Monday, May 2, 2011

Election Watch: A look at social media issues at half-time of the GE 2011 campaign

This time next week, Singaporeans will have elected a new government to look after their day-to-day needs and oversee Singapore's national destiny.

Results of the 7 May'11 General Elections (GE) will show if Internet chatter will indeed translate into votes won or lost. Whichever way the vote margin swings, the GE will be a watershed for social media watchers.

The day after:
Scenario 1: People's Action Party (PAP) increases its lead
If one uses comments in the blogosphere as a popularity index, one might be surprised the ruling PAP has governed Singapore for so long.

Comments on a multitude of Internet sites in the lead up to GE 2011 have been overwhelmingly anti-PAP. When all is said and done, if such animosity does not bleed the PAP's vote margin, this is likely to convince party strategists to ignore, downplay or disengage from Internet chatter in future.

It is not inconceivable that the same netizens who go crazy with anonymous flaming against the MIW end up casting a vote for the PAP. It is noteworthy that the vast majority of comments found on blogs and discussion groups are penned anonymously. Few netizens dare to fly their colours from the mast and state who they are. Why?

Perhaps Singaporeans, being champion Complain Kings and Queens, draw Dutch courage from the anonymity of the blogosphere and use it as a medium to vent and condemn, and that's it.

There are also many civil servants and voters (albeit from the older generation), who earnestly believe each vote can be tracked by authorities. This fear prompts them to vote for the ruling party, even though their heart tells them otherwise.

Should this scenario unfold, PAP strategists are likely to discredit net chatter as GE 2011 would have proven that all the huff and puff does not hurt its re-election prospects.

Scenario 2: PAP loses its lead
What would make PAP strategists really sit up and take notice is a big win for the Opposition. In my opinion, a big win could be defined as the failure to retake the Workers' Party-held Hougang Single Member Constituency (SMC) and loss of five parliament seats in Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC), as well as a dip in overall vote share for the PAP.

If such a scenario pans out, social media pundits will have ample material on the Internet to dissect and analyse to get a better sense of voter sentiments and social media trends.

In particular, voting patterns of young voters from the Gen Y or Strawberry Generation will continue to fascinate PAP and Opposition strategists.

Hits and misses during the campaign period will also be looked at in after action reports drafted by all political parties - one would expect credible parties to carry this out.

The PAP already knows from net chatter the extent of voter unhappiness. It must be blind, deaf and dumb if it does not already realise the ground is not sweet in cyberspace. The loss of Aljunied GRC and failure to make inroads in opposition strongholds like Hougang would prove that unhappy voters have no qualms demonstrating their displeasure at the ballot box with an endorsement for the other team.

This could force PAP strategists to rethink how the party should engage and cultivate the young. In this regard, the PAP appears at a loss. It does not seem to know how to engage and work with young voters and the politically apathetic.

At half-time of the GE 2011 campaign season, the PAP's young opinion shaper, Ms Tin Pei Ling (Marine Parade GRC) has proven to be a non-starter in the blogosphere.

"Our own activists have to be active out there in the social media realm," Ms Tin, 27, said on 28 March 2011.

"Currently it is quite dominated by some of the netizens who are more pro-Opposition or anti-establishment from the bulk of comments that we always see.

"One (of the things) we can do is for our young activists to engage netizens on serious topics and issues to find out more of what they are concerned with and try to put forth our point of view."

Alas, Ms Tin subsequently found herself at the centre of an Internet storm.

In my opinion, Ms Tin's mistakes early in the hustings point to a poor understanding of social media. The subsequent damage control measures, which include taking certain images offline after they had gone viral, were futile and misguided. Worse is the period of silence when heavyweight PAP candidates had to step in to defend Ms Tin.

The sanitisation of Facebook comments on pages purportedly supporting PAP candidates signals the FB member is unprepared or unready for dissenting views. Such a tactic may have to be looked at should netizens put their money where their mouth is and follow through their threats on polling day.

