Having just come from yet another seminar on the results of the general election, I can tell you there are a number of research groups that will be publishing reports over the next few months about the impact of media on voting patterns. Do look out for them. For example, in the Straits Times of 27 May 2011, there’s already a story about a study done by the Institute of Policy Studies — a Survey on Political Traits and Media Use.
With the rapidly evolving media scene driven by the internet technologies, this election is seen to differ considerably from previous ones, but before readers get too excited, let me say you should expect all these studies to basically conclude that consumption of mainstream media remains high. Logically, the influence of mainstream media on political views and behaviour also remains high.
However, before we all think that the only important influence on political views and behaviour is media with merely the different kinds of media worth studying, let me point out that in real life that may not be the case. It’s a well-known fact that political views cluster by family, or correlate with other factors.
The last question in my survey How and when did you decide? was intended to give us a glimpse of this.
Unfortunately, I’m not impressed by the results. The question was an attempt to find out how people arrived at voting decisions for each of the different parties, phrased thus: “How important were these sources of information in determining your final vote choice?” (emphasis mine), but I suspect that many respondents interpreted that question as one asking how they were influenced into voting for the ruling party or the opposition generally, rather than for any specific party.
Why do I suspect that? My feeling is that the opposition parties were different enough in their outreach and use of media that those who eventually voted for, say, the Workers’ Party, would have taken a slightly different path from those who eventually voted for the Singapore Democratic Alliance. But the results do not seem to show much distinction between those who said they voted for one opposition party compared to those who voted for another opposition party. For this reason, I suspect that many respondents were interpreting the question to be about the People’s Action Party/opposition dichotomy rather than about specific choices for specific opposition parties.
Nonetheless, there are subtle differences, but what they’re worth, I don’t know.
Another feeling I have, skimming through the results, is that respondents may be overrating the impact of various sources of influence. They seem too ready to click “Very Important”. The survey design is thus faulty in not being able to deliver the necessary clarity and granularity in results.
Still, for whatever it’s worth, here are the findings. Please bear in mind, as I have pointed out earlier in Part 1 that this is not a representative sample of Singapore voters. It was an internet survey and generally, the respondents were swing or opposition-sympathetic voters, skewed towards the 20 – 40 age group, and internet-savvy. Therefore, read this as rough insight into the minds of this largish segment of voters:
Media is clearly an important source of information and influence. I made no distinction in my survey between mainstream and “alternative” media since increasingly, this is a false distinction because of the high use of links, which more often than not, lead to content from traditional sources. I shall leave it to other surveys to tease out the differential impact of mainstream and non-mainstream media, if at all it’s possible.
The various parties generally have newsletters and fliers that they give out when they go campaigning. As for party websites, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) uses its site more intensively to communicate than other parties. The subtle peak that the SDP has probably reflects this effort.
Now we get into the area where other studies, focussing as they do on media, may be missing out. With the increasing politicisation of Singaporeans, I observed that conversations about politics were more frequently overheard this election than previous, on public transport, in restaurants or in the workplace. It appears from the above bar chart that friends do have an influence, but clearly much less than media.
The influence of family conversations is noticeably less than that with friends.
I draw your attention to the distinctly higher score for the PAP in this chart. While I cannot draw any hard conclusion from it, it seems to suggest that voting for the status quo is easier to discuss within the family than voting against the status quo. It stands to reason that if you’re going to do something different or “daring”, you’d keep it to yourself.
This PAP score also reminded me of a brief conversation I had with members of a party while we were waiting out a rainstorm one day in the middle of the campaign week. I asked no one in particular, “Do you think Singaporeans discuss their voting intentions within the family?”
A Malay guy said yes, they do.
A Chinese guy said, no they don’t. Between the two of them they sort of agreed that Malay families were more closely knit than Chinese families, which might explain the difference in answers.
Now, a number of surveys to be published will show that Malays were more supportive of the PAP than the Chinese — a pattern that has existed for a long time, not just in this election. Without reading too much into the bar chart above, I’m just mentioning this because it appears consistent with the data.
The same difference between those who voted for the PAP and those who didn’t can be seen in the above chart. Those voting PAP reported a slightly higher degree of influence from religious and community leaders in their vote choice. Overall however, Singaporeans didn’t pay attention to such leaders, if at all these leaders gave guidance (the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church was one who did, as did several other priests and pastors in the Church, according to reports I’ve heard).
The election rallies were nearly as great an influence as media. For this election, this may even have grown in importance, since there was widespread video recording. Speeches made in rallies would thus reach many others who did not physically attend the events.
This election also saw three political party debates on television, in addition to the two formal party broadcasts, the latter practice dating from half a century back. Survey participants indicated that they were of some importance in forming their opinions and final vote choice.
On this last question, I have my doubts as to what the answers are worth. Did so many people have direct interaction with candidates? Perhaps for the PAP, whose incumbent members of parliament would have conducted constituency clinics for years, perhaps even in the case of the Workers’ Party, many of whose candidates had been walking the ground for some time too, but I find it hard to believe that as many as half the voters would have met other parties’ candidates in their respective constituencies.
* * * * *
Overall, the above can generally be summarised thus, ranked in order of greatest influence to least:
2. Rallies and videos of them
3. Party websites and publications
4. TV debates
7. Religious and/or community leaders
(I discarded the last item as unreliable).
You can see the questionnaire here.