Radio France International called this afternoon, asking me for some comments about this “social media election”. What social media election? I asked.
Yes, many Singaporeans are active on this new platform, but how many of them are talking about politics or distributing political content? Yes, many political parties have increased their digital presence and their supporters are certainly trying their best to push the stuff to viral, but honestly, how many netizens are paying attention?
I’m not saying social media won’t have any effect. It probably will have some, but how much will be impossible to know before Polling Day, and difficult to discover even after.
But the People’s Action Party (PAP) too is making use of the internet, the interviewer said, with over 200 videos put out by the party.
Funny you should mention that, I replied, perhaps not in so many words. I was just browsing through some of their videos before you called and, out of some three million voters, the typical video has had just two or three thousand hits.
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I don’t know what got into me this afternoon, to spend time watching introductory videos by PAP’s new candidates. Produced to the same template, with the guy just sitting in front of the camera reading off a teleprompter, they were all the same. Yet when one finished, I kept clicking on another in the vain hope that the next one would be different. It was like sitting at a window watching a highway with cars streaming through at a steady speed. You watch, wondering why you’re wasting time, and yet not wanting to take your eyes off the scene because you’re hoping to see a car wreck happen.
The videos run like job applications, with candidates reading off their respective curricula vitae: I achieved such and such in my education. My marital status is this and that (it’d be nice to hear someone say for change, “I am gay, and a horny devil”) and have this many lovely children. My career saw me doing such and such — and of course all these career highlights have to be spoken of in ways that imply they were successes without actually boasting so. Where possible, the candidate will say he has done this and that community or “grassroots” service, or else speak about how Singapore is such a wonderful place and its wonderfulness worth preserving, for our “future”. For our “children”. And I guess you’re supposed to see in your mind’s eye, the sun rise, birds break into song, and glowing faces in apartment windows beam with delight at a bright new day.
Don’t look too close though. The faces in the windows are those of foreign domestic maids, wondrously happy at how a quick wipe with Mr Muscle window cleaner has left the glass panes smudge-free and crystal clear.
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Thank you for watching. Just a random selection:
Ong Ye Kung’s video had about 900 hits as of Saturday (23 April 2011) afternoon.
He comes across as quite personable, despite following the template to the letter, but some of his claims of successes beg questions. He speaks about his role in the US-Singapore free-trade agreement (I believe he was the deputy chief negotiator) but surely such an exercise must have involved hundreds of people and is not just his achievement alone. Then he speaks about how working for a union, he helped people find jobs during a recession. “And our work has shown results. Between the beginning of 2009 and end of 2009, our unemployment in Singapore actually dropped.” Eh? While efficient job-matching may help, the unemployment rate rises or falls mainly for reasons far bigger than that. It’s got to do with the economy as a whole and the types of economic activity that are growing or shrinking.
Intan Azura Mokhtar’s introduction video had only 683 hits Saturday afternoon.
Again, this video follows the script, talking about family, education and career. She tells us that she has done volunteer work, helping residents write up appeal cases, though she doesn’t say whether this was before or after she had been arrowed as election candidate material. She says she’s “deeply concerned about working mothers, education and children”, but offers no clue as to what specific issues trouble her and why.
Ang Hin Kee’s introduction video had only 367 hits Saturday afternoon.
The first quarter of the video is a bit of fresh air, where he comes across as an ordinary bloke many can identify with. Unfortunately, he then keeps harping on challenges: “encounter challenges”, “face challenges”, “overcome challenges” — which is really another take on the crisis rhetoric. The message of course is that he and the PAP, with its track record, can help, but first, voters should be “choosing people who understand the seriousness of the challenges we face.”
Foo Mee Har’s introduction video had a very respectable 4,000 hits by Saturday afternoon. Respectable by her peers’ numbers but I still don’t know if it is anywhere near what is needed to make this a digital age election.
