Singapore’s “False Spring”

When all eyes were fixed at the Arab Spring, a small Asian island nation was busy preparing for a similar uprising.

But only as it seemed.

It was indeed a “false spring” in Singapore as the People’s Action Party (PAP) swept the votes to victory in the May 2011 election, as it has been since 1959. The uprising was thus only limited to the virtual world of the Internet with online political activism gaining a solid momentum.

In what was claimed to be a “social media election” with thousands of Singaporeans actively engaging in online political discourse for the first time, it wasn’t enough to call for a change in Singapore’s political playground, says Cherian George, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University.

However, he doesn’t ignore the role of the Internet in Singapore’s election this year.

“There were signs of democratic awakening,” says George speaking to a handful of students at University of Westminster on October 5.

Singapore, a country of 5 million, has been under PAP’s rule for more than five decades now. Though the country has progressed economically and is known for stable governance, George calls the system “an illiberal democracy.”

“PAP argues state capacity is more important than accountability,” says the author of books like Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation: Essays on the Politics of Comfort and Control.

But with the emergence of the Internet, political blogs and bloggers like Alex Au and Gerland Ho who courageously condemns the government, George says it has made people aware about a lot of issues and has made them think.

“The Internet has helped to activate the depoliticized public,” he says giving an example of the number of people who flocked the streets of Singapore weeks before the Election Day. Previously, people from the opposition only rallied during the last marches before the election.

The intervention of the Internet has not only activated people but also helped the opposition to better position itself and improve the level of support. For parties like the Singapore Democratic Party, the Internet, according to George, has given them a platform to recoup their image for the government has branded them as “a dangerous force.”

It is various political blogs like New Temasker Review, an anonymous blog, now inoperative, and popular and credible ones like Yawning Bread that anti-government statements and write-ups have found a public domain and generated equal interest. But while there are several blogs that lash the PAP, there is not a single pro-government blog.

“The mainstream medium covers more establishment views. We try it balance it with other views,” explains Tan Kin Lian, one of the Singaporean political bloggers, about the phenomena.

Andrew Loh, from the blog The Online Citizen opines the blogs to be a “platform for opposition views.”

But despite rigid Internet regulations, the Singaporean government hasn’t cracked on these blogs or any political sites in the country that has nothing good to say about them.

As George, an academician and journalist researching on press and politics, alternative media and media policy,  explains, it’s called the government’s “light touch Internet regulation” where there is no discretionary licensing or blocking/filtering of political websites.

“[I think] there’s no interest in criminalizing a large mass of people,” he says.

But despite the active online activism, there has not been a momentum that would create a revolution. Singapore is still one of the most stable hegemonic political systems in the world. And, according to George, the dream of a “Singapore Spring” is still far away.

“The individual self-expression is not threatening,” he says. “It’s only threatening when it’s organized and mobilized, and the government is confident that it can online expression and offline mobilization of people.”

But does this online activism in Singapore’s political playground prove something? Could this be a starting point for Singaporeans to achieve what the Tunisians and Egyptians have?

As George puts it: “The Internet has emboldened the public and eroded the culture of fear. It will have an indirect, long time and gradual effect on the political culture.”

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