Something’s brewing with PAP’s secret online project

Be ready for an online media blitz by the People’s Action Party (PAP) this coming general election – that seems to be the subtext of a story in Straits Times’ Digital Life a couple of weeks ago.

The interviewee, Zaqy Mohamad, who heads the party’s online team, was naturally reticent about disclosing what they are up to and the news story was mostly about the in-house work his team has done at party conferences, e.g. real-time blogging and the revamp of some websites, notably Young PAP’s. In place of giving away their plans, he spoke more about the team honing its skills and learning lessons along the way, which is to be expected.

Zaqy is also the Member of Parliament for Hong Kah Group Representation Constituency.

If the party’s manifesto for the 2006 general election is any guide, the stuff they will put out online is going to be very slick, perhaps even eye-catching, full of bells and whistles, but short on content. Their 2006 print output was more like a (very slim) coffee-table book, all glossy but rather sparse on words. What little was said was more in the nature of platitudes than taking positions.

This is a kind of “occupational hazard” for ruling parties that have been in office for a long time. They would have used the time to create what we recognise today as the status quo, and the whole point of wanting to stay in office is to sustain that status quo. Alas, “we shall sustain the status quo” is not a very catchy slogan, nor is the uncomfortable truth “our chief agenda is to remain in power and do whatever we wish”. That leaves very little else to say, which explains why motherhood statements will likely be preferred.

(For an example of a very detailed manifesto, go to the Workers’ Party website and click on its 2006 version. Except for the section on the economy, which seems rather weak to me, the other sections testify to much thought. I don’t know if they will be using the same manifesto or will be changing it for the next election.)

But how important is content? It may well be that while it’s important for long-term engagement with an audience, it is less so for short-term image-making. For long-term engagement, content gives people something to think about, agree or disagree with, and is constantly refreshed by new topics and new ideas. Wowing people through presentation is spike-inducing, but ultimately requires only a passive audience, who will turn elsewhere for their next exciting fix before long. However, if the immediate experience is intense enough, branding can be achieved very well.

Thus, for just an election campaign, flashing lights and speedy videos saying little may be sufficient. It’s not supposed to be for long-term engagement anyway. It’s supposed to be attention-grabbing over a nine-day period, that’s all. If it can change the party’s image subliminally from being so “last generation” to “now”, then it will have done its job.

But will it change the way people vote? Without seeing what media blitz they have created, it is hard to say. Furthermore, no media or polling organisation in Singapore has done voter surveys — at least none with published results — examining how people identify themselves politically (staunchly pro-PAP, generally pro-PAP, undecided, generally pro-opposition, staunchly pro-opposition), in the absence of which it is uncertain how many floating voters there are. My unscientific guess is that there aren’t very many. Most voters, even younger ones, will have party preferences, albeit not solidly so, well before the election campaign even begins.

In other words, a glitzy online campaign may harvest a few voters for the PAP, but I think it’s going to take something really big to shift many people’s preferences during the course of the campaign.

What might that “something big” be? A brand new policy proposal that large numbers of people want could be one, but that’s extremely unlikely; it is the party of the status quo after all, and this party is not known to wave populist promises. Alternatively, a hard-hitting negative advertisement that demolishes an opposition party’s branding or message — that I can see changing the game.

* * * * *

Zaqy revealed that the P65 blog, much touted after the 2006 general election, has been a failure. Naturally, he didn’t put it so bluntly, but read between the lines and it’s an unmistakable conclusion. This joint blog was supposed to be a voice for PAP members of parliament born after 1965 and newly elected into the House in that year’s poll. Zaqy attributed its demise to a lack of time, and on the part of some members a lack of internet savvy.

Certainly, time is a major consideration. Anyone who has run a blog will know how much needs to be invested to keep it going at a reasonable clip. However, I don’t think internet-savviness is significant issue, after all, blog applications are very straightforward and simple to use.

The biggest stumbling block, I suspect, but Zaqy did not name, is a paucity of ideas, and consequently, content. Again.

Not that I am surprised. Consistent content generation requires either of two starting conditions: working at it full-time like in a media organisation, or being passionate about a subject and thereby having lots to say about it. Neither condition applies to most of those who enter politics with the PAP. This is not to say they aren’t dedicated in what they do — they have to be to put up with the party workload, the weekly constituents’ clinic, while holding a high-paying job and spending time with spouse and young children (a “successful” high-paying job and being heterosexual appear to be critical conditions for entry into the PAP) — but they are not there because they are cause-oriented. If they were independently cause-oriented, they wouldn’t be in the PAP.

Additionally, party discipline requires that they do not say things out of turn or in contradiction to government policy, at least not on a sustained basis, which is what content generation requires. I accept that in Parliament, some PAP members do make critical comments about policies, but I am also  sure that if any one of them carried on at length in the same vein via channels outside Parliament (including blogging), he will be seen as a dissenter and a non-“team-player” — another of the PAP’s tests of virtue.

What about blogging in defence of government policies? I think the younger members of parliament are smart enough to know that’s going to be very costly for their public image. They’re going to sound so old-school.

(That said, I really think it is something Singapore’s blogosphere needs. We’re not going to be mature until the government’s point of view is defended by people other than ministers.)

Given these conditions, it is hardly surprising that PAP members of parliament have very little to say. Between the selection process (those who are cause-driven will never get into the PAP) and the demands of party discipline (shut up! even if you disagree), content will be as elusive as snow on a Singapore beach.

5 Responses to “Something’s brewing with PAP’s secret online project”

  1. 1 PK 22 June 2010 at 00:07

    Great analysis Alex, hope YPAP doesn’t learn a thing or two from it though! (Haha)

    Anyway I personally prefer the Manifesto of the Singapore Democratic Party:

    And with regards to the economy, they even have an extended set of alternative economic proposals recently added onto their Manifesto.

  2. 2 Alan Wong 22 June 2010 at 07:53

    The name PAP already stinks in my mind. The underhand tactics they resort to really pisses me off. Their system of no accountability and transparency worries me.

    I wouldn’t even want to take a first look at any of their propanganda.

  3. 3 SandyW 22 June 2010 at 19:17

    ///In other words, a glitzy online campaign may harvest a few voters for the PAP///

    Potong pasir was won by Chiam with a small margin, so even if the pappies’ media blitz wins them a few percent more votes, it can make a difference.

  4. 4 Mat Alamak 22 June 2010 at 20:09

    The more is said, the more controversies it will pick up. For instance Health Minister Khaw Boon recently recovered from heart surgery and went back to work. He wrote about his experience on his blog and was also publicised in detail in mainstream media.

    It has also become a talking point in forums and other blogs,and mostly in a negative way about him and his health policies.

    Much earlier another minister also underwent some major surgery and was only mentioned briefly in the mainstream press. He recovered and was back to work quietly. Hence no talking point on the internet on it.

    Hence if I were a PAP minister or MP I wouldn’t want to engage publicly on the internet. Nothing much to gain and a lot to lose (not money of course).

    And at the end of the day my party(PAP) will still win hands down, at least 50% without a fight.

    So really why bother to engage or not engage online?

  5. 5 SPHgal 27 June 2010 at 13:10

    Why would the PAP even consider using a PAP platform to publicize PAP issues online? That is suicide. A bit daft, don’t you think so?

    Makes far more sense to get the message through by using the wolf in the sheeps clothing.

    I believe very strongly for instance. And mind you, I am not alone in my suspicion, some blog sites such as Temasek review, previously known as the Wayang Party are set up for you know what purpose.

    Dont you think that will solve the problem of duds like P65?

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