Papsicles 4

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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”.

* * * * *

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.

9 Responses to “Papsicles 4”

  1. 1 Russell 24 April 2011 at 00:33

    Encourage you to follow #sgelections on twitter to get a sense of all the buzz. As campaign draws closer, is a great way that the younger voters get engaged and a platform to express. Of course, whether it translate into real votes in the end remains to be seen.

  2. 2 blacktryst 24 April 2011 at 00:53

    Eh, not to say there is a certain bias in your dissection of the PAP vids and let me make it CLEAR that i am NOT a PAP supporter but honestly, all the vids of candidates, PAP or otherwise are dry. They still do not talk about taboo topics such as the homeless problem, the poverty problem, the immigrant problems, health care increases and etc. Well of course the PAP videos are supposed to be dry. They are meant to be professional video resumes. Its meant to impart a sense of decorum on the candidates. Even if NSP cadidate Nicole Seah’s vid is more interactive, she is still keeping to a script and watching what she says and not engaging the viewer at all. Rather it is like we are the observer watching her field questions but the questions are staid enough for her to stay safe and cool in her answers. No, as much as SDP’s Chee is known for his fiery rhetoric, at least the voters are seeing what his passion is about and therefore why he is so charismatic. I’m not saying that all candidates has to act that way, because its like watching reality TV but at least let the cadidates please show some passion and some earnestness.

  3. 3 Kenneth 24 April 2011 at 03:03

    Interesting that a number of PAP candidates mention their “church” in their videos, including Tan Chuan Jin and Lawrence Wong.

  4. 4 Netina 24 April 2011 at 03:49

    Hi Alex,
    I am surprised you managed to sit through so many of the PAP introductory videos! I couldn’t last more 2 minutes. It is too painful to watch. Regardless, I think social media has made a difference and altered somewhat the level playing field by increasing information flow. It has also 1) offered an alternative platform for debate; 2) widened the political space by allowing more dissenting voices; 3) provided voters with alternative source of information besides those from MSM…The only problem as I have perhaps said said earlier to you, is that, we don’t have the software or the technology to effectively connect the co-relation between new media and changes in our socio-political values. Perhaps, public opinion survey data will help to determine whether our perception of the credibility of opposition parties have indeed changed or whether our understanding of various party/policy positions have changed….What is interesting to note is the ruling party is at wits end on how to maintain monopoly over information flow and desperate in riding the wave and capitalizing on the social media to their advantage. Judging from these PAP candidates’ video postings….they have more ways to go. See you soon, Netina

  5. 5 Gard 24 April 2011 at 09:41

    In an alternate universe, Ms Seah would be an incumbent candidate, speaking earnestly into the camera with an edited script. She could easily be the next Dr Lily Neo. By joining the monarchy, she stands a much higher chance of walking into the paliament as an MP to effect the change she wants to.

    And it would have been a valid answer (though not politically correct).

    In an alternate universe, Mr Tan Chuan Jin would have been an opposition candidate, enraged that Ms Seah has sucked up all the budget away from the Games and National Parade.

  6. 6 Gardenia Bread 24 April 2011 at 10:41

    Superb take. This shows up PAP clones for what they really are.

    Singaporeans are ready, hungry for change. It is up to the opposition now to milk it to the fullest.

  7. 7 Senang Diri 24 April 2011 at 11:01

    Hi Alex

    Interesting and lucid article.

    The Internet has not provided the PAP the leverage it thought it could achieve.( the PAP website, their constituency FB pages etc ).

    In a way, it has exposed them – We have now seen the EMPEROR without his clothes 🙂

  8. 8 prettyplace 24 April 2011 at 12:49

    I think PAP forgot that the electorate had matured.

    The desire for originality and individualiam, the much need traits to conquer our contemporary world, is what I believe you were trying very much to notice.

    Like a Mustang or perhaps a convertable Ford Falcon cruising the highway, we can only hope that it would appear on a PAP lane.

    I think you got Ms Nicole Seah right at the bottom on purpose, that bright spark filled not with idealism alone but the strong desire to change and willingness to work for that change.

    Again, going back to one of your earlier post, where it begins with values then moves ahead into action.
    She makes the PAP newbies stand stark naked.

    I sincerely hope Ms Nicole Seah’s positive contagion picks up, builds momentum and spreads throughout Singapore to provoke thought among the young. Only this feeling will be able to save and resurrect Singapore of its dying soul.

    She should prepare and come out more. It will only be good for all oppositions.

  9. 9 georgia tong 24 April 2011 at 19:11

    It is refreshing and impressive to have a young but mature youth stepping in to be our voices. Her sense of justice alone will get our votes. Hope to see her team wining in this coming election. You can be sure we will be jumping for joy when it comes true.

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