Introduction: Change from New to Old
Change is not always about the new. Occasionally, it is about the reappearance of the old. This is easily missed in a country that takes deep pride in perpetual selftransformation, and nowhere was this more evident than in the 7 May 2011 Singapore General Election (GE2011). In the wake of the most thoroughly contested general elections in generations, the mainstream media and pundits alike sought to capture this sense of change with a variety of phrases such as the “new normal” and “watershed”, suggesting that the 61 per cent of the popular vote won by the People's Action Party (PAP) — its lowest since independence — has resulted in a different Singapore, one that has broken away from the norm. Such hyperbole is understandable and not entirely inaccurate, but greater contextualization will show that sometimes the old reappears as the new.
GE2011 was historically important for a couple of reasons. It saw the largest number of voters ever — 2.3 million, increasing from 2.1 million in 2006 and 2 million in 2001. It also gave us a quick glimpse into the future of Singapore politics because it saw the largest ever participation of first-time voters — 200,000 — as well as the largest number of younger voters with an estimated 600,000 out of 2.3 million between the ages of 21 and 35. The candidates from the various political parties reflect this youthful demographic too. However, the fact that the ruling PAP was not returned to government on Nomination Day is not new. While 2011 saw 82 out of 87 seats contested, it must be remembered that 2006 saw 56 per cent of the seats contested (47 out of 84). And if we cast our minds back further to 1980, we will remember that 38 out of 68 Parliamentary seats were contested; in 1976 53 out of 69 seats were contested; and in 1972 57 seats out of 65 were contested. The lesson: the PAP could only take its incumbency for granted from the 1980s onwards. GE2006 and GE2011 mark a return to the old.
GE2011 was also keenly contested because of the credible slate of Opposition candidates.