about the status quo than prior election results
suggest. Here are three trends showing why political
change could be afoot: The shift to a 24-hour news cycle
that’s punctuated by noise and falsehoods has made it harder for the Big G to maintain
rapport with its people. To keep popularity levels up, some ministers have been getting
chattier. Some of their off-the-cuff comments, however,
end up rubbing people the wrong way. In just the past month, netizens rebuffed
the Minister for Home Affairs for his racial and religious justification for the cancellation
of a heavy metal concert. The Finance Minister was also lambasted for his questionable claim
that older Singaporeans aren’t ready for a Prime Minister of a minority race.
It’s important to note that in both cases, the vocal backlashes don’t necessarily reflect
the views of the majority. What needs to be emphasised is that we are living in a time
when politicians feel they need to let their personality out a little and offer more insights
to stay connected with their voting base, but, in doing so, they leave themselves open
to a level of scrutiny and humiliation not previously seen in our tightly controlled
political sphere. As we discussed, Singapore’s cyberspace has
always had angry, anti-establishment sentiments. But before there was social media, you had
to know where to look for them. The accessibility of social media has resulted in Singaporeans
of all ages and walks of life treating cyberspace like their personal living rooms. Many netizens
have no qualms sharing their honest opinions online, even if they are offensive to those
in power. As more people get comfortable participating
in online discussions, the number of quality criticisms will increase. We’re already seeing
more folks who can refute a Minister’s statement with just the right amount of wit that it
shuts down any reason for a defence. Such Yoda-level remarks also have higher chances
of going ‘viral’, forcing even traditional mainstream media to feature them, which only
heightens the embarrassment of the person in question. Government policies are traditionally
marketed to the masses via newspaper articles with readable bullet-points, cute infographics
and blurbs from economists about how amazing said policy will be for Singapore. And we,
the people would lap it up like a cold glass of sugarcane juice. No controversy, no resistance.
Today, more Singaporeans have the courage to step up, write articles and make videos
to deconstruct these complicated policies which often have many moving parts and contain
as many drawbacks as they do benefits. When such critique is driven by reliable research
and objective reasoning, they stand a good chance of being seen by other Singaporeans,
leading to a domino effect that encourages the population to develop a healthy scepticism
about all kinds of Government action. Opposition politicians and activists
are getting better at online communication. Before the Internet was a thing, new opposition
politicians would struggle to earn the trust of their constituents since they seemed to
only show their faces and wave their pom-poms around during the election period, which people
tended to find off-putting. When a play for power feels rushed, motivations get questioned
which detracts from the party’s manifesto. Today, opposition politicians are using online
platforms judiciously to talk about Government indiscretions while explaining what they can
do differently. They’re getting smarter with their language too, being careful to avoid
slander, libel or other vague speech offenses. As a result, they’re able to build up loyal
fanbases that always want their take on the country’s problems. These media-savvy politicians
can stir up a storm long before polling day, which only helps their ability to promote
themselves during the actual election campaign period.
Activists in Singapore have always been ignored by the general public partly because they
often choose to convey their messages by being tacky art installations. But seriously, we
have been using the same shameful modus operandi to disrespect benign public expression for
too long. Local newspapers would feature an unflattering shot of an activist and accompany
it with a headline about how said activist is in trouble with the law. This method of
negative association conditions the public to perceive activists as disruptive to society,
even though there’s nothing more harmless than a person standing on a street quietly
holding a cardboard sign. Today, activists can use social media to expound
their cause and shed light on their motivations, to quell perceptions that they are merely
attention-seekers with nothing better to do with their time. If we can appreciate someone
sacrificing their time and privacy to address a cause they believe in, the whole country
will be better off. As Singaporeans get better at navigating online
interactions, they’ll acquire better tools to assess the policies that govern their lives,
which will lead to an informed and politically engaged population that can effectively articulate
the changes they would like to see in society. But this path of enlightenment we’re on will
be derailed if the Big G decides to widen their definition of what constitutes harmful
content, because we would regress to that climate of fear and self-censorship, where
public discourse is shunned. Ignorance and vulnerability will once again
cast a shadow over the population. Racial and economic divides will turn from cracks
to uncrossable chasms, because it’ll be too risky to discuss our differences. We’ll instead
keep our judgements, hatred and intolerance to ourselves, where they will fester and manifest
in ways the authorities will be powerless to overcome.
On the other hand, if our cyberspace remains a marketplace where ideas can be exchanged
freely, the population can continue to learn and grow. Before we know it, we could have
a functioning democracy that’s driven by an informed, gracious and resilient population.
Sad Coffee, out.

Maurice Vega

4 Responses

  1. Man I got to this channel from that Rice Media article and I'm so happy there are Singaporean video essay-ists out there!!!!

  2. But dictatorship is not the better model .
    Sg is now still a democracy on paper. We must be aware of actors trying to influencr public opinion that democracy is flawed and so one party rule is better because Dictatorship allows no protest and so its more peaceful. But by making people Powerless and Voiceless, given absolute power , a future govt can be corrupt . In such a scenario, Dictatorship will mean the people cannot changeb the govt and cannot speak up against corruption or wrong doing by a rogue govt.
    So , lets be aware and not be brainwashed to accept dictstorship. Else we will become as ridiculous as china citizens who totally canmot hold their govt accountable and there is absolutely no transparency. They all base on perception they get from state propaganda news media. They can only hope and believe their govt is honest. The concept of Democracy is good but the implementation is not perfect because leaders do not want People to have Power. They fear losing power. This is the dilemma within democracy. Just because democracy is not perfected, does not mean dictatorship is the answer. The world prefers democracy over dictatorship. A democracy is not what a country claims it is. A democracy is true if the world perceives a country is a democracy. Eg. The democratic republic of north korea is a Dictatorship. A little country is a one party dominant police state but it allows elections and can claim it is a democracy but it is perceived by the world as a dictatorship. Rule of Law can be used as a weapon to Rule By Law.

    A ruling party is enjoying extreme advantage against its competitors. Using the entire country's machinery and resources to compete with opposition. So, ruling parties are not as great as they are perceived. The country is run by civil service. When regime change, the civil servants have to continue to serve. If they do not cooperate it is against national interest

  3. Such a great video about Social Media. Everyone should follow this Video. But you can also visit Tejarat Marketing for the best SEO Services in Singapore.

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