Singapore lesson: Don't take the internet too seriously

September 21, 2015 15:10
A man holds a kid while gazing at the skyline of Singapore's central business district from the top of a public housing block. Photo:

George Yeo Yong Boon (楊榮文) may finally be consoled.

The Singaporean's rising political career under the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) ended abruptly after he lost his parliament seat to the opposition in the 2011 general elections.

He had represented the Aljunied Group Representation Constituency in the eastern part of the city state for more than a decade.

His defeat reflected the beating the ruling party suffered in that exercise, which saw its lowest share of the vote since independence.

Yeo resigned from his post as foreign minister and joined Kerry Logistics in Hong Kong as its chairman a year later.

That defeat also shattered the ambitions of Ong Ye Kung (王乙康), who served as principal private secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He was a member of Yeo’s election team in Aljunied, and was considered a frontrunner for a key position in Singaporean government had he won.

The PAP's loss of Aljunied to the Workers' Party and its poor performance in the election prompted two former prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, to step down as minister mentors.

The ruling party had to bear that defeat for a long time -- until the final results of this year's general elections were announced on Sept. 11.

But even in the run-up to this year's election, the general consensus among political observers was that Singaporeans would not give the PAP a clean sweep.

They believed an early election to exploit the people’s patriotic fervor whipped up by the Southeast Asian nation's jubilee celebrations wouldn’t help too much.

Such dire prediction was reinforced by the widespread discontent at the ruling party in the cyber world, the large crowds that attended the election campaign rallies of the opposition, plus the fact that, for the first time in history, the PAP candidates faced rivals in all the constituencies.

Also, there's the case of teenage dissident Amos Yee Pang Sang (余澎杉), whose imprisonment after he posted a vitriolic video on YouTube against Lee Kuan Yew shortly after the latter's death opened a floodgate of sympathy for the outspoken blogger.

Now the lesson is that voices on the internet may not reflect how people feel in the real world.

It's also safe to say that many of those who showed up in the opposition parties’ election campaign sorties were there simply to vent their emotions or just for fun, and after having done so, they went to the polls and voted for the PAP.

The ruling party's final share of the vote turned out to be nine percentage points higher than in the last poll, its second best result since 1980.

Having erased the PAP's ignominy from the election four years ago, Lee Hsien Loong must now be a very happy man.

You can say that the situation on the ground is often distorted on the internet. And Singapore is not a standalone case.

Prior to the British election this May, public opinion surveys, done mostly online, suggested that the chance would be slim for either the Conservatives or Labor to secure a majority of the House of Commons seats so another coalition was forecast.

But David Cameron’s neat victory showed how wrong such forecasts were.

One explanation can be that voters supportive of incumbent officials mostly stay silent while those who feel aggrieved by the status quo are the ones dominating the public discourse, as noted in an analysis published in the Southern Weekend.

The point is echoed by international studies scholar Simon Shen Xu-hui. In his column in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, he argues that there hasn’t been any drastic shift in people’s attitude towards the Singaporean government.

And even if there are emerging undercurrents, they may have been exaggerated by overseas media, he says, as the PAP has done a fairly good job in boosting the economy and people’s quality of living.

Most Singaporeans, having their own stakes in the country, dread any reversal of the current situation as they themselves will have to pay for such an eventuality.

One thing to learn from the election is that the impact of internet depends on a society’s political climate in the first place: its role may be largely peripheral when most people favor stability.

Only when there are issues that have long been neglected or appalling government scandals could the people's emotions be ignited and turned into votes for the opposition.

Also, online forum discussions are usually hijacked by populist or racist issues, and by young netizens who prefer to rant about perceived inequities rather than explore solutions.

All these may alienate them from the silent majority. It is especially so in the Lion City where a substantial portion of the middle-of-the-road voters have vivid memories of the ordeals they went through during the earliest days of an independent Singapore.

Then, here’s one unsolicited tip for Hong Kong politicians, especially members of the pan-democratic camp: Don’t take too seriously the usual volley of criticisms whenever a senior official makes a blunder.

While netizens are having a field day lambasting the powers that be, it's possible that other members of society don't feel the same way.

As for Yeo, who was subjected to intense online rebukes four years ago, he may consider resuming his political career after his party’s victory has silenced the opposition and their supporters -- both online and offline.

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Singapore's parliament was dissolved at the request of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong merely two weeks before the election. Photo: Internet
Lee Hsien Loong celebrates the election victory with his PAP comrades. Photo: The Guardian
An illustration showing the PAP's overwhelming victory over the opposition in this year's elections. Having secured most of the constituencies, the PAP has further consolidated its rule in the city state. Photo: WordPress

EJ Insight writer