Singapore Election Upset?

In a little over a week a 24-year-old Singaporean named Nicole Seah has gone from unknown advertising agency executive to the national spotlight as the country's second-most popular politician, and an opposition one at that, after her campaign for the city's Marine Parade GRC seat in the 2011 Singapore General Elections hit the online space through social media.

Seah, who represents the National Solidarity Party (NSP), has accrued an impressive amount of support through Facebook, putting her second only to Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew as the Straits Times explains:

"By 9pm on Monday, the 24-year-old opposition candidate had amassed 18,900 fans compared to Lee's 54,000 fans. She had earlier that day overtaken previous runner-up Foreign Minister George Yeo's 18,700 fans, despite the fact that he had a three-year head start."

But what is it about Miss Seah* that has ignited attention in an election process that is often all too predictable in Singapore? I've distilled a few thoughts below.

Something new, something fresh

Singaporean politics has long been dominated by the People's Action Party (PAP), which won 82 of the country's 84 contested seats at the last election to gain a hugely dominant majority to the point that politics is the country is near apolitical.

With the country's political media notoriously restricted in its criticism of government and discussion of politics, few outlets exist for Singaporeans to read and express free views on the government. Management of the media is so strong that, in the run up to the election, a number of the country's key political blogs – such as the hugely popular Temasek Review – were recategorized as media outlets so as to fall under stricter censorship.

Against a backdrop of one-party dominance and state control, Seah represents something entirely outside of the institution and, in using social media to communicate, she is giving herself a platform to connect with voters outside of the confines of Singapore's media.

The preferred youth candidate

In anticipation of its toughest election for decades, the ruling PAP put forward Tin Pei Ling, a 27-year-old election candidate whose campaign used YouTube and Facebook, alongside her youth, to appeal to younger audiences who, many as first time voters, are seen as the most unpredictable demographic.

As Matt Crooks points out however Miss Tin* suffers from a real lack of substance and meaning: "The plan has backfired somewhat because, let's face it, Tin Pei Ling is not a politician. She doesn't deserve to be in the position she is. Good intentions and being nice aren't the kind of qualities that would usually win seats in a country's parliament, but Singapore is clearly no ordinary country. Perhaps slightly disturbed by the criticism being leveled at her, Tin Pei Ling has come out and said she takes her criticism "seriously and humbly". Yawn. She has also reiterated that she can empathize with all Singaporeans. Double yawn."

The thing about Tin Pei Ling is that all she ever appears to say is how much she understand Singaporeans — the old and the young — and how in tune with their needs she is. She doesn't know what those needs are, though.

In response to Tin's greyness, Seah has emerged as a straight-talking young woman who has impressed Singaporeans through her dealings with the media, responses to question and comparative substance.

While little is known of her and she perhaps lacks a traditional political background, almost in response to the positioning of Ling, Seah's popularity has grown massively, with many her popularity testament to many choosing her as their preferred 'youth' candidate in the election.

A ballot-box social media revolution

Much has been made of social media's role in the civil uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (amongst others earlier this year) with many wondering whether Asia would seem similar events unfold (forgetting that last year Bangkok saw something very similar as blogged here).

Though Southeast Asia's political systems are fairly stable – based on local standards, such as speculation of a new military coup in Thailand – and not about to see civilian uprising, social media is helping an altogether different type of civilian revolution – a platform away from censored media.

As mentioned Singapore's political press has issues, while Thailand's internet was recently condemned as 'not free' and censorship and media restriction can be found across Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines and other neighboring states – yet across all of these markets social media enjoys a vibrant and popular following through Facebook, Twitter and other services.

Social media, in these markets of (varying levels of) media oppression serve to offer a breath of fresh air where comment is freer (but, as Thailand continues to show, not free) which during election time gives parties, and politicians like Nicole Seah, a platform to communicate directly with the public free of restriction and interferences as this AFP story elaborates:

The opposition Singapore Democratic Party's secretary-general Chee Soon Juan said social media would enable it to bypass pro-PAP newspapers and broadcasters.

"For the SDP it will be crucial for us given the state of the media in Singapore where everything is controlled by the ruling party," he told AFP, while admitting that social media's impact would be limited in the short term.

That said, the article freely acknowledges that this is very much a guinea pig run when it comes to using social media in the Singapore election:

"This is the first time that a lot of these tools are going to be employed, so it's very new in that sense, so it may take a little while for it to become very much a part of the political scene, electoral scene," Chee said.

Workers' Party webmaster Koh Choong Yong — who oversees the party's Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as website — concurred.

"It is efficient because of its speed and ease of delivery, but it cannot compare with the coverage of traditional media," Koh told AFP.

"New media caters only to a particular segment of the population… It helps us to reach out to more people than we could have, but it is probably not going to be the major determining factor in the winning of votes."

Seah herself calls the election "a watershed for social media" while admitting that it is anyone's guess as to how online popularity will translate into votes.

With the country's Facebook population of 3 million larger than the voter pool of 2.35 million, many voters may well interact with and discover new content through Facebook and Twitter, though it will be fascinating to see just how influential social media will be and how Miss Seah and her fellow opposition candidates will fare.

Note: a Singapore study released today has suggested that Facebook is already the third most popular online source for election news and updates in the country – behind Yahoo and Channel News Asia, full details at Penn Olson. While it is certainly too early to look at the Facebook effect in great detail, given that voters are yet to cast their ballot, the 2011 election is certainly breaking new ground in Singapore.

Jon Russell blogs for Asian Correspondent, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.

*Corrected April 29, 2011. We apologize for mispellings and thank our readers for pointng them out -- Eds.