Singapore election: Young voters could be the key

Image caption Singapore's economy is now worth $250bn

Around 2.3 million Singaporeans will head to the polls later on Saturday in the first elections for five years.

The vote comes amid growing concerns about rising food and housing costs and increased immigration.

The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) - which has dominated national politics for more than half a century - is widely expected to win.

However, at this election there will be a record number of seats in parliament being contested by opposition parties.

Out of 87 parliamentary seats, 82 seats are being contested by five opposition parties.

The National Solidarity Party has 24 candidates, while the Workers' Party, which held one seat in the previous parliament, is vying for 23. The Reform Party, the Singapore Democratic Party, and the Singapore People's Party are also standing.

Major upheaval

Under the rule of the PAP, Singapore has grown from a colonial backwater with no natural resources to an economy now worth $250bn (£152bn).

The party still boasts lifelong supporters, especially among the older population who saw the country go from developing to fully developed in a generation.

Its gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 14.5% in 2010, making it the fastest growing economy in Asia, and it was among the first to emerge from the global financial crisis - a fact Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted at a recent campaign rally.

"The global financial crisis caused major upheaval to our economy, and yet despite this, there was an outstanding performance by Singapore. How we came through is a result of our being united, of having a good government," he said.

The government and PAP were not available for comment when contacted by the BBC.

But while Singapore's economy has already doubled in size in the 10 years to 2008, that growth has brought challenges.

Expensive city

The rate of inflation reached 5% in March, and even though the central bank says it will fall to between 3% and 4% this year, the price of homes and cars has jumped, putting them out of the reach of many younger Singaporeans.

Image caption The ruling People's Action Party is widely expected to win

One such is 33-year old Mohamed Ali. Married with a four-month old baby, he still lives with his parents because he cannot afford to buy any of the government subsidised flats near them.

His father, Mohamed Hassan, a staunch supporter of the opposition Reform Party, blames immigrants for the rising costs of housing and for keeping his wages low.

"Let's say I earn $2,000 - they can work for $1,500, no problem. Plus 12 hours they can work, I can't," he says. "I'm Singaporean with a family, we built up Singapore but they come in, very easily they become citizens. What about us?"

Government data shows that more than a quarter of Singapore's 5.1 million people are foreigners, up 19% from 2000. Non-citizens do not have a vote.

Mr Hassan's predicament is also compounded by the fact that Singapore ranks number two among developed countries for having the widest wealth gap between rich and poor.

Although its stellar economic growth has meant average monthly income rose 40% in the past decade, the average income for the bottom 20% of Singaporeans, like Mr Hassan and his family, fell 2.7%.

Social media

What is making the elections so interesting for many observers is the fact that a large number of young Singaporeans - an estimated 600,000 people aged 21 to 34 - will be first-time voters. They are seen as more open to political change so there is uncertainty over where their allegiances lie.

"The overwhelming political dominance of the PAP is seen not just as an anomaly but as a freakish state of affairs," says Eugene Tan, an assistant professor of law at Singapore Management University.

"That makes Singaporeans, along with the dissatisfaction on the ground and the PAP's seeming lack of concern, more amiable to the opposition's pitch."

Echoing this sentiment is Singaporean writer Catherine Lim, who says that the young voters are generation Y, a group completely different from their parents and grandparents, who still see themselves as owing an enormous debt of gratitude to the PAP for giving them subsidised government flats with proper sanitation.

With so many younger voters, it is not surprising that a large chunk of the campaigning is being played out on the internet for the first time on sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

This shift from more tightly controlled state media to freer online platforms has propelled 24-year old Nicole Seah to fame.

One of the youngest candidates standing for the opposition National Solidarity Party, her Facebook fan site had surpassed that of senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew, who is widely regarded as the architect of modern Singapore.

For two days, when her Facebook site boasted more than 60,000 fans, she was the most liked Singaporean politician on Facebook. Mr Lee has since caught back up with her.

Ms Seah is clear as to why Saturday's vote is so important.

"These elections are a watershed for the reason that social media is emerging in a very strong way," she explains.

"Moving forward, I do feel that the government will start to be more mindful about how they can engage residents. It's something that the ruling party will have to come to terms with, that if they really want to engage the citizens, they will probably have to take the negative feedback online, along with what's positively mentioned."

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