COMMENT: Is Tan Cheng Bock's social media fame enough to make him MP (again)?

·6-min read
PSP chief Tan Cheng Bock seen during a party walkabout at Ayer Rajah Market on Saturday (4 July). (PHOTO: Joseph Nair for Yahoo News Singapore)
PSP chief Tan Cheng Bock seen during a party walkabout at Ayer Rajah Market on Saturday (4 July). (PHOTO: Joseph Nair for Yahoo News Singapore)

by Christalle Tay

When Progress Singapore Party’s (PSP) Dr Tan Cheng Bock unveiled his party to the press in July last year, he was asked how it would connect with younger voters. Dr Tan, then 79 years old, was flanked by similarly greying comrades as he fielded questions from a group of reporters, including me.

It was a rather silver panel of members, the seven, including Dr Tan, were part of the central executive committee, and had an average age of 57.

My induction into political reporting was at the launch of PSP and at the time, I was a final-year university undergraduate. I had joined the party for a few events and walkabouts. He was clearly a respected figure, by party members and former constituents, and I found him to be warm and genuine. It was obvious that he was a seasoned politician when I saw how well he manoeuvred around difficult questions.

At a walkabout at his old stomping ground in West Coast this January, a reporter asked how he would connect with younger voters. He quipped, “My charm.” He knew what to say to stir excitement and nostalgic sentiment over his return too, feeding reporters: “Tell them: I’m coming home.”

The lingering question then was: How was Dr Tan, who last held the Ayer Rajah seat 14 years ago, going to gain a footing among younger voters who might have been too young to remember his legacy? This was a premise for an article I wrote in February, for which I interviewed a few young voters living in Ayer Rajah. Those I had talked to — between the ages of 22 and 26 — had heard of him from family members but were too young to have formed much of an impression.

But now it appears Dr Tan has found the solution to engaging the youths — simply by embracing his grandfatherly age. More than the secretary-general of PSP or a former PAP MP (Member of Parliament) and presidential candidate, Dr Tan is now known to people on social media as the “hypebeast ahgong (grandfather)”.

Dr Tan (@tanchengbock on Instagram) earned the adoration of Instagram inhabitants when he shared a video of him slipping his finger through his spectacles to prove that they are lens-less, a fashion decision reminiscent of the decorative frames worn by hypebeasts, or streetwear fanatics. Later clips of him eating a flower just because and typing with one finger drove more to claim him as their favourite Internet grandpa. Dr Tan also replies to comments and private messages sent to him on Instagram, doling out life advice where needed.

Mix in a few endearing stumbles in slang application — like calling memes, “me me” — and his Instagram following more than doubled in three days. It went from about 10,000 followers on 1 July to about 24,000 two days later. It stands at 32,500 followers as of Sunday afternoon (5 July). A fan club has even been created in his honour on Twitter.

By attempting to pick up millennial slang words, eating flowers, and taking videos of himself with his face too close to the camera, Dr Tan has made himself – hashtag – relatable. He seems less of a politician, more like your neighbourhood ahgong, save the fancy house he showed off in a house tour.

Many of his followers tell Dr Tan they find him “cute”. A few declare they will vote for him.

Will social media likes translate to votes?

But as much as I loved Dr Tan’s posts, this is the election period, and nothing by political parties or candidates feel incidental. Case in point: The way Dr Tan dragged on the suspense of the biggest will-he-won’t-he — Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s candidacy under the PSP banner — up till Nomination Day. Whether it’s an ingenious plan by the party’s media team or Dr Tan himself, the ruse kept PSP in the news cycle for days.

Calibrated or not, there is no arguing that he has become a hit on social media and with young voters. But do they pick purely based on how well they connect with a candidate?

It seemed enough for a few of Dr Tan’s followers who said they would vote for him. Whether they were his constituents, or eligible to vote, is another matter. After all, for your average first-time voter who could possibly have started paying attention to politicians only when the election rolled around, they are unlikely to have any strong impression of a candidate unless these potential Members of Parliament are in the news often.

Social media is what most would go by to get a sense of who a candidate is – myself included, with the exception of former parliamentarians whose work I may have come across while reading parliamentary records. And while candidates are furiously working the ground and bumping fists with residents, they are usually fleeting interactions.

While some more informed or proactive friends of mine check out party manifestos or follow-up with e-rallies, I would have been less inclined to do so if I wasn’t reporting on the election. Party manifestos may be good for understanding where their interests and intentions lie, but the cynic in me hardly thinks it matters — the plans cannot be enacted by one opposition party alone. They are, at most, a good indication of the party’s credibility.

For Dr Tan, whose recognition among younger voters was initially in question, his raised online profile can only be a good thing. But more than followers, likes or views on Instagram, the true indication of whether his social media popularity has really made believers out of young – and older – constituents will be on Polling Day.

Christalle Tay is a freelance writer who recently graduated with a Communications and New Media degree from the National University of Singapore. The opinions expressed here are her own.

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