A Gerrymandered Election? Florida 2000 in Singapore 2011
At first glance, Saturday’s general elections in Singapore seemed to change very little in this country’s 50-year-long one-party rule. The incumbent People’s Action Party — in power since independence in 1965 — still won 60% of the popular vote and the vast majority of parliamentary seats, but, this time, the opposition gained a landmark handful as well as a heavily contested constituency. In so doing, the opposition managed to depose two members of cabinet, including Foreign Minister George Yeo, and establish itself as the first real threat to the PAP in Singapore’s history.
But the real battle for the opposition lies ahead. In a twist reminiscent of the 2000 Gore-Bush US election, Singaporeans are now contesting the validity of Saturday’s electoral results after one of the state’s main opposition constituencies lost to the PAP by a mere 114 votes.
Like in Florida, where Gore lost to Bush over questionable ‘chads’, many ballot counters here have described the inconsistency by which the ballots were processed, sparking rage among voters old and young. Residents of the constituency in question, Potong Pasir, presided over for the past 27 years by opposition MP Chiam See Tong, have taken to the streets to protest and drafted a petition calling for a by-election.
It has already been signed by some 2,500 Potong Pasir residents and an additional 17,500 Singaporean residents who are lending the constituency their support. Organisers are looking to gain roughly 6,000 more resident votes before passing it on to the President and demanding a new vote.
In the humid open-air space underneath a block of tower flats in Potong Pasir, a couple of hundred residents and non-residents in their 70s mingle with hip 20-year-olds as they sign the petition. They have congregated at Mr Chiam’s old “office”: a desk in the midst of this open-plan space with no walls, no drawers, and no toilet. This is no office by any stretch of the imagination, rather a table mounted into concrete pillars.
Residents say that Mr Chiam was refused a proper office because he was from the opposition. How he managed to work here for 27 years — in 35C heat and gushing thunderstorms — proves, if anything, his loyalty to the people of Potong Pasir. (Other opposition residents tell similar stories here: http://bit.ly/kzVDz0).
That reason alone is enough to sign the petition, one 50-year-old resident, wishing to remain anonymous, tells me. She is here to declare her “right to choose who leads us, not who the PAP tells us to choose”. Her eyes dart back and forth as she scans the space for police. Under Singaporean law, it is illegal to congregate in groups of five or more.
The residents and organisers are understandably nervous: the police have already come once, threatening arrest and declaring the petition illegal (though they wouldn’t explain on what grounds). Many of those present fear that some of the onlookers are actually from the ISD — the Internal Security Department, which, under Singaporean law, can arrest, detain and imprison one without trial.
“You better be careful who you speak to and what you say to them,” one resident whispers to me. “This is a lot more like Egypt than you think.”
Rumours of police arrest and, oddly, the beating of one female journalist circulate on Twitter and Facebook. But in the three hours I’m present at the petition signing, I see nothing to indicate any trouble. Most residents are milling around, looking for leadership. When the police do show up to stop the petition signing and disperse the crowd, they are undercover internal security men who press with pudgy fingers into their small earpieces. They walk straight to the so-called ‘press man’ of the organizers, a Singaporean 30-something-year-old with an American accent dressed entirely in black. He denies any involvement but the ISD take his information anyway. When I question why they’ve come, they dismiss me and tell me to phone the police press officer instead.
What’s interesting is that no one is really sure who the man in black is. Certain other organisers say that he is a mole from the PAP. He laughs this off when asked this, however, and deflects an answer by saying, “Everyone in Singapore is indoctrinated to be fearful of speaking out.”
Whether he’s a mole or not, his arguments makes sense. Instead of calling for a by-election, which “makes us lose face and weak in front of the government”, he says the opposition needs to call for a “stronger mandate for the MP who will represent Potong Pasir”. In other words, use the PAP’s language to get what they want from the PAP — whether that’s Mr Chiam or just a PAP MP with more than barely half of the popular vote.
Some residents feel that they’re being duped, however. “Who is this guy?” asks David, a 30-something-year-old life-long resident of Potong Pasir. His great-grandfather first moved here from China; David plans on having his own children here one day.
“He doesn’t look at all like the people who were here for the petition last night or the night before. I don’t think he’s even a resident. Maybe they’re collecting signatures for a mandate to counter the signatures for a by-election.”
Others around us grumble loudly.
If this were truly the case, this wouldn’t be the first time, critics say, Singapore has engaged in gerrymandering, but it might be the most publicly acknowledged, and debated, time in its history. Electoral constituencies have been redrawn numerous times, they say, to favour the PAP. And some also say that, given the very slight margin by which the PAP won this constituency (only 79 votes when overseas ballots are counted), this constituency’s election could very well have been rigged.
A few of us retire to a nearby cafe to eat, where nervous chit-chatter sweeps the table. For a few minutes it feels like Singapore is freely fighting for the right to speak out. But then, as we are leaving, police vans arrive, and we are reminded of the truth: it’s not yet that free. Not yet at least.