Saturday, November 19, 2011

In power in the real world, out of favour in the virtual one: Why the PAP has few friends in cyberspace

Singapore's political elite are treated differently in the real world and in the virtual world.

In the real world, the People's Action Party (aka Men in White) has been kept in power since independence by winning the popular vote, thanks to support from six out of 10 voters in this year's General Election (GE).

In the virtual world, the MIW appear to be less popular. Almost every news item about Singapore on Internet news sites (Yahoo News) or discussion forums (hardwarezone) generates scorn and ridicule bordering on outright hostility towards the same party that rules our island nation.

This love-hate relationship has immediate and direct relevance to the defence of Singapore because citizen soldiers who do not support or respect the party in power are less likely to respond to a call to arms.

So why won't the majority of Singaporeans who voted for them speak out to defend the MIW?

Perhaps it is because the strength of this silent majority has been consistently over-stated through optimistic projections that they exist as a latent vote bank: Quiet, unassuming, not prone to theatrics (or hysterics, unlike the lunatic fringe), dependable and staunchly loyal to the end.

It is naive to think that this vote bank can be counted on, time after time, at every GE.

Indeed, some who voted for the MIW could have done so at odds with their personal convictions about the party. From anecdotal accounts, this group includes civil servants and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) regulars who cling to the impression that marking an "X" against the party is tantamount to career suicide.

But ground sentiments over the cost of living and red hot topics such as the pace and direction of the immigration policy are not sweet. All that pent-up angst must go somewhere.

And so it surfaces during lunchtime chit chat when former civil servants castigate the system. It appears in cheeky email chains circulated by former SAF personnel (some very senior, mind you). It stokes lively debates in the virtual world where the MIW become the lightning rod for criticism for everything you can think of from pet ownership in the heartlands to weightier affairs of state.

The size and strength of the silent majority is also eroded through own goals and collateral damage from government decisions.

For example, it would be interesting to find out how residents in Rochor Centre would vote in a hypothetical replay of this year's GE, now that they know their homes will be torn down to make way for a new expressway. You don't have to be a political scientist to figure this one out.

The own goal that came close to killing the goalkeeper includes the remark that residents in Aljunied would have five years to repent if they voted for the Opposition. They did so anyway.

Another reason for the reticence of the silent majority may be this group's unfamiliarity with the Internet.

The generation of Singaporeans who lived through independence in 1965 is thinning out. This group of voters may genuinely value the MIW's contributions. But their impact on online discussions is limited to non existent because the vast majority are simply not net-savvy.

The MIW's Janus-like persona in the real and virtual world is compounded by lack of guidance from top party leadership on how exactly the social media beast should be tamed. They appear to have entrusted the social media campaign to younger cadres, perhaps believing that good looks and a winsome smile are all it takes for engaging younger voters and the Gen Ys.

But is this mission placed in good hands?

In my opinion, some cadres seem unready and unqualified to take on the scale and intensity of a social media campaign. There was this young candidate - undeniably photogenic - whose spoke about her desire to engage the young through the Internet (which is commendable) during her maiden press conference. But nothing much is seen or heard these days from this MP. Her initiation into the hearts and minds battle was also brutal as she had overlooked the most basic - repeat basic - task of cleaning up her Internet footprint before chasing her political ambition. Worse, the candidate deleted personal pictures after they had gone viral - adding fuel to the fire through an ultimately futile task. So this sort of novice is leading the MIW's charge in cyberspace? Good luck.

Like a one-song band singing the same tune, their strategy appears to hinge heavily on Facebook and Twitter, as if this is the answer to winning the hearts and minds of Singaporeans.

When I was allowed to shadow a MIW team during their May Day walkabout this year, I was surprised by the lack of ideas from one senior MIW candidate when he quizzed a journalist for ideas on how young Singaporeans could be engaged. The team eventually won their seats, but the impression that they are out of touch remains etched in my mind and is replayed whenever I read about the party's PR blunders.(For the record, I have a clip of the conversation which is interesting to watch.)