It remains to be seen if voters will be prepared to forgive or overlook remarks by PAP leaders that have struck some Singaporeans as arrogant and out of touch with the ground. These include phrases such as "repent" (a questionable choice as it has religious undertones) and a media statement by PAP's Holland-Bukit Timah team that some people found homophobic and sneaky - traits that are inconsonant with a political party that built Singapore from nothing. A confident party need not resort to such tactics.

At half-time, the PAP has brought big picture issues such as the sandwich class, jobs, housing and cost of living back into focus. It has also acknowledged that some Singaporeans do want an alternative voice in parliament. Indeed, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong remarked this evening that the party would see if Singaporeans "could have their cake and eat it" by voting PAP and having alternative voices to air different points of view.

Is it too late? With 20:20 hindsight, perhaps such ideas and assurance could have been floated months earlier.

Cleaning house
Apart from serious soul-searching should voters give the PAP a wake up call, one should also monitor how the party will clean house after GE 2011.

The number of government scholars and former civil servants who turned their backs on the PAP to join the Opposition is likely to be a cause for worry. Party stalwarts might wonder who's next?

If this leads to a thorough review of current civil servants and armed forces officers to weed out the politically unreliable, this will eventually populate the system with individuals who tell the party what it wants to hear. In the long run, such cherry picking would be akin to inbreeding and would lead to predictable results in future elections as the gulf between party rhetoric and public sentiments widens.

The PAP should ensure its IFF is working well so it will not cast out supporters and friendlies as it purges the system of potential turncoats. If its house cleaning is ruthless, such a purge will only swell the ranks of voters who will turn their backs on the party (some for good).

Remember that for GE 2011, the PAP still has a powerful voice within its ranks to admonish or rally voters to its cause. That voice may be absent in GE 2016 and beyond.

With a more mature Internet and growing segment of Gen Y voters, it will be hard to hold back the tide.

Please tune in this weekend for the GE 2011 scorecard.


Laremy said...

Er... David?

Hougang SMC is a Workers' Party-led ward.

So discussing the PAP's "loss" of the Hougang seat is factually inaccurate. It should be termed as a "failure to capture" the Hougang ward.

David Boey said...

Dear Laremy,
Thank you for pointing this out. Have corrected the narrative.

Best Regards,

Ben Choong said...


Just want to point out that a good part of online discussion also includes Facebook and Twitter - mediums that don't leave much room for anonymity. Increasingly, people don't mind airing their views even if it can be traced back to them.

Anyway nice analysis!

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben, yes, but there are many troll accounts on facebook and twitter as well.

Anonymous said...

Basically, this GE2011 is not about local town upgrading, FTs, or cost of living, etc. It is about whether Singaporeans would like to take back the political power and have a say on the future of Singapore. Once the people take back the power, they can then have a say on how to run this country and all those policies and problems will be resolved to their preference (i.e. have their say in policies).

There are few scenarios that Singaporeans must understand in this GE2011:

1. More voices but no change - To have less than 1/3 opposition seats in parliament will not change anything already done, e.g. cost of living, FTs, property prices, etc except that opposition MPs can make more noises and suggestions that PAP in majority may not listen. There is also a risk that PAP back in power will find ways to suppress all oppositions so that there will not be any chance of voting like in this GE2011.

2. Partial change - To have more than 1/3 and less than 2/3 opposition seats will be likely to change some already done as above but will not change the Constitution that allows GRC, NMP, NCMP, and election boundary redrawing. PAP will still be in power or sharing power with oppositions. This may be harder for PAP in power to diminish the oppositions.

3. Complete change - To have more than 2/3 opposition seats means the alternative party will be the government and PAP the opposition. This can change everything including the Constitution. However, Singaporeans must make sure the elected government rewrites the Constitution to abolish those ill clauses and introduce check and balance clause. Also, to ensure Constitution is not allowed to change without referendum. Otherwise, the next non-PAP government may have the chance to abuse the Constitution as well.

Singaporeans must vote wisely on 7 May to decide what they want in the future.

Anonymous said...

If we were to ask today who we want to form the government, I may be wrong but I think most Singaporeans will find a 2/3 majority for the opposition today distinctly unsettling....