In this last part of a three-part essay, I will touch on three questions that surfaced during Maruah’s post-election forum, held 19 September 2015. They were:
- Does social media have any impact on voting intentions?
- Do rallies make any difference to voting?
- Is confrontational politics the way forward from now on?
First off, I should mention the research findings published by The Quad. Between 5 and 17 August, they administered an online survey to a representative sample of 1,378 Singapore citizens aged 21 and older. In their report, they said the sample was weighted for age, race and gender to reflect the demographic composition of Singapore’s citizen population based on the 2010 Census.
One of the questions asked was “If the election was called today, which party would you vote for?”. Their report said,
Our nationally-representative online poll reflected the PAP vote share of the 2015 Singapore General Elections (GE2015) accurately. Our survey findings suggested that PAP vote share would be 70.0%, with a 2.6% margin of error, if the elections were held in early August. The actual PAP vote share of GE2015, one month later, was 69.9%.
Quad concluded that voting choices did not change significantly during the course of the campaigning period, but they cautioned that further enquiry is needed to figure out whether it is because campaign events do not significantly affect voting choices, or whether they do, except that in Singapore’s case, the campaign period is just too short for impact.
This kind of empirical research goes a long way to answering the first two questions.
Independent digital sites and social media
At the forum, the term “social media” was used widely, but most of the time, I think the audience was also referring to independent digital media such as individual blogsites and news websites. Derek da Cunha argued that they had no effect on vote choice at all. Terry Xu of The Online Citizen conceded that whereas previously he thought social media was influential, he now was of the opinion it was much less so.
A few days before the conference, I heard a similar sentiment from Ravi Philemon, who stood as a candidate in Hong Kah North. He told me that when he was doing his campaign rounds, he found that many voters had not heard of The Online Citizen, for example.
I have never held digital sites and social media as highly as Terry or Ravi in terms of its influence. For a long time, I have viewed it sceptically (even though I am a participant in it) for its echo chamber character. Prior to Polling Day, I pointed out in an article my observation that many people I side-glanced at on buses and trains had no political news at all on their mobile phones. I cautioned that any enthusiasm we see digitally may not be representative.
Yet, I think Derek da Cunha’s categorical denial of influence is also off the mark. All media have influence. Undoubtedly, it is very hard to quantify the extent or degree of that influence — and doubtless too the degree varies by demographic segment — but to assert no influence at all sounds more like a dogmatic position than a studied one.
Ideas, news angles and talking points first generated in one form of media can wend its way via other forms of media, or even word of mouth, before finally reaching a mass audience. Even the argument that the unexpectedly large swing to the PAP in this election was due to a rising fear that the opposition parties were doing well enough to topple the government pays a backhanded compliment to digital news sites and social media. Where would people have gotten this impression that opposition parties were doing well, except through their fans on digital platforms? This is not to say I immediately believe this ‘explanation’ for the PAP landslide, but until there is some empirical data, it remains on the table and cannot be dismissed.
It is necessary to have a far more nuanced understanding of the effects of media. The effects are more subtle than a switch. Perceptions are framed, values shuffled, priorities re-ordered, prejudices undermined or reinforced, insights precipitated or invalidated, through the slow osmosis of various kinds of media media, often subliminally. If political parties thought otherwise, they would be thoroughly blindsided in their communications.
Perhaps da Cunha’s point was that within the nine-day campaign period, digital platforms did not shift vote-choice in any significant way. If so, that would be supported by the evidence unearthed in Quad’s survey. But it’s not just digital platforms. Nothing else shifted vote-choice; people had largely decided at least by early August, a month prior to the start of the official campaign period.
One last point before I leave this topic: I am hearing quite a bit about the PAP’s use of digital and social media this campaign, particularly their more effective use of push media. Personally I didn’t see much of it, but the nature of social media is such that it is highly dependent on networks, so perhaps there are large networks out there that they tapped on successfully. If readers have more insight into this, please let me know.
As much as we should be careful not to overrate social media, we should apply the same scepticism to rallies. I wouldn’t be the first to say this, but certainly the size of the crowd has to be read with extreme care. People travel all over Singapore to attend rallies for the theatre of it. The same individuals can be found from one place to the next, from one party’s rally to the next.
