Idol results: What happened to communalism?

The Singapore Idol results, whereby an ethnic Malay won the contest for the second season running, may be an indication that the attitudes of young Singaporeans are not as parochial as feared. What is even more surprising is that this result is not unique to Singapore, as some neighbouring countries have also shown similar trends.

In multiracial Singapore, communalism is often identified as the main fault line in society. Communalism is the official rationale for Singapore’s unique electoral concept of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC), whereby at least one member of the electoral team for a GRC must be from a minority race. This is supposedly to ensure a sufficient representation of minorities in Parliament, as it was assumed that in a first past the post electoral system, the Chinese candidate will always beat the minority candidate.

In the Singapore Idol Finals Show last weekend, Hady Mirza beat Jonathan Leong, garnering over 70 per cent of the 1 million votes cast through SMS and phone. If the PAP’s election win of 66.6 per cent in May was considered a “strong mandate”, then Hady should be proud of himself for having secured an even more overwhelming mandate from Singaporeans! This marked the second time in as many contests that a Malay contestant won the Singapore Idol crown in Chinese majority Singapore.

Hady’s win could be seen as more significant than the 2004 season result, because the two finalists were much more evenly matched this year. Back in 2004, winner Taufik Batisah clearly put up a superior all-round performance compared to second-placed Sylvester Sim. In addition, it was widely agreed that this year’s runner up, Jonathan, with his pop star looks and nice-guy persona, had an advantage over Hady in a competition where appearance and charisma often count for as much as singing ability. However, most objective viewers would agree that in terms of versatility and vocal range, Hady had the edge over Jonathan. Hence, the best man won again this year.

Some disappointed Jonathan fans may have speculated that Hady won because his Malay fans pooled their money together and voted multiple times for him. While I have no doubt that some of his fans did just that, I don’t think their numbers can account for the staggering 700,000 votes Hady received.

Let’s look at the statistics. Singapore has 4.2 million people. According to the Department of Statistics, there are 484,600 Malays in Singapore. Of these, just 111,200 are in the 15 to 29 year age group. People outside this age group are unlikely to have voted, even if they watched the programme and had an opinion on who should win.

There is another way of estimating the number of Malay voters: The 1 million total votes represented 24 per cent of the total population of Singapore. Going by this proportion, the Malays, who make up 11.5 per cent of Singapore’s population, would have contributed just 115,000 votes, which is quite similar to the 111,200 in the 15 to 29 year age group, plus a few pakciks and makciks (older Malays) who also threw in their support for Hady.

Going by either of the above two methods (which I would readily admit are totally unscientific), each likely Malay voter would have had to vote at least 6 times to reach the magic 700,000 figure. In fact, even if every Malay Singaporean voted just once, they would have not have garnered enough votes to give Hady the simple majority. Contrast this with the 529,000 Chinese 15 to 29 years old who alone could have easily handed Jonathan the win if they wanted to.

Singapore Idol and General Elections

There have been parallels drawn between Idol voting and the voting during General Elections (GEs). One might argue that they are too different to compare, not only because of the multiple votes allowed for Idol, but also because GEs are when people engage in the “serious business” of choosing their national leaders, while Idol is purely entertainment.

However, I feel that the Idol vote is similar to a GE in several respects. Firstly, although people are supposed to vote based on the ability of the contestant or candidate, most end up voting with their emotions. They are more likely to choose someone whom they “like” rather than the contestant with the best voice or the candidate with the best ideas.

Secondly, in Western countries where voting is not compulsory, only about 40 per cent of the electorate bothers to cast their votes at national elections. The figure is much lower for local or state elections. Since Singaporeans are not any more politically inclined than their Western counterparts (some would say much less so), we could estimate that more up to half of Singapore’s voters vote in the GE based on what their more knowledgeable family members or friends advise them. This is akin to Idol, whereby some people vote multiple times for their favourite singer.

Idol results in the region

Is this display of meritocracy unique to Singapore? A check on the Idol results from two neighbouring Malay-majority countries reveals an interesting phenomenon. In Malaysian Idol, the winners were an Indian, Jaclyn Victor, and a Chinese, Daniel Lee Chee Hun, in 2004 and 2005 respectively. Daniel also won by an overwhelming majority – 1.2 million of the 1.68 million votes. Second placed Norhanita Hamzah received just 500,000 votes.

Over in Indonesia, the 2004 winner was Joy Destiny Tobing, a Batak. Bataks are predominantly Christians and make up just 6 million of the 220 million Indonesian population. The ethnic group in Indonesia that wields most of the political power are the Javanese. Even the 2004 runner-up was a Chinese, Delon Thamrin. In the latest season 2 in 2005, the winner was Michael Mohede, who is obviously not Javanese either.


The results of the Idol shows in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia indicate that young people, unlike probably their parents and grandparents, are more likely to look beyond race and ethnicity, and judge persons based on their “content” rather than their “colour”. The fact that these young people will be our future leaders bodes well for our countries. In view of this, it might soon be appropriate the Singapore Government to review our GRC system as those old assumptions about Singaporeans’ communal attitudes may no longer apply as much to the next generation.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

4 thoughts on “Idol results: What happened to communalism?”

  1. hi there.. i’m an undergrad working on blogs… just a few questions here… are u btwn 19 and 25 yrs old with at least an A lvl cert or a diploma… and ethnicity chinese? thanks a million!

  2. I’ll sum it up for you. It’s called partisan voting. Minorities feel a need to support each other. So what happens? They stand together and vote. Whereas the majority see no need for this and vote for everyone. We see this everywhere, not only in Singapore.

  3. You have a point there. But what I was trying to point out in my blog post was that despite the partisan voting (as you put it), there must have been quite a number of Chinese who voted for Hady to hand him his victory.

    Similarly, in a General Election (yes, politics again — this is a political blog after all!), my hypothesis is that the electorate in today’s Singapore, including the Chinese, will by and large vote for the most qualified candidate, whether or not he is Malay, Indian, Eurasian or Martian.

    If this is true, then I see no need for the GRC system.

  4. This sounds hopeful for today. But I hope – soon – Malayans (and I use this word deliberately) will no longer have to discuss something like this. Does it matter what a person’s ethnicity or heritage is?

    It also reminds of a story I read somewhere about a little boy who told his mother he had made a new friend.

    She said” That’s nice ,dear. I hope he is not black.”

    He said: “I will go and take a look”.

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