One week after the General Elections of 2011, Singapore human rights NGO MARUAH (Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, Singapore) and socio-political community blog The Online Citizen (TOC) jointly presented a post-elections forum at the Post-Museum on 15 May 2011.
The sudden announcement a day earlier that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong were resigning from the Cabinet only added to the expectant atmosphere at the event.
Mr Choo Zheng Xi, co-founder of TOC, moderated the discussion and kicked things off by introducing the four speakers.
Towards a Democratic Society?
Associate Professor Cherian George (from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University) offered attendees some perspectives on what GE2011 would mean for democratisation in Singapore.
(Note: fulltext of A/Prof George’s talk can be found here: http://www.airconditionednation.com/home/GE_2011/Entries/2011/5/15_TOWARDS_A_DEMOCRATIC_SOCIETY.html)
He highlighted that “the mathematical results are less important than how the numbers are interpreted”, and cited the shock announcement of MM Lee and SM Goh from the Cabinet. This showed that the People’s Action Party (PAP) had interpreted the election results as a signal that it had to change.
A/Prof George argued that “although the political culture has evolved to be less amenable to top-down government, Singapore remains inhospitable to progressive causes and has yet to develop spaces for mature debate”.
On political culture, he felt that voters are now increasingly more likely to reject rules which are unfair, e.g. the GRC system. He noted: “To the extent that the public sees unfairness, it will apply a kind of electoral affirmative action: it will give the opposition a discount and judge the PAP more harshly. Thus, people crucified PAP candidates for saying silly things, but politely pretended not to notice when opposition candidates did the same.”
A/Prof George observed that the results for the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) showed that the majority of Singaporeans still rejected progressive positions. He noted the anti-foreign worker rhetoric used by the opposition during the elections, and praised organisations like MARUAH and TOC for standing up for issues like migrant worker rights despite the disinterest from the government and most Singaporeans.
He also commented on the relative lack of mature, reasoned debate online, with the Internet being a mirror image of the mainstream media where pro-Opposition viewpoints dominated and drowned out pro-PAP voices.
A/Prof George concluded by highlighting the continued importance of civil society, in encouraging positive change in Singapore.
Media monitoring of English-language print media
Next up was Associate Professor Paul Ananth Tambyah, a member of MARUAH. He started by highlighting Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which, among other things, states that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
MARUAH had conducted a media monitoring project during the elections. Due to limited resources, the scope of the project had to be limited to the three main English-language daily newspapers in Singapore, namely the New Paper, the Straits Times and TODAY.
The media monitoring project sought to measure the relative impartiality of the print media during GE2011, and in doing so contribute to the process of free and fair elections in Singapore.
A/Prof Tambyah introduced the different measurements used, from the column inches of coverage, to the type of photos published, and the placement of articles.
In terms of coverage, the PAP received an overwhelming amount of column-inches of articles, as compared to other opposition parties or even the opposition as a whole. The disparity was more distinct in the Straits Times, as compared to TODAY or the New Paper.
When the number of column-inches for each party was weighted based on the number of candidates fielded (by dividing the number of column-inches for each party by the number of candidates), the result was similar for the Straits Times (i.e. disproportionately more coverage for PAP), but different for TODAY (i.e. the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) received the most coverage on a column-inch basis).
A/Prof Tambyah next highlighted that consistently across all three newspapers, PAP candidates were, more often than not, shown in positive photos as compared to opposition candidates.
He also noted that readers generally needed to flip to Page 6 of any newspaper before news of an opposition party appeared. This was contrasted with the PAP receiving the front page coverage on every day of the election campaign.
He added that there were no days where there was no PAP coverage. In contrast, the Singapore Democratic Alliance had 3 or more “blackout” days (i.e. where it was not mentioned at all) in all three newspapers.
A/Prof Tambyah then brought attendees through multiple linear regression charts derived from the data. He showed that the number of blackout days seemed to correlate with the percentage of vote share of the various parties, although he reminded the audience that correlation does not equate causation.
There was a similar correlation for the number of positive photos and the number of column-inches dedicated to each party, and the percentage of vote share.
He acknowledged the subjective nature of some of the measurements, e.g. whether a photo was positive, neutral, or negative. However, any inaccuracies due to this subjectivity were mitigated by having multiple reviewers who had all undergone the same training to calibrate their judgments. Another limitation that was highlighted was the fact that only English-language newspapers; while MARUAH had sought to gather the same data for newspapers of other languages, incomplete data meant that these newspapers had to be excluded from the project.
A/Prof Tambyah concluded by recommending that more organisations conduct such studies at the next elections, and also for other mainstream media (e.g. TV and radio) to be measured.
