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The Big Read in short: What a ‘digital GE’ means for everyone

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how parties are scaling up their online engagement efforts ahead of the July 10 polls and the implications of a ‘digital election’ for voters. This is a shortened version of the full feature.

The Big Read in short: What a ‘digital GE’ means for everyone

Singapore's 13th GE since its independence will be held on July 10 as the shadow of Covid-19 continues to loom large, forcing the nation and its people to adapt to a new normal of mask-wearing, limited social gatherings, working from home — and from this week, a different kind of election campaigning.

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how parties are scaling up their online engagement efforts ahead of the July 10 polls and the implications of a ‘digital election’ for voters. This is a shortened version of the full feature, which can be found here.

SINGAPORE — Veteran People’s Action Party (PAP) activist Abdul Rashid Ibrahim may not be able to see much action in the coming General Election (GE). 

With a Covid-19 pandemic that refuses to go away, the 65-year-old volunteer at the Tampines Group Representation Constituency (GRC) said he may not be as involved in the hustings as past years. 

Instead of pounding the streets in the weeks leading up to the issuance of the Writ of Election on June 23, “we just Zoom”, said Mr Abdul Rashid.
 
He was referring to how activists were communicating with their candidate and other campaign leaders over the video conferencing platform since safe distancing rules do not allow for face-to-face party meetings. 
 
Indeed, GE2020 will be unlike any other election which political activists of all stripes have been accustomed to. 
 
Singapore's 13th GE since its independence will be held on July 10 as the shadow of Covid-19 continues to loom large, forcing the nation and its people to adapt to a new normal of mask-wearing, limited social gatherings, working from home — and from this week, a different kind of election campaigning. 
 
A total of 93 parliamentary seats will be up for grabs in 17 GRCs and 14 single-member constituencies (SMCs).

On social media, political analysts point to an ongoing resource war, as parties duke it out through well-rehearsed speeches on Facebook, a constant barrage of livestreams and webinars, and high-budget productions conceived to evoke maximum emotion from viewers.

There are also deeper implications for voters, they added — in terms of being able to scrutinise new candidates, form an impression about the various parties, and perceive the issues of the day — when an election is predominantly fought over the echo chamber of social media. 

Some analysts interviewed also felt that the cards may be stacked against the Opposition in a digital election, while others believe that the Internet can be an equalising force for the smaller parties to reach a large audience.

HOW COVID HAS AFFECTED OUTREACH

Since the Writ of Election was issued on Tuesday, new candidates are being introduced through virtual press conferences.

The Workers’ Party issued a widely-shared teaser video that unveiled 12 of its candidates, the Singapore Democratic Party became the first party to venture onto the popular online forum Reddit, and the Singapore People’s Party has used social media and messaging apps to touch base with more than 6,000 households.

For the PAP, several potential candidates have ramped up their regular webcasts with residents, based on the candidates’ individual styles and preferences, said Mr Baey Yam Keng, who was the Member of Parliament for Tampines GRC before Parliament was dissolved.

Some bring professionals on board to share their expertise about topics that residents may be interested in, while others invite singers and performers to entertain viewers.

Others, such as PAP’s potential Aljunied GRC candidate Victor Lye, have comparatively few webinars or livecasts with residents. “We're focused on helping residents in need. Hence, our approach is targeted and ground-up,” said the grassroots leader when asked why his preferred approach differed from his other PAP colleagues.

What experts say:
 
The analysts said online engagements, as well as the political broadcasts on national television, will lack the excitement of the large physical rallies in past elections. 

Political analyst Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law from the Singapore Management University, said: “What is lost is the cauldron of excitement that Singaporeans can and do immerse themselves in, and which comes only once every three to five years.” 

Online, emotions become subdued and speakers will not be able to connect to voters as well by speaking to a screen, he said. Physical rallies, which are prohibited due to safe distancing rules, are more emotional.
 
But Assoc Prof Eugene Tan said rallies have not been game changers in the past, except in closely contested seats. He noted a 2016 study by the Institute of Policy Studies, which was based on the GE held in the previous year, found that a large portion of voters made up their minds before campaigning officially started. 
 
However, Dr Felix Tan, associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said this does not mean that campaigning is moot. Undecided voters want to listen and question the candidates’ motivation, and their plans for the constituency and the nation, he said.

National University of Singapore political scientist Chong Ja Ian added: “The big loss for voters is the opportunity to engage with and hear from other voters whom they do not know personally. That is a key part of deliberation in a democracy, to engage and discuss matters with your peers.”

DIFFICULT TO TARGET CERTAIN RESIDENTS

Those who are unable or unlikely to access webinars, such as elderly voters, would miss the political parties’ online messages altogether, the analysts added. 

