You Say You Want A Revolution: Singapore’s General Elections
It is a dangerous act in a country where graffiti can fetch eight strokes of the cane, and more dangerous still in that it parodies the leader of the long-term ruling Lee dynasty.
With a few deft applications of spray paint, Skope One finishes a pig-head depiction of the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, with a Nazi-styled SS logo on the lapel and an Uncle Sam-inspired banner emblazoned with the words “Lee Wants You”.
“We shouldn’t be scared any more – it’s about time something changed,” says the 35-year-old artist, known locally as the founder of Singaporean graffiti. “We need to have this freedom of alternative speech.”
Singapore is known worldwide for its censorship and corporal punishment. But in the runup to Saturday’s elections more and more people have started to speak out against the clan that has ruled Singapore for almost 50 years. Parallels with the Arab spring are striking, even if revolution is not just around the corner.
Most murmurs of discontent can be found online: fear of reprisal is diminished for an anonymous blogger. On internet forums, blogs, Facebook and Twitter, grumblings about high housing prices, the widening gap between rich and poor, immigration laws and the salaries of government ministers (among the highest in the world) are hot topics.
The parliamentary republic’s incumbent People’s Action party (PAP) has been in power since independence in 1965, and is widely recognised as having turned this colonial outpost into a financial behemoth in a few decades. But it knows it has a battle on its hands. On Saturday, it will contest 82 of its 87 parliamentary seats, up from 47 of 84 seats in 2006.
One in four voters in Singapore’s 5 million-strong population is under the age of 35, and the internet is a main source of their news. For the first time, political candidates have been allowed to campaign using social media, and the effect has been far-reaching: many Singaporeans say this is the most debated and politicised election they have seen.
But not all young people will be using their mandatory vote to go against the grain. Some, such as 22-year-old economics student and first-time voter Sofina Toh, are swayed by the PAP’s recent apology for past mistakes and promise to do better.
“The PAP has done so much for Singapore – just look at the country now from what it used to be,” she says. “Shouldn’t we give credit where credit is due? They’ve promised to make changes. Maybe we can give them another chance.”
Others are not so convinced. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” tweets a management student, Ong Rei En.
At the political rallies, for which turnout has arguably been the highest in Singapore’s history, the energy is electric. An estimated 50,000 people crowded together one last time on Thursday at an outdoor stadium to wave blue flags and wield inflatable hammers, the symbol of the opposition Workers’ party. As the crowds chanted for change and raised their fists in hope, police with machine guns watched awkwardly nearby, the sweat on their brows betraying the night’s humidity.
Rally attendance does not always translate to the polling booth, however. In 2006, despite large crowds at opposition speeches, the PAP won 67% of the popular vote. Many Singaporeans have voiced concern that their ballots will be traced and their mortgages or jobs taken away from them if they vote for the opposition.
Asked if Singapore is another Egypt in the making, Skope One furrows his brow as he bundles his spray-paint cans into a backpack. “We don’t want the same problems,” he says finally. “But we definitely echo the same feelings.”
[published by The Guardian 6 May 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/06/singapore-elections-internet?INTCMP=SRCH]