Mind you, not all youngsters have part of their psyche permanently plugged into cyberspace. A good number value good old face-to-face debates. But during townhalls held with certain MIW big wigs, varsity students reacted with disappointment when the system required students to submit their questions before the event. How does this sort of mindset help engagement with the young?

In recent days, we're starting to hear that the MIW's youth wing may introduce more stringent checks on its members. This is a move to get to know prospective members better so as to avoid getting sucked into PR gaffes when inappropriate material posted online goes viral.

Now, tie this in with the censored Q&As and screened guest list during townhalls, steps taken to ban Facebook members or sanitise their comments after their remarks strike a nerve, and the system's legendary intolerance for people who speak up and you get a better idea why the party that won the popular vote is not so popular in cyberspace.

Almost every blogger and discussant who uses social media has his or her own hobby horse. This runs the gamut from neighbourhood cats to saving Bukit Brown cemetery, the arts, gender matters, transport, housing to defence and security. The list goes on. The system's knack for demonising and opening an account with those who speak up is regrettable. All it does is create conditions for a perfect storm when commentors for all sorts of issues, who have been taught a harsh lesson for speaking up, end up unfriending the MIW. To use a military analogy which many of you will understand, the MIW needs to fix its IFF as its blunt handling of critical voices cannot tell friend from foe.

There will come a day when the MIW has to cash that cheque. When that day comes, they will discover (belatedly?) that their failure to cultivate goodwill comes with a price - none of the chastened spirits in the virtual world will speak out for them.

Now in belly gazing mode, the MIW appear to be trying hard to craft a grand strategic plan to engage citizens and netizens better. If such effort is meant to shore up confidence in and support for the MIW come election time, it follows by the same logic that a failure to do so puts re-election campaigns on tenterhooks.

Their best answer may come with letting go of their control freak mentality in the virtual world and engaging citizens/netizens in meaningful debate. Mindsets also need to be rewired to stop villifying people whose point of view may not agree with the party's. We all carry the same passport at the end of the day.

If and when they are ready to do so, Singapore's political elite may be pleasantly surprised to discover that Singaporeans are not as politically naive, irrational or unreasonable as they appear to be.

During times of national crisis, like the SARs emergency in 2003, all of Singapore looked towards the MIW for strong leadership and for their technocrats to steer this island nation clear of the crisis. They did not disappoint.

Internet blogger Alex Au chose his words well when he was asked on his blog (click here for the discussion) why the popularity of alternative media for political news has not resulted in more Opposition votes. Mr Au replied: "Because having a better understanding of Singapore politics and the issues before us does not automatically mean rejecting the PAP."


Anonymous said...

Precisely by their control freak mentality, they will not change their mindset. If you want a government that will engage truly with it citizens, you will have to change the party in power with your vote.

Anonymous said...

We all need to go and plant oil palm in Honduras.

Anonymous said...

PAP has no friend at all. Those few "friends" they have were bought.

Anonymous said...

MIWs are all kiasu and kiasi as seen by their many actions esp their dealings with elected opp MPs. They are perceived as " ungentlemanly". I am not young. I was born in 1963! Excellent article!

“When the rate of change outside exceeds the rate of change inside, the end is in sight”
Jack Welch

Only Time Will Tell!

Anonymous said...

Good article. Thank you. Slowly but surely the 40% with the awaken 60% will put MIW out of business

Anonymous said...

Major General Chan Chun Sing: "Come and see how I engage the youth of today."

Anonymous said...

There are people who put forward their pro-PAP views online. I have seen quite a number of such views being well reasoned and non-hysterical. Inevitably these people are met with an online storm of fire and brimstone, often presented with hate and spite, to the point of personal insults. No wonder pro-PAP views are not more forthcoming. When online, many people cannot accept that other people can have political views different from theirs, and feel the compulsion to hurl abuse at such individuals with differing political views. This is very sad and speaks a lot about maturity.

Anonymous said...

The unfortunate thing is that some of the online PAP views are more reasonable and amenable than the official edicts of ministers, let alone their deeds. Whatever quarter these moderate voices come from, they mean little if not matched by comparable actions.