Charlene Fang: Why this Singapore General Election is important

Charlene Fang: Why this Singapore General Election is important

Change is in the air and come Saturday, Singapore could become a whole new nation

Every election, no matter the level -- class presidency, captain of a dragon boat team, voting in a treasurer -- should matter automatically.

But for many Singaporeans, this has not been the case.

Every election since the country’s independence in 1965 has been its own twisted version of Groundhog Day: the government is already formed by nomination day (there were no elected opposition members of parliament for almost two decades), the People’s Action Party (PAP) maintains the majority, and opposition parties campaign tooth-and-nail to secure some form of a tiny presence in Singapore’s parliament.

In the past the opposition has been lucky if it won more than a couple of seats. In 1998 opposition members won just a single seat. In 1991 opposition members had a very good year winning four of the 81 seats in parliament.

It's no wonder most Singaporeans in the past have treated the civil right of voting more as a nuisance than as a platform to make a stand. Why bother when a constituency is classed as a walkover several elections in a row?

Or even if the opposition emerges triumphant, see the individuals powerless to effect any real change in the overall running of the country?

This election's different

But this year things already look very different. While in the past the PAP has been allowed to walk into parliament with barely any competition, this year 82 of the 87 parliamentary seats are up for grabs. Compare this to 2006 when just 47 seats were contested, or 2001 when just 29 seats were contested.

And overnight, it’s as if a nation of political sleeping beauties has woken from its slumber.

Singaporeans aren’t just quietly concerned about the rising cost of living, inflated housing prices, the influx of immigrants, congested public transport.

They’re registering their opinions loudly and openly -- and not caring if Big Brother is watching.

Nightly rallies have been packed to rock concert proportions, Facebook and Twitter pages sprout realms of political observations and armchair advice, regular rally check-ins and lengthy well thought-out notes justifying political leanings.

In a short period of time, Singapore's political atmosphere has become super-charged.

For the PAP, this has been a very different type of general election.

The people speak and they're being heard

Thanks to social media, it doesn’t matter that the country’s largely state-run media leans towards reporting the actions of the PAP, no one’s reading anyway.

Rather, they’re turning to YouTube, referring to influential bloggers mrbrown and Alex Au and blog sites such as The Online Citizen to get their news and analysis.

While it may be too early to declare this election as a 'watershed,' just from listening to the nightly rallies, the opposition politicians aren't just arguing for a change in name, they're believing it will happen.

For Singaporeans who never thought they'll see the day opposition politicians make concrete inroads into parliament, this election represents hope.

At the very least, it offers the chance to effectively exercise their vote (and yes, for the teachers worrying if a vote for the opposition will be career hara-kiri, your vote IS secret), to participate openly and actively in political discourse, and challenge –- dissent would be too strong a word -– the government to do better.

The late opposition politician Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (JBJ) who fought for Singapore to be a more open society, would have been proud to witness all this hullabaloo.

It hasn't been lost on the politicians who've been mindful to conduct themselves in a transparent, accountable manner. Many have responded directly to the public's criticisms and request for concrete plans, all the while urging voters not to "spoil their vote" and to make an informed choice.

It's time for a new Singapore

Whatever happens after Saturday's Polling Day, change is already in the air.

Whether the hotly contested Aljunied GRC comes under the PAP or the Workers Party (WP), or if PAP newbie Tin Pei Ling gains a parliamentary seat at the expense of the WP's Sylvia Lim, all this debate proves this general election is different.

In a matter of weeks, 24-year-old National Solidarity Party (NSP) candidate Nicole Seah has become a national hero, her popularity trumping Singapore’s founding father (MM Lee) -- if Facebook is anything to go by.

Sorry is no longer the hardest word, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has apologized not once, but twice, for the mistakes made by the government in the past five years.

He's gone a few steps further adding the PAP will not just take responsibility for mistakes, but learn from them, alluding to a government that can and will "do better" -- an unexpected and refreshing show of humility.

Above all, this “nanny-state” of citizens have shown they’re fully capable of thinking for themselves and registering their opposing opinions without descending into chaos.

And while the reality is the PAP will retain the majority, and there will still be a minority opposition presence in parliament, the going-ons of this election has moulded the political landscape forever in a more positive, democratic light.

Citizens will no longer mutely accept the status quo, they'll want their opinions heard, their problems solved, their rumblings soothed, their government to interact and consult rather than to expect automatic acceptance without complaint.

And isn't that what all elections are about -- the promise of change for the better? 

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Charlene Fang.

In between sunning herself in the Caribbean, Bali and other exotic locales, Charlene Fang keeps her feet (and fingers) grounded as the managing editor of inSing.com. She blames her wanderlust on the years spent working as the editor of CNNGo Singapore and Time Out Singapore. Her ramblings have also been published by the likes of Travel+Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Wallpaper*, ELLE and The Australian.

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