Singapore: Popcorn Democracy?

Confrontational politics, social media and political apathy — some of the issues raised during MARUAH’s post-election forum What’s at Stake?

After the unexpected landslide victory of 69.9% of the popular votes by the People’s Action Party (PAP) in this year’s Election, pundits, academics and other politically-minded individuals shared their analyses of the result and its implication for Singapore.

Against this backdrop, MARUAH, a human rights group, held a forum called What’s at Stake? on Saturday, 19 September. It comes eight days after polling day

Speaker Alex Au who was one of six speakers at the forum, avoided giving a mere explanation of the result. Instead he posed “provocative” questions for people to consider,among which was the state of opposition politics. Speaking directly to Workers’ Party’s dip in performance — he touched on their reluctance to “boast” of their performance in Parliament and questioning PAP on a number of issues. He felt their inability to score on such matters may have backfired.

Confrontational politics

The writer behind the blog Yawning Bread spoke about the importance of party branding. To differentiate themselves from each other, opposition parties should not just criticise the PAP, but each other, he said.

According to him, in people’s minds, the opposition parties are all the same. Hence, opposition parties should “forget about opposition unity” and be unafraid of contesting each other.

When an audience member questioned the need for “confrontational politics,” Au said, this is “unavoidable”.

Disputing this point, political analyst Dr Derek da Cunha pointed out that the Workers’ Party (WP) had actually performed well over the years because it took a moderate stance.

Role of social media

Dr da Cunha also took to task social media’s role in determining election outcomes. He said it had “zero impact” and that he has been saying this “forcefully for six years.”

Terry Xu, Chief Editor of The Online Citizen (TOC), said that prior to this year’s Election, he would not have agreed with Dr da Cunha, but now does. He noted that despite the satires of PAP politicians his publication put out, voters were hardly swayed by them — presumably to vote for the opposition.

Xu took issue with new sites like SIX-SIX.COM, Mothership and The Middle Ground, urging the audience to ask where funding for these sites comes from, even implying, without any proof, that they may be backed by the Government.

Author and blogger, Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh pointed out the question of funding and the need to moderate one’s content is an issue all media outlets deal with. He added that readers should decide for themselves the credibility of a news site.

Dr da Cunha questioned TOC’s credibility after putting out articles from anonymous sources. He said that while he used to think the site was good, it has over the years become “more extreme.”

In reply, Xu said the people who write the anonymous articles are teachers and academics who are afraid their positions in the workplace might be compromised when they are associated withTOC.

Death of the new normal

Au said that the one point all the speakers could probably agree with is that “the new normal” of higher political engagement after the WP won a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in the 2011 election “was a figment of our imagination.”

In the same vein, Thomas said the 2011 result might have just been a “blip” and the presumed “death of the apathetic Singaporean” was false.

Singaporeans might be interested only in “popcorn democracy” where they engage with politics once in every four or five years during election season, instead of actively engaging with politics every day, he said.

“Maybe Singaporeans just want the veneer of democracy.”

Going forward?

As per its discussion theme, What’s at Stake?, MARUAH’s forum laid out issues of concern for Singaporeans after the recent election.

Braema Mathi, President of MARUAH, had asked the speakers to provide some ideas for electoral reform as well. Dr da Cunha suggested that GRCs be of “uniform size,” following the practice in 1991 where there were four-members each for every ward.

He also said that the EBRC should publish its report on boundary shifts no less than four months before polling day and that policy changes like the introduction of sample count this election should not be announced “just days before polling day.”

Besides Dr da Cunha, Au seems to have been the only other person to have sketched out some steps forward, with his suggestion that opposition parties brand themselves better and that opposition parties collaborate more with civil society.



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