In Singapore, Political Campaigning Goes Viral
By SETH MYDANS
SINGAPORE — This tightly controlled city-state has taken a step into the unknown in advance of its parliamentary elections on Saturday, loosening its grip on political discourse in the unruly world of the Internet, where Facebook, Twitter and other social media have amplified a clamor of voices and points of view.
In a nation where government opponents are often sued over defamation and where carefully vetted public speech has been permitted only in a little park called Speakers’ Corner (which has been shut down during the campaign), experts say the new opening, if only in the virtual world, appears to be a redefinition of what are known here as “out-of-bounds markers.”
Following recent changes to the Constitution and election laws, Internet election advertising is now permitted throughout cyberspace — on podcasts, videocasts, blogs, instant messaging, photo-sharing platforms like Flickr, social networking sites and electronic media applications like those found on mobile phones.
For the first time, election campaign recordings can be posted as long as they are not “dramatized” or published “out of context.” Video taken at an election rally can be uploaded onto the Web without being submitted to the Board of Film Censors.
“Social media have lowered the barriers of entry into political discourse everywhere,” said Mark Cenite, an assistant professor of communication and information at Nanyang Technological University. “But that’s particularly significant in Singapore because here the barriers to entry into political discourse and the accompanying risks have been so high.”
Despite the changes to Internet regulations, demonstrations and public speech still require permits in Singapore. Political speech is restricted to candidates. Opposition politicians and news media face the possibility of defamation suits. The mainstream news media are tightly controlled and have not acted as a check on the government, experts say.
During the last parliamentary campaign, in 2006, a small number of current events blogs were the main forum for online citizen participation. Political speech was technically illegal and demanded a greater level of risk and commitment.
“Now that the barriers to entry to political dialogue have fallen, the effect has been electric,” Mr. Cenite said. “Government critics are able to easily identify and support one another without making a headlong commitment to politics and take the accompanying risks.”
All of this has contributed to an intense campaign in which opposition parties — which now hold just 2 of 84 elected seats — are drawing bigger crowds to rallies, fielding more candidates and, in contrast to the past, contesting all but one constituency. In the last election, opposition parties contested just half the constituencies.
Analysts say it is impossible to know whether this enthusiasm will translate into votes against the People’s Action Party, or P.A.P., which has governed Singapore since 1959.
But the campaign itself has been transformed as social media give smaller, poorer parties a wider audience, bringing greater inclusiveness and competitiveness to political debate.
Rather than trying to suppress online political organizing, as China and Vietnam have done, Singapore is taking a gamble on making it part of the legal campaign system.
“I don’t think they had a choice,” said Kin Mun Lee, known on his blog as Mr. Brown, who said he skirted the law in the last campaign by avoiding explicitly political comments. “Before, it was a very limited kind of provision for online speech. Definitely they had to change the rules because of the proliferation and availability of options.”
Opposition Web sites and Twitter accounts are being used to urge people to attend election rallies. They also send out streams of comments from rallies, hugely increasing their audience. The site Gothere Maps plots out the locations of rallies on a map.
The site Party Time aggregates conversations about the elections and graphically represents who is getting the most buzz online.
Facebook is estimated to have up to three million members in Singapore, whose population is more than five million. All seven competing parties have their own sites, as do many of the candidates.
By one estimate, there are 900,000 local users of Twitter.
Online coverage has pushed the main pro-government newspaper, The Straits Times, to publish fuller and not always critical news and photographs of opposition campaigns, said Alex Au, a prominent blogger.
“In the present era, with the ubiquitous cellphone camera and rapid distribution channels that are well beyond blogs, the old editorial policy is no longer viable,” he said on his blog. “If the newspaper does not publish such pictures, others will, and its credibility can only suffer.”
The Straits Times has dedicated a portal on its Web site to extensive electronic election coverage, and it is now aggregating online comments from the social media on a page it calls Buzz, which gives a flavor of some of the newly energized online commentary:
“The opposition can make ferocious speeches, but can they deliver?”
“Is it true that civil servants will be ostracized if they vote for the opposition?”
“If the opposition is sincere in serving the people, it would have been on the ground in the last 4 years, not starting their engines only when the whistle is blown.”
“Why must we be so dogmatic about democracy and stability being mutually exclusive?”