It’s tough being an opposition party member in Singapore, but history undergraduate Bernard Chen of the Workers’ Party is unfazed as he meets voters, organizes events, and attends internal meetings.
The 24-year-old is part of a new generation of activists fighting the formidable People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore for 51 years and currently holds all but two of the 84 seats in parliament.
All political parties in Singapore are reporting increased youth involvement as the country prepares for its next general elections, which are only due by February 2012 but are widely expected to be held much earlier.
New voter-friendly measures announced by the government, such as caps on immigration following complaints from citizens about a spike in recent years, have further fuelled expectations of an early vote.
“The PAP started off as being a minority in government too, so it’s all about participating in the process and hoping to win the support of the people,” Chen told AFP.
One of his pet causes is lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 to enable more members of the Facebook and Twitter generation to take part in politics and—in his thinking—support the opposition.
Despite getting into occasional trouble with media censors and police, young Singaporeans have indeed become more critical of the PAP on social networking sites, blogs, and websites like theonlinecitizen.com and temasekreview.com.
Opposition parties are also ramping up their web presence.
“This interest in opposition politics will in a way require the PAP to raise its game,” said Eugene Tan, a law professor at the Singapore Management University specializing in local politics.
He said the ruling party had far more resources than its rivals but believed the PAP was taking notice of young people’s involvement with other parties.
“I think overall a more competitive political scene should be beneficial to Singapore,” he added.
The PAP was founded in 1954 by a 31-year-old English-educated lawyer named Lee Kuan Yew, who went on to become the country’s first leader, serving from 1959 until 1990. His son Lee Hsien Loong has been prime minister since 2004.
Despite the PAP’s record of rapid economic progress which has turned Singapore into one of the world’s richest societies, critics of the PAP say the city-state has lagged behind when it comes to democratic freedoms.
Opposition parties are reporting a rise in youth membership, with the Reform Party founded by the late democracy icon J.B. Jeyaretnam claiming 40 percent of its members are now aged 30 years and below.
The Workers’ Party Youth Wing membership has increased 50 percent from four years ago, and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has likewise reported a healthy increase in younger members.
All the parties refused to reveal exact membership numbers, but media reports say the PAP increased its youth membership by more than 1,000 last year alone.
Young opposition activists are championing causes ranging from implementing a minimum wage to protecting minority and disabled persons’ rights.
Wong U-Wen, who is partially deaf, joined the youth branch of the Singapore Democratic Party last year as he wanted to bring the plight of handicapped Singaporeans to public attention.
“When I first came to SDP office, they were surprised to see that I am deaf. They are starting to open their eyes and learn more from me because they never had someone who is deaf or a person with disabilities,” the unemployed 38-year-old said.
He cited employment discrimination and a general lack of deaf-friendly services such as captions on television and movie programs as well as certified sign-language interpreters.
Jermyn Wee, 27, the webmaster of the Reform Party website, felt young members have a bigger voice in opposition parties.
“We have regular meetings with our secretary general, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, should he need to bring up a concern,” the information and communication technology executive said.