There is a brief call to national pride (“Many countries look up to Singapore for best practices”). Then she mentions her advocacy work for avoidable blindness and HIV/Aids. For the former, a google search suggests that it was actually her employer Standard Chartered Bank’s charity and she graced various events on behalf of the bank (presenting cheques?). As for HIV/Aids, a websearch did not throw up any connection between her and Singapore’s HIV advocacy group Action for Aids. The video concludes with her asserting a passion to serve and to be “the voice of the concerns of my constituents. . . and to help shape policies”.
Next, we have two generals, fresh out of the Singapore Armed Forces, and whose videos adopt a different nuance. If I have to put a finger to it, both their underlying messages urge people to ask what they can do for the country. They hardly say anything about what they as candidates can/will do for you. Furthermore, there is an unspoken linkage between wanting to do something for the country with voting for the PAP, which logically is questionable, but naturally, is not questioned.
Chan Chun Sing’s introduction video had about 2,900 hits as of Saturday afternoon.
Using the phrase “define a better future” three times in three minutes, he speaks about “securing the future”, and how to maximise our children’s potential, not so much to create happiness and wellbeing, but so that they “can make a meaningful contribution to our economy”. He talks about being vigilant — it’s the usual crisis rhetoric that the PAP regularly deploys, and how one of his three priorities is to “to engender a stronger commitment to our country regardless of what imperfections we may have”. I would have thought that politics is about trying to put right any imperfections we find. . . . but silly me.
Tan Chuan Jin’s introduction video had about 2,200 hits as of Saturday afternoon.
With a voice and intonation that sounds uncannily like Lee Hsien Loong’s but more mellifluous, Tan wraps himself in the flag so much, it’s almost like a sari. He thinks people should vote PAP because Singapore is “this home. . . . worth fighting for”. He has chosen as highlights of his curriculum vitae his experience as a large-scale event organiser: first the relief operation in Sumatra after the 2004 tsunami, then a National Day parade and glitzy show. It would have been nice if he stopped for moment to reflect on the difference between organising events where he had command (literally) of men and resources, and being able to lead people with only persuasion at hand. In the absence of reflection, we’re none the wiser what his worth is in different circumstances. Speaking of the National Pledge didn’t illuminate either; if anything it was risky to wallow so indulgently in national pride, because somebody somewhere will recall the saying, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
I saved Lawrence Wong’s video for last. It has only 200 hits, as of Saturday afternoon, but there was something believably and charmingly earnest about him.
The pity is that his video too follows the standard template — and by now my readers’ ears are probably tuning out. There is growing up, government scholarship, career as a civil servant. Then achievements, in his case energy infrastructure, Medishield revamp and “high-level committees” regarding economic development. He says he has been “exposed to the aspirations and concerns of Singaporeans from all walks of life” and has also participated in volunteer organisations though he does not name any. Inevitably, it ends with promises “to listen to your concerns to solve individual problems on the ground”.
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This is the first time that the party is using video to such an extent, and for the great majority of PAP’s new candidates, this could well be the first time they’ve ever had to speak directly into a camera. Considering that, applying a standard script is understandable.
But did the standard script have to be so dry? Did it have to contain such clichés?
The burning questions that viewers would have but as far as I can see, none even came close to addressing, would be these: Why the hell are you even in politics? What is that burning ardour within you about? What in this world do you want so much to change? What is that solution that you advocate? Why do you think that solution would make for a better world?
By way of contrast, look at how Nicole Seah from the National Solidarity Party speaks about herself and her formative experiences. You sense an idealism coupled with humility and self-awareness that is totally infectious.
To be fair, Seah wasn’t giving a static video, but was responding to questions, a format that animates the video. However, impromptu answers can also fail badly. Clearly she communicates very well and in this one anecdote, you get a glimpse of that “burning ardour” I spoke of earlier. Speaking of an old lady she once helped as a volunteer:
Yes, we have provided food for her for that one day, but what is going to happen to her for the rest of the days? And that was when I realised that you need policies to go down to the root of the matter and you cannot rely on [charity] organisations to do the job for you.
As for the PAP’s new candidates, I half suspect they can’t get past the first question — why the hell are you even in politics? — because the honest, hand-on-heart answer is not suitable for public consumption: Because we were invited to tea, and once we had sipped from the cup we could not refuse.