December 5, 2023

Opposition Makes Inroads in Singapore

BANGKOK — The ruling People’s Action Party led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was returned to power on Sunday with a majority of 60 percent of the vote after a hard-fought parliamentary campaign in which opposition parties made their strongest inroads since Singapore’s independence in 1965.

The opposition was contesting all but one constituency for the first time, drawing enthusiastic crowds, many of them energized by Internet campaigning that opened the race to a clamor of voices and points of view in this tightly controlled city-state.

In a significant upset, a five-member Workers’ Party slate won a group-candidate constituency over a ruling party slate that included two cabinet ministers. The results assured the opposition of its largest representation in Parliament in history.

One other member of the Workers’ Party was also elected, meaning that the ruling party will hold 81 seats to the opposition’s 6.

The popular vote was also a concern for the ruling party. It received just over 60 percent of the ballots cast, the lowest in its history, down from 67 percent in 2006 and 75 percent in 2001.

“We understand that this was a watershed election,” said the prime minister, who promised to study the outcome and listen to the voters.

The People’s Action Party, or P.A.P., has never been out of power, and until 1981 there were no opposition members of Parliament. Until this election, there had never been more than four members from opposition parties. The ruling party’s loss of seats was its biggest since independence.

“A new chapter has opened in Singapore’s history,” said the foreign minister, George Yeo, one of the cabinet ministers who lost his seat. “There was a tide we could not overcome.”

In the last election, in 2006, the opposition put up candidates in only about half the constituencies, winning just two parliamentary seats. This year, candidates for six opposition parties contested 82 of 87 seats.

As public counting of the votes ran deep into the night, constituency by constituency, it became evident that many opposition candidates had made strong challenges even in constituencies they had lost and that the overall percentage of votes won by the ruling party was declining.

The ruling party faced voter discontent over inflation and a growing imbalance of wealth as well as resistance to an influx of foreign workers. The online campaigns gave new voice to public discontent over the P.A.P.’s monopoly on power.

“Your votes tell us that the government that you want is a home, not just a house,” Low Thia Khiang, the Workers’ Party chief, said in a victory speech, contrasting his group’s approach with the hard-nosed and technocratic leadership of the P.A.P.

“Your votes tell the world that Singapore is just not an economic success to you,” he said. “Singapore is our home.” In their victory statements, members of the ruling party, one after another, acknowledged the slip in their popularity and promised to try harder in the future.

In the closing days of the campaign, Prime Minister Lee apologized for any mistakes the government had made, underlining the ruling party’s concerns about voter discontent.

“If we didn’t quite get it right, I am sorry, but we will try and do better the next time,” he told a rally on Tuesday, according to local newspaper reports. Later, he repeated: “Well, we’re sorry we didn’t get it exactly right, but I hope you’ll understand and bear with us because we’re trying our best to fix the problems.”

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:

“The opposition can make ferocious speeches, but can they deliver?”

“Is it true that civil servants will be ostracized if they vote for the opposition?”

“Why must we be so dogmatic about democracy and stability being mutually exclusive?”

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