Social media and the eclipse of the opposition

Social media and the eclipse of the opposition
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Much has been said about how unprepared the opposition (and even the incumbent) was for the massive swing in sentiment towards the People's Action Party (PAP). Some blame social media and the Internet for being an echo chamber, a comforting environment where those inclined to vote for the opposition were lulled into believing the majority of Singaporeans shared their sentiments.

I believe social media has a role to play in explaining why the PAP won with an unexpected landslide. However, my argument is different. Ironically, the rise of social media may have eclipsed the importance of voting the opposition into Parliament because social media has provided an effective means for individual Singaporeans to speak their views directly to those in power.

While social media has disrupted the Government's control over the national narrative, social media has also disrupted the opposition's claims to be the voice of Singaporeans to those in power.

Consider the situation when Mr Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam was elected to Parliament for Anson in 1981, becoming the first opposition MP in more than a decade. There was no Internet and no source of news other than the traditional print and broadcast media. For an individual Singaporean, the only way to publicly and visibly engage the Government was to write to the newspapers' Forum or letters pages and wait for the reply. It is no wonder that Mr Jeyaretnam acquired quite a reputation for publicly challenging the PAP.

But today the situation is very different. PAP MPs and ministers are accessible round the clock via their Facebook pages. The Government struggles to control the narrative online, especially when events go viral or capture public attention.

In recent years, bloggers and activists have completely stolen the initiative from the established opposition on issues such as immigration and Central Provident Fund reforms. Government missteps are brought to light by Singaporeans sharing Facebook pages and tweets, not by the opposition calling the PAP out.

Members of the public might have agreed with the Prime Minister's claim that the elected opposition was a "mouse in the House" only because the lions on the Internet were roaring louder than anyone else.

Why did the Internet activists-turned-politicians fare so badly in the elections, then?

Opposition politicians with social media and activist backgrounds - like Mr Roy Ngerng and Ms Han Hui Hui - were resoundingly defeated with some of the worst vote shares this election (21.4 per cent and 10 per cent respectively).

Some voters may agree that these activists are raising important questions. But far more voters were concerned that these candidates - and their parties - simply lacked the ability or credentials to capably manage town councils and discharge the responsibilities of an elected Member of Parliament.

The truth is that today, there is no need to pay for what you can get for free - since anyone can now raise an issue to the Government on social media, why elect a candidate whose main qualification for office is that ability alone?

Social media cannot be a substitute for an opposition presence in Parliament and on the ground.

The key function of an opposition in most parliamentary democracies is to provide an alternative potential government, thereby contributing to the stability and continuity of the nation.

Clearly, social media activists - and our present opposition presence - do not fulfil this function. But for many voters, having a voice that regularly grounds the Government in the reality of our lives, and brings the Government to task when things go wrong, may be enough at this stage in our political development.

The opposition can no longer justify their existence simply by claiming to be that voice - the people have taken that responsibility upon themselves.

The opposition may have to move beyond framing themselves in terms of being a "check and balance" in Parliament.

In a parliamentary system with a strong government, no opposition party can block or amend Bills or policies. The real check on the government comes from the potential that their policies and mandate will be contested, either at the ballot box or in the court of public opinion.

Weaker opposition parties, which rely largely on promises they cannot keep and claims of promoting the people's voice in Parliament, are simply unelectable, now more so than ever.

Social media has weakened their claim to speak truth to power, rather than strengthened it, by placing the power to contest the government narrative in the hands of ordinary Singaporeans. While the weaker opposition parties have a constitutional right to continue contesting elections by tilting at windmills, Singapore's political development demands better.

The writer is a senior lecturer at UniSIM College, SIM University.

This article was first published on September 16, 2015.
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