Singapore election 2020
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Singapore is going to the polls on Friday. Photo: AFP

Hype beasts, fan cams: does Singapore opposition have an online edge in election 2020?

  • With mass rallies out due to Covid-19, online campaigning could play a big role in Singapore’s digital-first election
  • Some analysts believe it will boost the opposition, with even a PAP stalwart saying the ruling party faces a ‘tough election’
With mass rallies banned and major restrictions on other forms of physical campaigning, social media has become a vital soapbox for Singaporean politicians hoping to be elected in the July 10 election.
Social media use during elections in the hyper-wired Asian city state is by no means new: since 2011, the long ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has allowed for online campaigning.
But in this extraordinary pandemic-era vote, politicians from both the PAP and the key opposition parties are keenly aware that online efforts to win the hearts and minds of the 2.65 million voters could play a big role when the ballots are counted next Friday.

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While Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s PAP – in power since 1959 – is all but certain to return to power, some observers believe the elections may be far more of a contest than in the past because of a “levelling of the playing field” brought about by restrictions on physical campaigning.

As part of prevailing pandemic control measures, candidates, while allowed to conduct walkabouts and house visits, are only allowed to do so in groups of five or fewer.

With the restrictions in mind, the PAP stalwart K. Shanmugam described the contest to local media this week as a “tough election” for the ruling party as its strengths were in campaigning on the ground.

Unlike the small opposition players, the PAP behemoth has traditionally not attracted large crowds to election rallies.

But with thousands of activists and branches in every district, the ruling party has long relied on intense door-to-door campaigning during the hustings.

In normal times, its candidates make these visits with a large entourage.

“Now with all the restrictions on that type of campaigning, it goes online much more and online plays to a different, emotive approach which is not really the PAP style,” Shanmugam, the home and law minister told the local Malay language daily Berita Harian, saying the party was used to frankly outlining “hard choices” to voters.

“We have to adapt to that [online] world, we have to do our best but without losing our message,” Shanmugam said.

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Independent observers hoping to see what works and what does not work for pandemic-era “digital first” elections – with places like Sri Lanka watching keenly ahead of their own polls – say there are just too many “moving pieces” at the moment to know. Opinion polls are banned during the campaign period.

Social media activity as tracked by multiple sources showed the PAP was by far the most talked about party on social media.

The ruling party was followed by the Workers’ Party (WP) – the only opposition group in the last parliament – and the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), founded by ruling party rebel Tan Cheng Bock.

Saturday is the halfway mark of the nine-day campaign period.

Singapore flags in a residential area ahead of the general election. Photo: EPA

All parties must observe a “cooling off day” on Thursday, the eve of the vote.

Ang Peng Hwa, a professor of communication studies at the Nanyang Technological University, said predicting outcomes had become harder since online campaigning began in 2011.

That year, the ruling party suffered a shock setback with a vote share of 60.1 per cent – the lowest since the country gained independence in 1965. Its electoral fortunes rebounded in 2015, as it staged a crushing victory to win 69.9 per cent of votes.

“This is the issue researchers had been talking about in the 2011 elections,” said Ang.

“We thought that might be the last election when we might get a sense of how people would vote. It was still a little possible in 2015. But now, it is really hard to tell.”

He said a key reason why the impact of digital campaigning on voter sentiment was opaque was the emergence of “closed groups” such as messaging apps – like WhatsApp and Telegram – where “unless you are invited beforehand, you cannot go in to observe”.

Singapore election: the present and future of the People’s Action Party

But in general, Ang, among the country’s pioneer researchers of the internet, said he believed the opposition had an advantage online and in the closed groups.
“In such groups, there are a lot more views that are critical of the government than are supportive,” Ang said. The PAP, armed with one of the most potent weapons – Prime Minister Lee and his 1.5 million Facebook followers – has stuck largely to broadcasting live and pre-recorded videos of its key personalities and new candidates espousing the merits of the party platform.

Its 93 candidates each have a official Facebook page, and many maintain a presence on Twitter and Instagram.

