May 27, 2024

Singapore Loosens Grip on Internet

BANGKOK — The ruling People’s Action Party led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was returned to power on Sunday with a two-thirds majority 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 campaign 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 and assuring the largest opposition representation in Parliament in Singapore’s 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 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 opposition members. 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 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.

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 a step into the unknown, Singapore loosened its grip on political discourse in the unruly world of the Internet.

In a nation where government opponents are often sued over defamation and where carefully vetted public speech has been permitted only in a little park called Speakers’ Corner (which had been shut down during the campaign), experts say the new opening, if only in the virtual world, appears to be a redefinition of what are known here as “out-of-bounds markers.”

Following recent 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 found on cellphones.

For the first time, campaign recordings can be posted as long as they are not “dramatized” or published “out of context.” Video taken at an election rally can 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 is taking a gamble on making it part of the legal campaign system.

“I don’t think they had a choice,” said Kin Mun Lee, known on his blog as Mr. Brown, who said he skirted the law in the last campaign by avoiding explicitly political comments. “Before, it was a very limited kind of provision for online speech. Definitely they had to change the rules because of the proliferation and availability of options.”

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

The site Party Time aggregates conversations about the elections and graphically represents who is 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, as do many of the candidates.

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.

“In the present era, with the ubiquitous cellphone camera and rapid distribution channels that are well beyond blogs, the old editorial policy is no longer viable,” he said on his blog. “If the newspaper does not publish such pictures, others will, and its credibility can only suffer.”

The Straits Times has dedicated a portal on its Web site to extensive electronic election coverage, and it is now aggregating online comments from the social media on a page it calls Buzz, which gives a flavor of some of the newly energized online commentary:

“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?”

“If the opposition is sincere in serving the people, it would have been on the ground in the last four years, not starting their engines only when the whistle is blown.”

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

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