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This year is unprecedented. There were two elections and the results were rather unusual, to say the least. Singaporeans may be tempted to think that this is an indication that we are firmly on the road to democracy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The reality is that nothing much has changed. The political system which includes the election process and the media is still in the hands of the PAP. The outcomes of the electoral contests are not surprising.
Take the recent presidential elections. Candidates were only informed of their eligibility a few days before the official campaign period started. This puts the non-PAP candidates at a severe disadvantage.
Then-candidate Tony Tan knew that he was certain to qualify for the race and could get his entire campaign ready well before the blow of the whistle. The logistical preparations like printing posters and flyers could be done way before hand.
In contrast, the other candidates had to wait it out to see if the Presidential Election Committee would give them the green light. In the meantime, they could not commit to printing the posters and pamphlets amounting to tens of thousands of dollars which would be a wasted if they did not qualify as candidates. They would also not have sufficient time to take care of other campaign needs such as raising funds and recruiting volunteers.
And then they are given all of nine days to let the nation know that they are running for president – all this in a media environment that continues to languish at the bottom of international press surveys.
President Tony Tan, on the other hand, has been featured in newspapers and television for years, if not decades. (He was the chairman of the only company that is allowed to publish newspapers in the country. For a candidate, it just doesn’t get any better than that.)
To a large section of the electorate, face recognition made the difference between putting the cross beside his photograph versus someone else’s.
Ditto for the general elections. The redrawing of the boundaries and the re-configuration of the GRCs and SMCs meant that while the PAP had all the information to plan and strategise the electoral battles, the opposition had to wait until the very last minute which made planning all but impossible.
Like the presidential contest, media coverage of certain parties during the GE were also starkly different.
This is not to deny that there has been a change in Singapore’s politics. Despite its control of the system, President Tan won only by a squeak. The PAP itself was humbled when voters gave it its poorest showing since it came to power 50 years ago in GE2011. The mood of the people towards PAP has irrevocably shifted.
But the sobering reality is that it really doesn’t matter how close the opposition gets to the finish line. With the first-past-the-post system, the PAP is still in complete control of the entire political system and it has the next half-a-decade to manipulate it to ensure yet another victory.
How many 5-year-periods must Singaporeans who want to see meaningful change endure?
This is not to discourage Singaporeans. The results of the GE and PE 2011 are significant and the shift in political outlook is significant, even dramatic. The truth is that the future of democracy in this country remains bright.
But there are pitfalls ahead and the Singapore Democrats need to warn Singaporeans that we cannot afford to think that from here on out we just have to rely on elections once every five or six years to bring about democratic change. If that is all we do, we will fail and change will not come.
On the contrary, we have to double up our effort and continue working to reform the election process, press for media freedom and push for freedom of speech and assembly. Absent this, 50 years from now we’ll still be wistfully talking about how close the opposition came to winning at the polls.