Data by the social media tracking platform CrowdTangle showed that along with Prime Minister Lee and his designated successor Heng Swee Keat, the Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin as well as MPs Sun Xueling and Tin Pei Ling were among the PAP candidates with the highest Facebook engagement rates over the last seven days.

Their posts ranged from video clips and photos chronicling their time on the campaign trail to exuberant messages of support from voters.

The 10 opposition parties have varying social media strategies.

In some cases, younger voters have backed up their efforts on Twitter and elsewhere with so-called “Stan accounts”: a term derived from the 2000 song by rapper Eminem about an obsessive fan. Also making their debut in the election, the first for Generation Z voters, are so-called “fan cam” videos: mash-up videos of candidates with background music based on a trend in K-pop.

From a party perspective, the WP and PSP – which together are contesting nearly 50 per cent of seats – have gained plaudits for a creative approach to online campaigning.

Ang and other researchers were impressed by the Workers’ Party’s video banner for the campaign, which feature party chief Pritam Singh and 11 other members speaking directly to the camera with classical music playing in the background.

The clip went viral when it was released last week.

Singapore politics observer Woo Jun Jie said the clip and other videos showcasing the party’s candidates showed off their more “personable” side.

Ang said he would rate the opening video “an A* in any course on online persuasion”.

He said: “The theory is that it is possible to build emotional bonds online but it will take time. But that WP video, I would say, short-circuits that time.”

Singapore election: the parties taking on the PAP on July 10

The 80-year-old PSP chief Tan, a sturdy ground campaigner who served as a PAP MP from 1980 to 2006, is another opposition personality making waves on the digital front.

On Wednesday, in a short Instagram clip taken while he was in a car in the midst of campaigning, he revealed that his spectacles – one of his trademarks – did not actually have lenses.

He later explained that he had continued to wear glasses even after correcting his eyesight to make sure people still recognised him.

The seemingly innocuous revelation sparked off a mini-storm, with hundreds of people leaving comments on the post. Many referred to him as a “hype beast” – a term used by the millennial and Gen Z generations to describe someone who was a fashion trendsetter.

Tan in a subsequent post embraced that label, posting a video of him discussing the term in the Teochew dialect.

Tan Cheng Bock. Photo: Reuters

In the comments section on the posts, Tan interacted with followers, thanking one of them for introducing him to the term “woke”. He said: “You’ve taught me a new word – woke. It means that I was retired, now I am woke.”

Will the opposition’s purported advantage online translate to a fillip in its electoral chances?

Paul Tambyah, a well-known infectious diseases specialist contesting under the ticket of Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), said he was no under illusions that the ground campaign was replaceable.

“There’s no let up, we’ve got such a short time, we have to use all the time … to do house visits and try and cover as many [public housing] blocks as we can,” Tambyah told This Week in Asia during a break in house visits in the single-seat ward of Bukit Panjang.


Singapore's ruling People’s Action Party seeks vote of confidence in upcoming general election

Singapore's ruling People’s Action Party seeks vote of confidence in upcoming general election

Analysts meanwhile said online campaigning would have no more than a marginal effect among older voters who are less tech-savvy. “This would disadvantage the opposition greatly in reaching out to them. As such, this group of voters will simply vote for the incumbent,” said political observer Felix Tan, an associate lecturer with the local private university SIM Global Education.

In pitching policies to voters, the incumbents enjoy an advantage, according to Woo. “For the opposition, the onus is on them to tell voters what alternative policies they could offer,” he said. “The ground work now is being limited ... and there are fewer people out on the streets so the level of engagement will be far less.”

For outside observers looking at how the pandemic-era polls pan out, Eugene Tan, one of the country’s long-time political commentators, said the republic’s experience may not be of the same relevance to other places due to differing internet penetration rates.

In general, however, Tan said online campaigning might level the playing field.

“But ultimately it is not how much resources are put in but how well you connect with voters,” the Singapore Management University law professor said. “All things being equal, the parties that can move seamlessly and walk the virtual ground as well as the real ground will result in their campaign messages resonating better with the electorate.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Opposition hopes for online poll edge