PDF of powerpoint presentation can be downloaded here.
Online survey on polling experience
The third speaker was Ms Braema Mathi, President of MARUAH. She briefly described the election monitoring project conducted by MARUAH.
MARUAH had written to the Elections Department (ELD), seeking permission for MARUAH volunteers to gain access to polling and counting centres. The ELD did not grant such permission.
As a result, MARUAH had to gather information indirectly. MARUAH’s initial plan was to conduct two surveys, one on the polling process and the other on the counting process.
The survey for the polling process targeted voters. The survey for the counting process was intended to be completed by counting agents from the various political parties. MARUAH did not obtain positive responses from the political parties for their counting agents to be surveyed, and so the focus shifted to the survey for polling process for voters.
1,157 respondents completed the online survey. Some respondents highlighted that they could not answer some questions as they did not know what to look out for, e.g. the type of personnel who are allowed in a polling centre. Ms Mathi suggested that the ELD conduct a comprehensive voter education programme, so that voters could understand the entire process better.
Ms Mathi noted that many respondents had highlighted the lack of privacy at the voting booths, with some voters feeling that it was too open. This, coupled with the close presence of some election officials, was the source of some unease.
The presence of a serial number on the ballot paper, and the practice of writing one’s polling number on the counterfoil of the ballot paper, also appeared to discomfort many respondents.
But overall, respondents did not report any major irregularities, and the election regulations (e.g. no campaign materials within 200m of a polling station) appeared to have been adhered to. Finally, over 80% of respondents felt that their vote was secret.
PDF of powerpoint presentation can be downloaded here.
Snapshots – How the opposition is seen from the ground
Mr Alex Au, who blogs at Yawning Bread (www.yawningbread.org), primarily focused on an online survey on voter preference that he conducted, and the positioning of the various political parties and how that may have affected voter appeal.
(Note: Mr Au’s presentation can be found here: http://yawningbread.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/talk-at-the-post-museum-election-perspectives/)
He first highlighted the limitations of an online survey, but suggested that the limitations could be mitigated with a high number of respondents. 2,051 responded to his survey, of which 1,756 voted, and of which 1,609 voted for an opposition party. With such a skewed sample, he decided to focus his survey analysis on respondents who voted for an opposition party.
Mr Au found that the breakdown of respondents in the sample closely matched the vote share obtained by the various opposition parties. With that, he proceeded to describe the results of his survey.
Among those whose 1st choice was an opposition party, 71.5% chose the Workers’ Party (WP), followed by the SDP with 24.6%. The survey also indicated that respondents rated both the WP and the SDP highly for their principles and proposals, and also the quality/likeability of their candidates, when deciding their vote. However, he noted that the SDP’s vote share was lower than the National Solidarity Party (NSP) and Singapore People’s Party (SPP), even though the 2 parties had a lower rating than the SDP in the earlier survey questions.
He next placed the different political parties on a chart with two axes, representing the attributes of free-market/socialism and liberalism/conservatism. His hypothesis was that the SDP had a lower vote share, as it was ideologically furthest away from the PAP, which was also where most voters were located. With voters not keen to change too much at one go, it meant that fewer voters were keen to vote for SDP.
However, Mr Au cautioned against the SDP moving its platform closer to where the majority of voters were located, simply to gain votes, as that could jeopardise the SDP’s existing support base without any assurance of winning more support. He also noted that the WP was ideologically very close to the PAP, which represented a risk to the WP since successful reform by the PAP would remove the incentive for many voters to vote for the WP instead of the PAP.
Questions and Answers
One audience member asked whether modelling could be considered for the next elections, based on the high correlation between coverage and election results.
A/Prof Tambyah replied that modelling may not be accurate unless more data is collected. It was also not MARUAH’s intention to predict the results. However, he highlighted that he was keen to get the study published in a journal.
There were suggestions from the audience to distinguish between the types of articles (e.g. pure reporting as opposed to commentaries), and also to factor in circulation. The validity of these comments was acknowledged.
An audience member asked if the election results bode well for human rights. Mr Au replied that democracy does not equate to human rights. A/Prof George agreed, noting that the election results suggested that advocating for human rights did not seem to earn votes.
MARUAH would like to thank all speakers, and also the attendees for staying throughout the forum. Post-Museum was one of the few venues available at short notice at an affordable cost. Despite the small size of the venue and the packed attendance, the audience nevertheless sat through the uncomfortable conditions to listen to the speakers and participate in the discussion. This is a testament to the strong interest in the different initiatives discussed in the forum, as well as the watershed nature of the General Elections.