The ‘four cornered fight’ in the Punggol by-election generated tremendous hue and cry about the 4 nominated candidates on both traditional and social media – and mind you this is a contest for just 1 parliamentary seat and not even a GRC.
In my eleven years in Singapore, it is only in the last couple of years that I have witnessed such vocal participation and debate during elections in Singapore and I believe a lot has to do with the level playing field and amplification offered by social media in contrast to the perceived controlled traditional media in the city state.
From the general elections held in May 2011, my most vivid memories of the impact that social media had on the process were the Nicole Seah-Tin Pei Lin tussle, the funny Yam Ah Mee mashup video, the images of the Worker’s Party rally at Aljunied that I understood was primarily mobilized via social media and the hourly updates from the onlinecitizen Facebook page on the evening of the results day. Come May 7th, Lee Hsien Loong (LHL from here on) led PAP won 81 seats claiming 60% of the votes while Low Thia Kiang’s Workers Party bagged the remaining 6 seats with nearly 13% of the votes in their kitty.
Amidst all the election hoo-ha, to me one of the defining and ‘game-changing’ moments for politics in Singapore was LHL’s entry into Facebook on 20th April 2012. Neither was he the first Singapore politician to make the move nor was he the first PAP member to join social media but his entry made a clear, bold statement that Singapore understood the power & perils of social media and was willing to embrace it with an open mind to use it to its benefit.
And in the last 9 months the embryo of his social media avatar has quickly grown into a full blown adult with over 100,000 fans with more than 15,000 actively engaged on the page. It is not just the numbers that are impressive but his style and mode of relating to his online constituents that makes for a good case. I am personally unaware if the Prime Minister’s Office is working with any digital agency to manage this account but here is my personal perspective on what has been done right thus far and 3 key lessons that we all can learn from LHL’s leadership on social media:
1. LHL’s very first wall post read: “Many of my colleagues have been using social media, including Facebook. They have encouraged me to start my own Facebook page. Having watched them, I have decided to join the fun.” This very much set the tone of his page, which has helped bring out the common man in him, manifested the lighter, social and fun elements of his personality and made him appear approachable and down to earth. His collection of personal sepia-tinted photos on his Timeline added a nostalgic touch and was another fabulous way of helping a common Singapore netizen to get to know her Prime Minister up and close as an individual and take inspiration from his achievements. What has also helped is the personal touch in his messages, where in his tone is informal and his signature sign-off as “LHL”.
Lesson -> Be real, sport your own personality and communicate as a human and not in a corporate, scripted manner.
2. While he has been personable & social, occasionally he has also expressed his political perspective and made official announcements via this channel. His recent announcement on the 8th of January 2013 about his “intention” to nominate Madam Halimah Yacob as the next Speaker of the Parliament is a case in point. He shared this wall post 6 days prior to the formal announcement and his expression of “intent” was a smart move as this projected him as a leader who wanted to seek public opinion prior to making the final decision. The post received more than 1500 likes as endorsements and about 167 comments, bulk of which approved the choice. More importantly there have been no instances of censorship or reprimands of any sort for any views expressed by fans on the page. This is critical as far as political symbolism and Singapore’s brand image is concerned as this is very much in contrast to the global perception that Singapore controls the local media and doesn’t encourage any bottom-up, democratic debate amongst the people.
Lesson -> One can complement one’s personal views with professional ideologies and opinions but one must remain humble and open to other’s comments and never censor.
3. It has never been about him. LHL has leveraged on his social presence and fan following to promote Singapore as a nation, express his views on foreign policy matters; foster discussions about key issues concerning the development of the nation; celebrate it’s national events and festivals; promote local enterprises as well as root for local talent. It was really heartening to see him air his personal views saluting the bravery of Nur’rahmahdiah Salim during the unfortunate Jurong Shipyard accident; express his concerns about the brutal gangrape in New Delhi; congratulate Barrack Obama on being elected for the 2nd term; share a BBC article about some of the more innovative startups in Singapore; opine about the need for the PSLE system to evolve and promoting a localized version of “Gangnam Style”. It is impressive that he and his PMO team have thought through a clear strategy of how best to position the PM’s social media presence and leverage upon it such that it not only benefits the individual but more so the other stakeholders concerned.
Lesson -> As per any communication strategy, draw out your key objectives and craft out a strategy and a coherent implementation plan in alignment with that. But in the case of the ever changing social media space, be prepared to adapt, unlearn & re-learn.
It is wonderful to see the Prime Minister of Singapore leverage on the power of social media so brilliantly on a personal and professional basis and enjoy such fan following while having fun! Over the last few years we have seen Western leaders such as Barrack Obama, Hillary Clinton, David Cameron leverage on social media as a “digital diplomacy” tool but in Asia, the top brass only began their social action a couple of years ago. Amongst APAC PMs, LHL ranks 3rd as far as the size of his fan base is concerned, following Dr. Manmohan Singh (360K fans) of India and Julia Gillard (150K) of Australia but when it comes to engagement, he supercedes them by a factor of 3 and neither have as personalized a approach as our very own LHL. I sincerely hope that he continues to grow his digital presence in the coming months and leads Singapore and his political compatriots by example and sets the tone for the adoption of new media for businesses and individuals alike.
As with many things in Singapore, the government leads the way in the development of different domains and the same seems to be the case in the embracement of social media and new digital tools. PM Lee’s venture into social media has encouraged his political compatriots to follow suit and today it is commonplace to see an Indranee Rajah moderate a debate on foreign talent on her Facebook page and Minister Lee Yishan share photos from his grass root visits, videos from his trip to Chengdu when we went to welcome Jia Jia and Kai Kai and some personal moments with the Singapore contingent at the London Olympics. Following his own success on social media, it was good to see PM Lee include digital technology as one of the key pillars of his National Day Rally Speech in August last year and encourage businesses to adapt, adopt and accelerate the incorporation of new media and technology to improve productivity and innovation. As someone running a social media business, I for one can definitely vouch that we have seen a tremendous increase in the number of enquiries we received from local entities, especially the public sector, pertaining to social media campaigns or training opportunities.
It is ironic that new media is in a way partially responsible for the upcoming Punggol by elections as it is through this channel, that the misdeeds of Michael Palmer perpetrated and came to fore. But am glad that as the political environment of this Little Red Dot evolves, the leadership at the helm pays heed to the evolving trends at the grass root level and is incorporating new age communication tools to keep its feet on the ground while it aims to take the nation to greater heights.
LHL is leading the nation by example and am sure a certain LKY would be a proud statesman, mentor and father.