September 13th, 2008
A summary of “Democracy and Elections: The Impact of Online Politics in Singapore”, James Gomez’s PhD thesis (Monash University, Melbourne, 2008).
Aim of study
The main goal of this study was to evaluate the impact of alternative online political content on Singaporean multi-party democracy. Ever since the internet became publicly available in Singapore in 1995, different activist groups have sought to use the medium in a bid to overcome the neglect, bias and censorship of the local mainstream media’s coverage of opposition parties. These groups believed that if they used the internet to provide alternative political content, it might mitigate the censorship and bias in local mainstream media coverage of opposition parties especially during elections. This study is the first detailed analysis of the internet’s influence on voting patterns and electoral results in Singapore over a period of 12 years and three general elections (1997,2001, 2006).
Main findings of study
- The internet is a niche platform for distributing alternative political content
The internet has emerged as a platform for civil society, opposition parties, international organizations and individual activists to produce and distribute alternative political content about the PAP government and politics in Singapore that would otherwise not be available on local mainstream media because of omission, bias or censorship.
The volume of such information and the innovation surrounding its production and distribution is mirrored by the rise in internet home penetration in Singapore during each election year. In 1997 it was 14%, in 2001 it was 57% and in 2006 it was 71%. The projections for 2011 is 86.66% and 2015 is 91.38%. The rising level of internet penetration projected for the coming years, further establishes that the internet will continue to be a significant medium through which alternative political content will be disseminated during and in-between elections.
Various statistical studies show that the internet as a source of political information remains low and predominantly confined to the young and educated. Thus far it has not been able to rival the local mainstream media’s domination position in the delivery of content. Hence, it remains a niche media, which is growing and will grow further in the next 10 years, but it will not be large enough to have mass outreach under the present circumstances in Singapore.
- Alternative online political content has had no impact on voting patterns and electoral results
An analysis of elections results over 12 years covering the last three general elections (1997, 2001 and 2006) shows that there has been no change in the nett electoral results for opposition parties. Although the major opposition parties claim that the internet has helped boost membership and supporters and on occasions forced the local media to cover opposition party activities and statements, the findings of the research show that these have not translated in term of gains in parliamentary seats.
Further, in terms of the number of parliamentary seats contested (both single and group seats) and the number of candidates fielded by opposition parties there is no correlation between these numbers, use of internet by opposition parties and the availability of alternative online political content during and in-between elections. Similarly, there is no correlation between use of the internet by opposition parties and the availability of alternative online content and the percentage of votes cast for opposition parties.
Voter statistics show that since Singapore’s independence, the number of eligible voters has risen from 756,367 fro the 1968 elections to 2,158,704 in 2006. However, voters that have cast their ballots in contested electoral wards throughout all elections remain roughly around 55.7 percent. If we look specifically at the elections years 1997, 2001, and 2007, voter participation was 40.7%, 33.2% and 56.6% respectively. There is no correlation to the level of voter participation at each election in Singapore and the level of internet home penetration. Rather, the actual number of voters who cast their ballot at each election is directly linked to the total volume of voters registered in the wards that are contested during an election.
The evaluation of the reach of alternative online political contact and its impact on election results and voter statistics show that the primary shortcoming of Singapore’s present electoral system is the tendency to yield disproportionate representation in favour of the PAP. Over the last 12 years and through three general elections, when alternative online content was available during and in-between elections, it has had no effect on the PAP’s overall electoral results. While support for the PAP has fluctuated in the last four general elections (1991, 1997, 2001 and 2006) by 14.3 percentage points, the variation in percentage of seats was by 2.5 percentage points.
The evidence shows that the political structure, and in particular, the electoral system, rather than the availability of alternative online political content, accounts for the electoral outcomes in Singapore.
The current electoral system in Singapore is impervious to the impact of the internet. Hence, the freedom and ability to distribute alternative political content as a manifestation of voter sentiment will not lead to a change in electoral results. The study points to a need for electoral system reform to more accurately translate voter sentiment into parliamentary seats.
– James Gomez was a Workers Party candidate in the 2006 General Elections. He founded Think Centre.