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Why the Singapore General Election is different this year

Meld Magazine

Fri May 06 2011

Singapore General Election 2011

ON THE eve of Singapore’s 2011 General Election, former international student Xinyan Wee reflects on how a new generation of young people are taking an interest in politics and eager to cast their vote to determine the nation’s future.

I WATCHED as my students went up to the whiteboard with hastily drawn party campaign ‘posters’ for their presentation. We were holding a mock Singapore General Election 2011 in class as part of our General Paper unit in Singapore.

One boy raised his fist into the air and punctuated his team mates’ speech on the Singapore Democratic Party’s manifesto with “Majulah SDP!”  causing amusement among his classmates. The rest of them, likewise representing the other political parties contesting in the coming elections, listened intently, sometimes wrinkling foreheads in confusion over personalities, political and economic terms they were coming across for the first time.

All of 17-years-old, some of these students have already attended rallies “to experience the atmosphere”. There were also those who expressed little interest in what has been coined a watershed for Singapore’s political scene. 82 out of 87 seats are being contested this year, the most since Singapore’s independence.

I can’t help musing how similar I was to them when I was their age. In the cocooned world of school and studies, my friends and I were never interested in or engaged with our country’s politics perhaps because of a perceived lack of power and voice. Besides, gruelling academic preparation for A-levels was top priority then.

But tables have turned drastically in the few months leading up to this year’s general election. When there are formidable contests in so many wards, much political debate has taken place. What is termed as election fever has hit the majority of this nation, but rather than a fever that kills and destroys, I see it as one with healing and restorative powers .

With the advent of new media platforms and such fierce contests, we witness an ongoing conversation about the country’s future, vision and direction pervading all levels of society and engaging all stakeholders – a refreshing scene for this country.

Those whom I once thought were apathetic people are now on fire, especially active on social media, as they freely express personal opinions and challenge parties’ manifestos and politicians’ promises. On Facebook, Twitter and blogs, people are campaigning for the party they are supporting – posting videos of speeches made, rallies attended, slogans chanted, and defending their party’s stand.

Such heated engagement from my generation at this intensity with such conviction is unprecedented. Weren’t we the infamous apathetic youths of Singapore just a few years ago? I must say, this sea-change has been exhilarating, because suddenly, there’s relevance in all aspects of life as a citizen.

This year’s elections matter to me in a myriad of ways, as a first time voter, as a teacher, as a Singaporean who couldn’t wait to escape from the country and culture, but who in the end returned after completing my studies in Melbourne.

Having the opportunity to vote drastically changes matters in that one is now given a mandate to make a choice. And this choice extends beyond merely choosing a party for your constituency. Far more than that, it is a choice one makes to become a matured, critical and evaluative thinker who understands his role in society and is deeply concerned about the future of his community.

For the ancient Greeks, to be fully human is to be an active citizen. Thus I am deeply grateful for this choice that I have been given, because it validates my being a citizen of the nation like nothing else had done for me – not the pledge, not the Majulah Singapura anthem, nor the fireworks and songs during National Day Parades.

I am thankful to the individuals and groups that have put themselves forward, under intense public scrutiny, to challenge the status quo, debate my country’s future, and contest for a voice in parliament. Were it not for them, would I be as concerned as I am now for this place I call home?

Returning to the country I’ve grown up in (as a largely clueless youth) after five years overseas, I must admit it has been a late coming of age journey for the Singaporean in me. Now, as a teacher who needs to engage her students in current affairs, issues and ideas pertinent to Singapore, I have been forced to confront the prejudices and misgivings I’ve held for so long about the nation.

For many others that I know, this election has been a moment of awakening and an opportunity to mature into true citizens. Friends from overseas have written back to tell us how they feel. Some, I have heard, are flying back just to cast their vote.

I remember with vivid detail one night in April, at the conclusion of a close friend’s wedding celebrations, when the bridal party rested in the hotel to work off the effects of the after party, someone had switched on the TV and flipped to the local news channel reporting on the election. The room suddenly came alive with opinions and critical comments. Everyone had a thought that needed voice. No longer were we apathetic nor uninformed, we had started on our journey to become true citizens a scene the teachers in my time would surely have been proud to witness.

Xinyan Wee is a teacher in one of Singapore’s junior colleges. She graduated from Melbourne University with a Masters of Teaching.