Since 2006, independent blogs and social media have become significant channels of information for voters. Video is now here as a major medium. In response, the mainstream media are having to give more (and fairer) coverage to opposition parties, but they are still notable for skewing.
Take this next image, for example. It’s a page from Straits Times’ website, with a listing of various articles about the general election.
For the story about voters keen to attend rallies, they have chosen a photo from a People’s Action Party (PAP) rally. Just about all Singaporeans by now would know that the expressions used in the headline — “people-packed” and “throng the rallies” — would least apply to PAP rallies. They are the worst-attended ones, and (as in previous elections) it is widely reported that nearly all who attend them are systematically bussed in, with free food and drink provided.
How badly attended are PAP rallies? There are heaps of photos out there from the aforementioned independent blogs and news sites that show the real picture.
In this election, such skewing by mainstream media may matter less than ever before. As a shaper of public opinion, its power is ebbing fast. Here are the subscription statistics for the leading newspapers in the Singapore Press Holdings stable, comparing 2011 when the last general election was held, with the latest figures from 2014. They show a decline of 13 to 22 percent in subscription:
Social- and independent digital media
I have heard the argument that the decline in subscription is counterbalanced by the Straits Times putting their election pages outside their paywall –I don’t know if it’s also the case with the other SPH newspapers — and that participants in social media also share mainstream media stories. These sound like valid points to me though I would also think, with respect to the first argument, that the fast-growing habit of not reading mainstream media on normal days would surely mean a lower likelihood of making the effort to even visit the now-free site during this period. With respect to the second argument, there is certainly some of that sharing, but if my own Facebook wall is any indication, what little Straits Times-sourced material there is is completely outnumbered by material from independent web sources.
Even when mainstream media articles are re-posted, they often come re-framed in some way. Here is an example:
In the example above, an opinion piece by Chua Mui Hoong of the Straits Times is referenced, but immediately there is a retort placed beside it.
It’s a trite fact that social media is highly network-dependent. What you get on your wall is largely determined by what your friends have put up and the algorithm the site uses behind the screen (which is usually based on your previously-detected interests). In my case, the result is that I get a lot of opposition-friendly stuff. But it also means that others who are not networked with pro-opposition friends are probably not getting anything like what I am getting.
Looking at other passengers on buses and trains and observing what they are interacting with on their social media as they pass the time, I can tell you there are plenty of people who aren’t getting any election stuff at all on their devices.
Just as photos of impressive crowds at Workers’ Party rallies (and in the last 2 days, at Singapore Democratic Party’s rallies too) have not in previous elections correlated well with vote-share vis-a-vis the PAP, so I would be hesitant to argue that the recent surge in media interest in Chee Soon Juan, courtesy of videos carrying his rally speeches, means all that much. How far outside the already-converted does the sharing reach? How likely is the recipient to click and play the video?
On the other hand, in 2011 it was really social media (seeded by some fine oratory at rallies) that carried the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) team in Holland-Bukit Timah to a respectable finish. When Vincent Wijeyshingha, Tan Jee Say, Ang Yong Guan and Michelle Lee began their campaign, they were virtual unknowns. Yet in nine days, with little help from mainstream media, they won 40% vote-share. No doubt Chee Soon Juan, who is now leading the SDP team in Holland-Bukit Timah this round, has more baggage than the 2011 team, but how much this will hold him back is hard to predict.
I reckon that by the time this election is over, we’re going to have a much clearer idea of the power of social- and independent digital media.
Some of the biggest unknowns in elections relate to the voting behaviour of first-time voters. In Singapore, there are actually two distinct groups of first-time voters, and a third, less distinct one.
Out of the total electorate of 2,462,926 voters (source: Elections Department), I reckon that about 180,000 to 200,000 are young adults who were born in Singapore and turned 21 after the 2011 general election, making up about 7.7% of the total electorate. I derived this estimate from published statistics indicating that in the early 1990s, there were about 48,000 births a year. They are better-educated than earlier cohorts, more English-speaking, but very few of them in my estimation read any mainstream newspaper (print or digital) regularly. I believe they get nearly all their political news from social media or free online sites — or no political news at all.
That said, a study done after the 2011 elections found that young voters did not differ greatly in their voting behaviour from those ten or twenty years older. Short of evidence to the contrary, I think we can expect this new batch to be similar.
The second group of first-time voters are immigrants who took up Singapore citizenship since 2011. I tried to find statistics on their number, but in the short time I have, could not find any. Instead, using a figure that K Shanmugam mentioned in a debate on Inconvenient Questions (he said there were 20,000 to 25,000 naturalised new citizens per year), I estimate there are 80,000 to 100,000 such first-time voters this election. They make up about 3.7% of the total electorate, and I think it’s fair to say they will be voting strongly for the PAP.
The third group of first-time voters: a huge chunk of Tanjong Pagar residents, who have not seen a contest in their area for 24 years. They are spread across various age cohorts, and are not likely to vote much differently from parallel cohorts in other constituencies.
In short, none of the three sets of first-time voters is expected add surprise to the result.
Still some distance to go
And that’s where we are at the midpoint of the campaign. In summary, it is proving to be a hard slog for all parties. People are less angry than in 2011, yet there isn’t much indication that significant numbers are switching back to voting for the PAP. Almost surely, the reasoning of those who voted for the opposition in 2011 is that if at all the PAP became more responsive in certain areas and tweaked their policies, it was because they as voters demonstrated their strength. Now is not the time to let up on the pressure.
Given the higher calibre of opposition candidates in selected constituencies, those are the likely places where opposition vote-share may increase. But since these are also untested and relatively new faces, I doubt if any increase will be by much. Five percentage points would be considered a good improvement. Yet, the 2011 opposition vote-share in the group representation constituencies where these better-calibre candidates are standing were only in the lower to mid-forties. A five-percentage point gain is not going to lift them over the 50% winning threshold.
In other words, there is a real risk of severe disappointment after Polling Day.
But lots of things can happen in the next few days. Or there may be invisible currents of sentiment surging beneath the surface.
One possibility that is very hard to put a finger on is that people are just tired of the incumbents. This is a phenomenon that has appeared in other democracies after a party has been in power for a long time. When it coincides with other frustrations, what many foresee to be just a small shift in votes turns out to be much bigger than expected. I have a feeling we’re going to witness this phenomenon in Singapore sometime, though not necessarily at this election.
But we shall see.