Feeling Singapore’s Electoral Pulse from Afar

Political rallies: A family affair. © Chye Wei Sheng/ Flickr

Despite being born in Singapore, I was granted permanent residency when I was young as neither of my parents was Singaporean. My PR status did not stop me from having a very Singaporean childhood: I went through (and survived!) the Singapore education system; spent my weekends in many libraries (chiefly the one in Queenstown opposite the demolished Margaret Drive hawker centre); and I embraced the Eastern side of Singapore wholeheartedly after spending a couple of years in a school near East Coast Park. I decided to apply for citizenship in mid-2013 upon entering the working world because by then, I knew that I wanted to truly belong to a country that was home.

After a 15-month wait, my days as an unofficial citizen finally came to an end and I was given the gift of citizenship on the eve of Christmas Eve in 2014. On the surface, nothing really changed — save for the colours of my identification card (from litmus blue to pink) and my passport (a different shade of red). But something was different. My new status meant that I could finally vote and be part of the demos. Simply put, the opportunity to cement my citizenship at the ballot box was actually quite exciting.

The next general election (whenever it was scheduled to take place) would have been a day of many firsts for me as a would-be voter: My first time attending political rallies; my first time experiencing ‘cooling-off day’; and more importantly, my first time going to a polling station. When I was younger, the 2006 and 2011 elections were not of prime importance (compared to other things like school work and co-curricular activities) due to my general disinterest in local politics. Things changed when I went to university — a place where I met many who were passionate about local, regional and international politics. All the political chatter got me thinking about different kinds of political persuasions and piqued my interest in politics at home and the wider region.

Upon becoming a citizen, I knew that the odds of being away for the 17th General Election (or 12th, since independence) were great because of academic pursuits abroad. Speculation that the 2016 elections were going to take place much earlier than expected was rife. The SG50 hype that reached gargantuan proportions by late 2014 and the passing of Lee Kuan Yew in March 2015 only fuelled it and true enough, by August, elections were scheduled to take place on September 11. The day after the election was called, I sat attentively at the dining table with my laptop, all ready to register as overseas voter … only that I couldn’t — simply because I had not done my homework ahead of time to know that registration to be an overseas voter ceases the moment the Writ of Election is issued.

I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t disappointed with this non-starter: I was now a brand new Singaporean who could only watch the political action from afar and not be part of all the election coffee-talk, chatter and hypothesizing. I was resigned to the fact that I would live and vote vicariously through my brother, who was back in the Singapore for the summer. But it dawned on me that if I was going to be an observer and by-stander, I was not going to be a passive one. The wonderful, yet sometimes overwhelming, presence of social media affirmed my determination to be in the loop for electoral news. Now, I’m not usually one to be completely glued to social media but last August, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram became my near-hourly, go-to tools for everything that was unfolding over that month.

Given the eight-hour time difference, these channels really made a difference in helping me to be in sync with the city-state’s electoral pulse. I saw snippets of people showing (or not showing) support for candidates in short videos that were posted on Instagram; I found myself endlessly clicking on hashtags like #GE2015 to read people’s thoughts — sometimes long prose-like ones on Facebook, or 140-character sentences on Twitter; I watched candidates’ speeches on YouTube; I read long published commentaries on established media platforms like The Straits Times and Channel News Asia, and more alternative views on blogs, and emerging news platforms like The Middle Ground. Live-tweeting during rallies at night by some friends also proved to be effective running commentaries as I went about my mornings and afternoons almost 11,000km away from home.

On September 11, the live blog and telecast of the counting of votes via Channel News Asia made my afternoon an unexpectedly nerve-wrecking one. The results nevertheless were unprecedented, given that social media and sample polls seemed indicate that the public was going to vote a certain way. I remember feeling a great need to talk to someone — anyone — about the outcome of the 2015 elections. I sought a sense of togetherness with friends and family across the world by discussing the results and its implications over WhatsApp and Facebook. In essence, talking it out through bursts of messages helped let the results sink in, and what was potentially next for the political landscape back home.

I do not know if I will be in Singapore for the next round of elections in 2019 or 2020. But wherever I may be, I’ll definitely do my homework ahead of time to ensure that I will get a chance to vote for the first time. Should I be away from home again that year, social media (and who knows what other forms of communication would have emerged by the third decade of the 21st Century!) will definitely still be my go-to channel for up-to-date information for this milestone; information that would reach me as if I had never left home.

This piece was first published by the Overseas Singaporean Unit on April 9, 2016.

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