The general election campaign so far: demographic and media landscape

Checking his selfie while at a rally

Checking his selfie while at a rally

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.

Declining subscription

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.

SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan speaking at his first rally after a ban of 15 years.

SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan speaking at his first rally after a ban of 15 years.

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.

First-time voters

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.


See also:
Part 1: The general election campaign so far: the issues
Part 2: he general election campaign so far: the talent balance

10 Responses to “The general election campaign so far: demographic and media landscape”

  1. 1 yuenchungkwong 7 September 2015 at 05:50

    I notice a couple of differences between 2011 and 2015: last time people were more excitable, and a topic would reverberate from one forum to another, one blog to another, once someone (ST, or Temasek Review) initiates it; this time things peter out quickly; last time there was a feeling of activeness, even fun, for being engaged in politics, with supporting a party being felt like joining a social club or rooting for a sports team; this time I wont say people take it more seriously, more as something mundane

    In some ways Nicole Seah and He Ting Ru exemplify this change over the 4 years. The other girl that hoped to be the new Nicole, Kevryn Lim, made a small stir appearing with NSP; then attention, both good and bad, petered out.

  2. 2 CK 7 September 2015 at 10:19

    “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.”

    What about an increase in spoilt votes – from people who don’t want to vote PAP but don’t think the opposition candidate(s) are good enough? 10% of those, and you just need 46% of votes for opposition to win vs 44% for PAP…

  3. 3 The 7 September 2015 at 10:31

    /// 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. ///

    This is key. If you look at the population pyramid of Singapore (2014), the 3 biggest segments are the 20-25, 25-29 and 30-34 cohorts. These are the young voters who are internet savvy, who are not beholden to LKY’s contributions and who have more more angst. They will swing the vote against the PAP. So, in your previous article where you said PAP vote share may remain 60:40 may not come about. My prediction – more like 56:44.

  4. 4 Ryan Ho 7 September 2015 at 13:04

    Been to 3 WP rallies. The crowds are still as large as before, if not bigger. However, as you noted, whether these will translate into actual votes for the opposition is another thing.

    Besides the greater anger in the last GE which probably helped in the swing to opposition vote, the other factor is the stakes placed by the WP “A” team in Aljunied.

    Chen Show Mao and Pritam Singh came across as formidable candidates, coupled with the fact that the opposition had never won a GRC before, so people had high expectations and anticipation. With that kind of team and if they lost, Hougang would only become the opposition-held ward. So there was a lot at stake.

    This time round, the anger has subsided to some extent and no new issues to really cause votes to swing in opposition’s favour, apart from the few simmering ones that remain.

    Besides, the opposition side has already won one GRC and so a new GRC win is not seen as exciting and necessary.

    Also, perhaps there are just too many good candidates particularly in the WP slate this time round. See, when people are spoilt for choices, they don’t appreciate.

    As for the media, yes the same old shit. Maybe I was just skeptical, but on a few occasions on the online Channelnewsasia and AsiaOne, I saw a photo without a caption that shows a huge crowd that you would normally associate with a WP rally, but being used for a story that talks about the PAP or about the election in general. Hmm….

  5. 5 Hawking Eye 7 September 2015 at 17:33

    The relentless PAP bombardment of WP’s Aljunied Town Coucil’s alleged accounting lapses and overpaying of their contractors is not going to win but lose votes for the ruling party especially when its own accounting flaws is exposed as showing a deficit for its Punggol East Ward share of Town Council Accounts (when the ward was captured by the WP earlier) when the PAP says it was handed over with surplus. A certified documented showing of deficit is a deficit no matter how it is rationalised subsequently.

    I am not sure if WP’s wish for at least 20 Opposition members to be voted into Parliament will be realised in this GE. Even if it does, it will only be good for Singapore. The PAP government will be forced to take care more of the home front (with focus on the underclass) instead of giving predominant attention to external factors.

    Actually we voters are not truly tested in this GE. But we will be so in the next GE. If the WP, in particular, were to win some 20 seats this time around, it needs to win only another 25 seats more in the next GE to knock out the PAP and form the Government. As long as the WP keep up the momentum and not slip up or get into a major scandal, forming the next Government may be within its reach. It is when we reach this point that we will face a dilemma. Until then vote without cracking your head.

  6. 6 D 7 September 2015 at 17:49

    “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.”

    This is inaccurate. Reform Party’s rallies had less people that PAP’s so did Han Hui Hui’s.

    • 7 Anonymous 8 September 2015 at 09:19

      Not to be pedantic about it, but if you removed the grassroots members and those attending for free meals, YB’s characterization of the PAP rallies as being worst-attend might yet be right.

  7. 8 RN 9 September 2015 at 06:16

    With only 2 more days to polling day, and only one more effective day of rallies + cooling off day, the SDP and more specifically Dr Chee Soon Juan has gone from strength to strength in rehabilitating his battered, maligned erstwhile image that was the Machiavellian creation of the PAP with help from their minions in SPH.

    If you had gone to the ground to attend SDP rallies and also SDP’s lunchtime rally, the public’s ready acceptance and even embrace of Dr Chee has been most surprising. There seems to be something in the air, a confluence of factors leading to a palpable turnaround in people’s attitude towards him, not least aided by the heart-stirring youtube video “Behind the Man” that humanize Dr Chee, that make many who were previously ambivalent or even hostile love this man, buy his books and line up for his autograph and photo with him.

    That Dr Chee is able to achieve this in less than 9 days is nothing short of remarkable.

    Certainly the ground is sweet for the opposition, given that the bastion of middle-class support has been eviserated by PMETs losing their jobs to foreign competitors with bogus experience & qualifications from degree mill now officially accepted by the govt.

    The winds of change are blowing strong and the confluence of factors together with PAP’s unrepetant attitude and refusal to recognize the reality and consequences of their actions has created a tipping point that will ensure the PAP will lose their 2/3 majority for the first time.

    Without his father’s presence, Lee Hsien Loong will be ousted, and if he refuses to submit, a coup d’etat will be effected by a rival internal faction, finally able override PAP’s strong party discipline on account of their historic loss.

    Moving forward post GE 2015 will be the challenge for the alternative parties to bridle individual egos to work towards an effective coalition to realistically form the next govt. Much work will lay ahead.

    Do not be surprise to find broad defections from the PAP to the other parties like rats abandoning a sinking ship.

    Indeed, we are living in interesting times.

  8. 9 W 14 September 2015 at 01:33

    This may be ex post facto but I believe you have not factored in the very real possibility that younger voters may be *more* pro-PAP.

    Read some of their blogs and you may understand. This batch of new voters, I wager, is pretty different from the last

    • 10 yawningbread 14 September 2015 at 09:52

      In my mind, I do allow that possibility, but I feel it is better to wait for the IPS study to be completed and published — there will be good data there — before making guesses.

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