Some opposition parties also noted the limitations of online outreach in the past few days since the issuance of the writ. 

Reform Party (RP) treasurer Noraini Yunus said the party has realised that it is difficult to cater to specific audiences online.

“For rallies, they are (meant) for residents and visitors that live in the area. But broadcasts cannot target specific segments individually. We cannot be specific to the viewers.”

People’s Power Party secretary-general Goh Meng Seng agreed. He said: “I am not contesting all the seats in Singapore; I’m contesting only one seat in MacPherson (an SMC). So, how do my messages go straight to the voters in MacPherson? That’s the most important part and we are disadvantaged in that sense.”

On his part, PAP’s Mr Baey is planning more targeted forms of digital outreach. 
 
He intends to reach out to private groups of residents by hosting live chats with private Facebook groups of new Build-to-Order residents in the estate from this weekend.  

“Social media allows us to try different formats, so I’m quite pleased that even with Covid, there are still ways to reach out,” said Mr Baey.

HOW THE CARDS ARE STACKED IN AN ONLINE GE

Prior to the dissolution of Parliament, some PAP MPs had been organising online engagement sessions for its residents during the pandemic, with the People’s Association lending its expertise to these, such as aiding in participant registration, emceeing, as well as planning the format of these webinars. 
 
While these were non-partisan community virtual events, some Opposition members interviewed by TODAY felt that this was unfair, arguing that the PAP MPs were tapping on government resources.
 
Separately, they noted that the loss of physical rallies could also deprive political parties of an important source of funding. They added that having only online donations put them at a disadvantage, made worse by the current economic conditions which have been severely hit by Covid-19.

RP’s Ms Noraini said that since most fundraising now occurs online, some potential donors have expressed concern about the need to collect details, such as their NRIC, contact details and name. These details are needed due to the Political Donations Act, which is intended to prevent foreigners from interfering in local politics.
 
The Act allows local donations from anonymous sources up to S$5,000, which is typically the case at physical rallies.

What experts say:
 

Political analysts interviewed had differing views on whether the Internet and social media can level the playing field for resource-strapped parties..

One recent study by Associate Professor Netina Tan from Canada’s McMaster University concluded that opposition parties still lagged behind the PAP, which had learnt how to harness social media better than the others.

Dr Netina Tan told TODAY: “My paper argues that it is too simplistic to assume that resource-poor, smaller parties can leverage digital tech and social media to level the playing field.  It is also clear that the PAP is likely to come out ahead for many reasons, aside from the restrictions on physical campaigning and the pandemic climate.”

However, Dr Tan Ern Ser from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy demurred, stating that opposition parties will receive more attention in a predominantly virtual election, as voters would be curious about their candidates, especially the more prominent ones.

Assoc Prof Eugene Tan also pointed out that opposition parties are able to mount several online campaigns for the price of holding a single physical rally.

CANDIDATES’ AUTHENTICITY: IS WHAT YOU SEE ONLINE WHAT YOU GET? 

Apart from how such an election format could benefit certain parties, analysts noted that there is also the issue of authenticity: Whether the online image which voters see of their candidates and parties is for real.
 
Dr Elvin Ong, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Center for Southeast Asia Research, said voters will likely have a more difficult time getting a sense of the candidates’ authenticity and credibility, given that online personas are more “curated”. 

There is a greater likelihood that voters this time may not have the same opportunities to acquire more information as they did from directly engaging parties, candidates, and peers in past elections, said Dr Chong from NUS. 
 
“This could lead to voters being shortchanged,” said Dr Chong. 

Then, there is a question of whether voters will be adequately informed on what the key issues are in this election.

Commenting on the materials put out by political parties in the past few days, Dr Tan from SIM Global Education said they seem to target mostly social media users and netizens, while candidate introduction sessions seem to lack a personal touch.
 
If voters face difficulties connecting with the candidates, Singaporeans will eventually rely on familiar faces and brand names instead, he said.

On the other hand, the semi-anonymous nature of online discourse could embolden people to scrutinise their politicians. 
 
However, “pocketbook” issues such as the economy, jobs, inequality, and the fourth-generation leadership transition will remain the more salient issues that voters will have to contend with, said Dr Ong.
 
Voters will also be more concerned with economic fallout from Covid-19 than the handling of the pandemic itself, said Dr Felix Tan.

Whether the hustings take place predominantly online or not, Assoc Prof Eugene Tan felt that the onus is on voters to “do their homework before they cast their ballots”.
 
“The parties and candidates can only do so much. The rest is up to the voters to be informed about the issues and candidates and parties’ platforms,” he said. “That’s a responsibility of an informed and responsible electorate, and voters will be shortchanged to the extent they allow themselves to be.”
 

Related topics

Singapore General Election SGVotes2020 digital election social media

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