Yet to argue that they had absolutely no effect on vote-choice cannot be true either. Firstly, based on my eaves-dropping on what attendees said to each other as they left rallies. there were many who were trying to digest the points made by speakers. They looked to me to be undecided voters (at that point, at least), and surely, what they heard would have contributed to the final decision they would soon make.
Secondly, some speakers at rallies were turn-offs. It might well be that most people who went to a rally were already leaning towards that party and were seeking reaffirmation. But if what they got instead was something distasteful, how can we still expect the attendees to remain unaffected?
Another finding from Quad is worth bearing in mind. One of the questions they asked in their survey was:
“Here are some reasons people have given for deciding on the party they vote for. Which are the most important in your decision? Please rank them in descending priority from 1 to 7. (For example, put 1 for the most important reason, and 7 for the least important reason.)
a. I would vote for who I thought was the best candidate locally regardless of their party
b. I trust the motives and values of that party more than those of other parties
c. I think the senior members of the party I chose would make a more competent government
d. I have always voted for that party
e. I think the leader of the party I chose would make the best prime minister
f. I prefer the promises made by the party I voted for more than the promises of the other parties
g. I would vote to register my discontent with another party”
They found that
. . . at the national level, the top 3 reasons that motivated voter choice were the best local candidate regardless of party (21%), trust in party motives and values (19%), and choosing the most competent government based on the senior members of the party (14%).
‘Best local candidate’ mattered even more strongly for opposition supporters, Quad reported.
Short of spending considerable time interacting with each and every voter in a constituency, a useful (even if not fully substitutive) shortcut for a candidate would be to speak at a rally, conveying one’s personality and convictions. Especially as video can now carry speeches into homes, we should be careful not to over-discount rallies. That said, the hard part is still how to get people to click on a video to watch it, so obviously there are plenty of other issues to work out when it comes to reaching the audience.
I don’t exactly recall the question that brought up this theme, but based on my scribblings during question time, it was something like “Is confrontational politics the way froward from now on?”
The audience member was likely referring to the feeling that there is an immovable structural and institutional bias against opposition parties.
I don’t think “confrontational politics” (which I take to mean street demonstrations and the like) necessarily has to be the way forward. Despite the institutional bias, ‘hegemonic electoral authoritarianism’ can be pushed to ‘competitive electoral authoritarianism’… and then to something freer. This can be seen from examples in other countries, as cited (tangentially) by Kay Mohlman in her guest essay. She pointed out how Andreas Schedler’s book about authoritarianism has much to say that is relevant to Singapore.
I am much more concerned that Singaporeans think it should never be the way forward. It would be like the United States saying it would never use its nuclear arsenal even if others attacked it with nuclear weapons. How can it remain a great power like that? Likewise, how can a citizenry retain its ultimate sovereignty if it forswears the right to revolt against enslaving governments? Street confrontation must always remain a ‘nuclear option’ in domestic politics. You rule it out, and you deserve to be enslaved.
Twenty years from now, how will things look? We need some suppleness of imagination. What will the landscape look like in, say, 20 years’ time if the PAP is still in power? Naturally much will depend on how good life is in Singapore, though if history is any guide, it would be foolish to expect “successful, good government” to continue uninterrupted. Where else has such constancy been demonstrated? But I would also caution on applying a simplistic measure of ‘successful/good’ or ‘failing/bad’. It is always going to be a subjective, difficult-to-measure thing. How do we even know at any point in time whether it is not failing? And wouldn’t it depend on whom one asked?
My thoughts are like this: At any given time, there will be a disgruntled portion of Singaporeans. If after another 20 years, they see that there is no hope of constitutional avenues for change, they will naturally say, well let’s try something else — the streets. It’s an entirely well known phenomenon. Deny moderate critics avenues of effecting change and people will turn to more extremist methods.
So I’d say this: If the institutional landscape does not change, confrontational politics will happen. A flexible, fair political playing field is the only kind that has longevity. It’s a lesson Singapore has not yet learnt. My fear is that we will have to learn it the hard way.