Screengrab of former Foreign Minister George Yeo's Facebook page.
The General Elections of 2011 added another layer to the texture of social communications in Singapore, at least as far as political dialogue is concerned. Social media was the variable in the contest for votes and not many could ascertain its effectiveness before the hustings.
The political parties apparently had some inkling about its reach, but few knew how to harness it to its full potential. The only party which did so is the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) which had said that the Internet would be its main channel to reach voters.
As election fever heated up in March and April, the ruling People's Action Party announced the set-up of 27 constituency websites, reflecting the number of areas which would be up for grabs in the elections. However, these sites were never mentioned again and, as far as one can see, their effect on voters is negligible.
Given the enormous resources of the PAP, it is puzzling why it has not been able to engage Internet users more effectively. Each time party members tried their hands at this, it fell flat on their faces. One could forgive Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong for being unfamiliar with social media, for example, but surely he would be aware of the consequences of playing a prank online, and that this would be subjected to scrutiny.
The PAP's missteps in cyberspace were numerous during the elections — from what would be called the misadventures of Tin Pei Ling to the rather plastic and artificial Youtube promotional videos of Wong Kan Seng's Bishan-Toa Payoh team, from the disabling of feedback facilities on PAP Youtube videos to the deletion of critical comments on their Facebook pages, PAP candidates seemed lost on the cyber highway, desperately needing a directional sign to help them out of their uncertainty.
One PAP candidate even went so far as to hand out cards which were fashioned on the Facebook interface — the cards indicating that he had some 23,172 "likes" for his page when in fact the actual number was just 244. (See here.) Of course, he got slammed for it. One wonders why he would do this given that the truth could simply be found out with just a few click of the mouse.
What was noticeably absent during the elections was the so-called PAP government cyber counter-insurgency unit. Reportedly set-up in 2007 a year after the last elections, it was supposed to defend the government online from its critics. If indeed such a unit was activated during the elections, its presence was hardly felt as views and opinions flew thick and fast on all social media platforms, and videos and photographs of each day's campaigning were uploaded at lightning speed. Any attempts at countering these would have been futile anyway. (See here and here.)
In 2009 the government liberalised the use of New Media to allow for more political debate on the Internet, along with amendments to the Films Act. (See here.) Then-Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts, Lui Tuck Yew, said: "It is… important that the government learns to make better use of the medium of film and new media tools to reach out and engage, inform, educate and obtain the views of media-savvy Singaporeans."
It is not anything new that Lui has said. The government has always claimed to want to "engage" younger, Internet-savvy Singaporeans. The problem is that its definition of engagement is stuck in irrelevant ideas of communication — a top-down, "I-talk-you-listen" paradigm.
This is evident from its online behavior. SM Goh, for example, hardly engages anyone on his MParader Facebook page. He makes a post and members of the public comment on that post. SM Goh does not — or at least, seldom — engages those comments in return. It's the same for other PAP members, although some, such as Ms Tin and Mr George Yeo, do try to go further. But overall, there is very little by way of a dialogue or any meaningful interaction between the politician and those whose votes he seeks to win.
Perhaps the Workers' Party victory in Aljunied GRC is instructive for politicians who feel cyberspace will be an even more important battle ground in future elections. The lesson could be this: in order to win your critics over, you have to go into their corner of the den. Sometimes, courage reaps substantial rewards. Staying in your corner may be the safe option, but it could also mean you will be ignored.
To dismiss online opinions as "noise", or to call Internet users "irresponsible", or to brush aside the Internet altogether, as some PAP members have done, is just plain naïve. For what happens online no longer stays online. What is passed around online gets passed around offline as well. What is read, seen and heard online is regurgitated, repeated, and forwarded to friends, families, colleagues and even strangers.
Nothing truly just stays online anymore, as the elections have proved.
With Singapore having one of the highest Internet penetration rates in the world, the influence of social media will grow, make no mistake.
And contrary to what Lui said in 2009, perhaps it is PAP members, and not others, who need an education in social media and new media for the PAP's scorecard in this area leaves much to be desired.
Andrew is the co-founder and current editor-in-chief of socio-political website The Online Citizen. He writes frequently on issues which are close to his heart, particularly those affecting the less fortunate, and on politics.