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Me in the Media #8: See you on Facebook [Aug. 30th, 2008|04:16 pm]
See you on Facebook
TODAY (Singapore), 9 July 2008

HE FIRST used Facebook to gauge public support for Singapore’s bid to host the Youth Olympics Games in 2010, and was impressed that within a few crucial weeks, membership for the group formed on the social-networking website swelled to over 5,000.

And while his own activities on Facebook are of a personal rather than official nature, Senior Parliamentary Secretary Teo Ser Luck can’t help but wonder: “If translated into a political strategy, Facebook could be a powerful tool.”

Certainly, the signs are that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) — or at least, some of its elected representatives — has been stepping up its online presence of late. Foreign Minister George Yeo, who blogs at two sites, told Today in an email interview that he is working with some youths to set up his own Facebook profile.

Cabinet colleague Dr Vivian Balakrishnan already has one. And last week, the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports spoke on how the Internet was changing the way politics is conducted, especially given this “YouTube generation” that demands multimedia soundbites.

Could this be a signal that the party — which has long preferred to focus its energies on its vast grassroots machinery, national and community events, dialogues and traditional media — will be intensifying its outreach online?

Some among its cadre think it should, and with some urgency.

The WEB and the next GE

While tight-lipped on whether a taskforce within the party is looking into the Internet specifically, Mr Teo did say “the party leadership” is taking the Internet seriously.

It’s clear to see why, when more than eight in 10 households are on broadband, and such wired Singaporeans will make up the bulk of younger voters in the next General Election, due by 2011.

Said PAP MP Lam Pin Min (Ang Mio Kio GRC): “The power of the Internet as a political tool must not be underestimated as demonstrated by the experience of the recent elections in our neighbouring countries. The party understands this and takes the feedback from netizens very seriously.”

On the Malaysian ruling coalition’s historical loss of its two-thirds majority at the March polls, MP Charles Chong (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) — who believes that Internet forums are a gauge of ground sentiment — said: “Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had acknowledged that they misjudged it (the Internet) and were worse off as a result.”

While Singapore’s ruling party already has the Young PAP online forum — one of the party’s earliest attempts to engage cyberspace — as well as the blog maintained by its post-1965 MPs, Mr Lam felt that the party should “step up our tempo in double-quick time” to “set the stage right” for the next GE. But while it would seem reasonable to keep a finger on the pulse of the wired citizen, just how much of the “flash and bang” of the Internet translates into real life — particularly votes?

Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong pointed to his experience as a voter in the 1998, 2001 and 2006 GEs, where the online buzz was filled with anti-PAP rhetoric and sentiment. “If you lived your life on the Internet, you would believe that the opposition would sweep into power on an unstoppable tsunami of voter outrage,” said Mr Siew. “The reality, of course, was completely different in all three GEs.”

While he does see the Internet eventually becoming critical to any successful campaign, “I don’t know if that day will come by 2011”, he said.

MP Baey Yam Keng (Tanjong Pagar GRC) agrees on the latter point. “There is still a big proportion of Singaporeans who do not rely on the Internet as a source of information.”

SUBHD: What’s the strategy?

For now, according to Mr Teo, the younger MPs are still grappling with questions about the new media, such as whether a high number of hits on a webpage translates to any substantive impact.

Whether the party will take up a concerted online strategy remains to be seen. Asked if the PAP was rethinking the Internet as a political tool, Minister Yeo alluded more to a “natural” move online by individual MPs and Ministers.

Some observers, however, feel that simply jumping on the bandwagon does little.

Said Mr Gabriel Seah, an editor at tomorrow.sg: “Given the PAP’s efforts so far, like the P65 blog, it seems to be utilising the medium but not communicating a clear or substantive message.”

Mr Siew – one of those who believes the PAP is changing its tack to engage the Internet on its own terms, not simply “manage” or mitigate its effects – argues that a good strategy is crucial, because “a poor strategy can be worse than no strategy.”

Mr Yeo thinks “new skills” will be needed in political candidates to thrive in the age of the podcast or vodcast: “It always helps to have a good voice, a pleasant face, a way with words and self-deprecatory humour.”

So, in future, one might see a YouTube-style video on the PAP? Or ministers and MPs more active on forums, including those not under the party or government banner?

While the PAP Government has desisted from engaging detractors online, Mr Baey sees no harm in party members debating on non-party or non-government websites, “as long as parameters are set, and the forum is a neutral and credible one”.

Most of those TODAY spoke to agreed the ruling party would, and should, continue to tap holistically on all sources of feedback, including meet-the-people sessions and public forums. Mr Seah called the Internet “an outlet more for the young, educated and/or disaffected”.

Some also hope that with an incumbent party more willing to engage voters and opponents online, the strict laws on cyber-campaigning and party political films will be re-looked.

But Nominated MP Thio Li-ann drew the line at politics conducted on YouTube. “Serious issues should be seriously debated”, she said, while YouTube “is all flash and image, and people need to learn discernment and not be swayed by stirring music, strings, harps and whatnot”.

In the same vein, Mr Yeo emphasised, politics – whatever the medium – was “about human beings ... After all the rah-rah, it still boils down to trust, competence and fairness”.