I sat transfixed and glued to the computer screen as I read about how social media like Facebook and Twitter changed the way political battles were fought around the world. Obama's campaign in the 2008 US Presidential elections, the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, and closer to home, the Bangkok protests of 2010 and the Malaysian general elections of 2008.
Back home, things were very different. As I detailed in a previous post, domestic politics is best described as boring in Singapore, even by news junkies and political connoisseurs.
Little did I know that things would change completely within the span of a single electoral campaign. A few weeks ago, as the 2011 general elections kicked into full swing in Singapore, it was my turn to be amazed as I witnessed how social media upended the electoral battleground in my home country.
The mainstream media in Singapore is not the most impartial of information sources, with a recent survey revealing that about half of Singaporeans felt there was “too much government control of newspapers and television”. Freedom of press, or the lack thereof in Singapore, is something that has irked me for the longest time. I resented how the close relationship between the state and the press meant that coverage was often biased towards the ruling party, with news of the opposition parties often blocked out or given scant coverage.
This has allowed the ruling party to effectively dominate the news cycle and by extension, the electoral campaign. It has always been able to go on the offensive and launch attack after attack at the opposition, with the latter suffering irreparable damage because it is unable to respond effectively using platforms of traditional journalism.
Of course, social media changed all this. The tables have turned and this time, the ruling party was the one put on the defensive. They failed to fully anticipate the effect social media would have on the way the campaign was carried out. When they rolled out their youngest candidate ever, 27-year old Tin Pei Ling, they did not expect the widespread derision and revulsion that ricocheted across cyberspace in uber-connected Singapore (broadband penetration rates and use of social media consistently rank as one of the highest in the world).
Netizens unearthed pictures from her facebook account that made her look immature, inexperienced, and completely unsuitable to represent her constituency as a Member of Parliament (MP). Her pose with a Kate Spade bag went viral within hours, as did a video of her that showed her stomping her feet and shaking her head while crying “I don't know what to say!” in response to an interview question. Next came another video when she said her biggest regret in life was not bringing her parents to Universal Studios. And then she committed a blunder on cooling-off day, the day before Singaporeans go to the polls, when no candidates are supposed to campaign, either physically or on online platforms. Tin posted a facebook entry that had her saying “OooOoooOooh so that's what REALLY happened? Wow, I think tears in Parliament is worse than ANYTHING ELSE!” (I did not change the lettering/capitalization. That's actually what she posted.)
Tin Pei Ling became a major embarrassment and headache for the ruling party. If she were to run in previous elections, it might not be a big deal. No one would see her embarrassing answers to video interviews, because the media, which is partially-owned by the government, would simply not show it on TV. No one would see her Kate Spade picture or read her comment in the newspapers, because it wouldn't be published at all.
Social media changed all this. Voters across Singapore were able to get a more complete understanding of the candidates. They were able to see that ruling party candidates weren't as invincible and impeccable as they seemed, and that maybe sometimes the selection process for candidates to represent the ruling party turned out to be flawed, despite the government's best assurances.
Voters were also able to properly evaluate the government's record during its previous 5-year term. Singaporean newspapers love reporting the good stuff, like Singapore's sizzling GDP growth and remarkable recovery from the financial crisis, but independent online news sources like Temasek Review and The Online Citizen highlighted the deep cracks that had formed in society as the government pursued a relentless, deeply conservative policy of economic growth at all costs. The rapid pace of immigration, the skyrocketing prices of public housing, and rising inflation; these were all aired and received a good public thrashing on the Internet. Very soon the ruling party became a lightning rod of discontent online, and popular sentiment skewed heavily against them on the Internet.
The mainstream media was forced to adapt. Their coverage of the general election was arguably less biased than previous instances, because they understood that they were undermining their own credibility if they failed to report what actually went on. Singaporeans would simply abandon the newspapers in droves and turn to the Internet for the latest news source.
Opposition politicians, too, capitalized on the changing dynamics effected by social media. 24-year-old Nicole Seah, running against Tin Pei Ling, attracted more than 100,000 likes on Facebook in a matter of weeks and became the most popular Singaporean politician online, an incredible feat considering that there are only some 3 million Singaporean citizens. Seah managed her image well, and reinforced it with effective outreach on social media. This accentuated the differences between Tin and her, and made people sit up and take note of her as a credible politician despite her age.
There were many other instances when social media had a large impact on the campaign in Singapore, but I won't go into any more detail. As a small English-speaking city-state that is multicultural, Singapore is indeed a fascinating example of the potential of social media to impact the electoral and campaign process. Its size and connectivity means that the impact of social media can be measured much more precisely than in other countries.
Singaporeans understand their country can only hope to, at best, achieve limited influence in the world. Ultimately, in the grand scheme of international geopolitics and great power relations, tiny Singapore does not fit into the picture. The world certainly didn't skip a heartbeat to find out the results of the Singaporean elections.
But the most important thing that has emerged from the 2011 Singaporean general election, with lessons for the world, is the potential for change that social media has on the political landscape of wealthy, authoritarian states that have traditionally resisted calls for greater political and press freedoms. China comes immediately to mind, being a country that has not been coy about its interest in replicating the Singaporean model, a model that has succeeded in produced high economic growth while preserving one-party rule and tight state control for the past half-century. Until 2011, that is, when social media changed everything.
What lessons will the impact of social media in the Singapore elections have on China? It is interesting to note that China established a new office to monitor Internet activity in early May, when it had already become clear that social media had irreversibly changed the electoral landscape in Singapore. One wonders: when will the political impact of social media reach China's 1.3 billion population? Because that is the issue everyone's concerned about, and if the events of the Singapore general elections were anything to go by, once social media becomes a sphere for political discussion, then China can no longer keep the lid down on dissent.