The factors that contributed to the outcome of this past general election have been discussed ad nauseum, but we are no closer to coming to a definitive conclusion of what really made the populace vote the way it did. I do not wish to add to the speculation other than to state the obvious: it was a combination of all of them.
Rather, I think it would be much more helpful to identify the root motivator, or motivators, of the voting behaviour of the majority of Singaporeans.
To do that, let me first cite the work of Ellen Lust of Yale University. Essentially, Professor Lust says that “Elections in authoritarian regimes not only fail to push the transition process forward, but tend to strengthen the incumbent regime.”
She observes that in hegemonic authoritarian systems:
- Elections tend to weaken political parties...Parties come to be seen as personalistic cliques, focused on their own interests.
- Political parties tend to splinter into even weaker offshoots.
- Elections provide an efficient mechanism for distributing patronage.
- Opposition elites who win seats become part of the patronage network, providing selective benefits to their constituents.
- Elections also can help the party in power to co-opt potential counterelites.
So what does Lust see as a viable option for those who want to bring about a more democratic state? She writes: “Supporters of democracy should thus focus on changing the overall playing field rather than just the electoral process.”
What playing field, in the Singapore context, are we talking about ? As it turns out, there are not so many things that stack the system in favour of the PAP. No matter how you slice it, three factors emerge:
- Control of the print and broadcast media
- Use of state organs for party-political purposes
- Subjugation of the body charged with the conduct of elections
The combination of the three will – regardless of the efficacy of the political opposition and the potency of our message – result in the overwhelming electoral victory of the PAP each and every election. For purposes of this essay, I wish to focus on the first factor: media control.
Democracy isn't just about voting once every 5 years, it is about having a free media where views of all sides are openly aired and support for them canvassed. In Singapore, however, opposition parties are excluded from meaningful coverage in the period between elections, save for perhaps whenever the PAP decides to criticise us.
This is a powerful drug that anaesthetises the electorate to the pain that PAP policies inflict and acts as a stimulant for its message especially during elections. Conversely, the obscurantism turns most things the opposition has to offer into inconsequential drivel.
Pundits and commentators, in their haste to provide “answers” for the PAP's sterling results, draw conclusions ranging from the PAP's superior communication skills to the one speech that DPM Tharman made during the hustings to the lack of opposition unity.
These observations ignore the overarching role that the control of information plays in driving voting behaviour of the majority of Singaporeans. After more than 50 years of the PAP-good, opposition-bad dichotomy, it would indeed be surprising that the national vote turned out any other way.
Perhaps media consultant Alan Soon, amidst all the faux analyses of the results, came closest to the nub of the matter when he noted: “If journalism is meant to be a service in which we inform and educate society, we’re failing. This country has real issues to contend with and we’re not going to get very far if the media doesn’t appreciate its role in explaining, dissecting and challenging policies.”
If any good is going to come from the dismal results of this elections, let it be a renewed effort to revamp the way our national media operate in order to level the playing field and provide the Singaporean electorate a proper forum to debate politics and policies and when elections come, the wherewithal to cast an intelligent vote.
At the heart of this complex issue is the Newspaper Presses and Printing Act (NPPA) which, for all intents and purposes, allows the PAP monopoly of the political narrative in Singapore. Section 11 of the Act, for instance, says that “No person shall...become a substantial shareholder of a newspaper company without first obtaining the approval of the Minister.” This surely cannot be the way the media in Singapore function in the knowledge-driven era.
We have been working hard, very hard. Now let us start working smart. As long as we do not address the fundamentals that drive the political system – fundamentals that have produced the same ineluctable results even after half-a-century of elections in Singapore – the opposition will be forever consigned to the inane exercise of chasing our tails.
This is an excerpt of my presentation at the SDP Post-GE2015 Forum: The Way Forward held on 19 September 2015.