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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Does new media reflect majority opinion in S’pore?

For years, cynical Singaporeans who disliked government-controlled news have been forming themselves into a sort of digital sub-community.
They often ignore what the government says about policies, preferring instead to talk to each other about them online, a sad development for the authorities.
Large numbers of these better-educated Singaporeans have long lived within this sub-culture where the government plays little or no part.
They turn away from government press releases or Singapore newspaper reports which they consider as propaganda.
So far, the authorities have not found a way to engage the community, let alone win it over. It is crucial because Singapore's Internet penetration is more than 75 percent.
And with the 2011 election coming up, this sub-culture has evolved further.
From merely communicating with each other, it has moved with videos, songs and poems into the area of social networking that galvanises thoughts and action.
Meet the Facebook Generation! If this election throws up a surprising outcome, it is due to the movement.
Facebook is not the only one, but it is the most popular social networking site in Singapore with 48.2 percent — or 2.5 million — people owning an account, making this island republic one of its biggest users.
(In a recent survey by The Straits Times, 36.3 percent of Singaporeans, aged 21 to 34, cited the Internet as their top source of local political news, compared with 35.3 percent who preferred newspapers.)
There are others, too, like Twitter and YouTube.
Collectively, their rising popularity is changing politics in Singapore by allowing weaker, poorer opposition parties to challenge a giant like the People's Action Party (PAP).
As I write this, a small army of young Facebook eager beavers — some of them armed with iPads -- are volunteering, discussing and organising political rallies for various parties.
"We need helpers. If you're living in Whampoa, Pioneer or Chua Chu Kang, we'd love to hear from you," an opposition candidate appealed on Facebook.
"Count me in," came a quick response, followed by another, "Me and my sect of 200 ready for action".
Another opposition party standing against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong needed 30 volunteers to be proposers and seconders.
And the newbie Reform Party is online to recruit "walk-about" helpers, videographers, polling agents and general helpers.
In many cases, the appeals worked. Hundreds, if not thousands, are responding.
This is the Facebook Generation in action.
The ruling PAP hasn't fallen behind. Several Cabinet ministers and a dozen Members of Parliament (MPs) have Facebook or Twitter pages, which they use to communicate with supporters and constituents.
Few of the responses they get can match the opposition's, since the online community is largely an anti-government one.
Hours before nomination began, for example, a frantic attempt was launched in the social media network to raise S$13,000 still needed as deposits for an opposition team to contest in Tanjong Pagar, the constituency of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.
This was a case of a smaller party lacking funds and resources turning to the Facebook public for help. The call was repeated regularly and money began filtering in.
Finally, someone sent S$10,000 as a loan to the candidates, but if lost due to insufficient votes, the lender said, "I will cancel the debt".
He explained this was to prevent walkovers, so that every Singaporean can vote.
Despite the 11th hour activities, the team was late submitting nomination papers — by 35 seconds. (Most of the contributions had reportedly been returned to senders).
However, the new trend is helping to disperse some of the apathy of young people, making them less compliant or fearful of the government.
Singapore is recognised as the world's most evolved social media market, according to a research by Firefly Millward Brown.
"Singaporeans' lives converge online and offline, where their families, friends, interests, work and hobbies could be found in the tangible as well as virtual world," the survey findings reportedly revealed.
It is rubbing off on some older citizens, who know next to nothing about the world wide web.
Recently, when Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Dr Chee Soon Juan spoke to Singaporeans in the Hokkien dialect, the video was seen 100,000 times.
A young opposition supporter, Nick, said he showed the tape to his mother, who had been an avid fan of the ruling PAP since the early days.
"After viewing it (Dr Chee was speaking of the plight of poorer Singaporeans and the high cost of living), my mother is now one of us. I am moved to tears," he added.
The PAP, which has governed since 1959 and has 82 out of 84 Parliament seats, is also using the Internet and social media to retain control on power. Its party's website is sophisticated and has 200 videos.
The looser policy contrasts with some of the tightest rules in the developed world to control the traditional media.
For the 7 May election, however, the authorities have lifted a ban on online political campaigning.
But as voting draws near, political analysts are cautioning against using the social media (which is overwhelmingly anti-government) as the sole yardstick to measure the outcome.
The Facebook culture may swing many youthful minds, but it may not necessarily reflect the majority of public opinion.
The Workers' Party's webmaster Koh Cheong Yoong has said new media tools like Facebook and Twitter cater only to a particular segment of the population.
"It helps us to reach out to more people than we could have, but it is probably not going to be the major determining factor in the winning of votes," he added.
That battle has to be fought and won in the streets and homes.
A former Reuters correspondent and newspaper editor, the writer is now a freelance columnist writing on general trends in Singapore. This post first appeared on his blog,, on 30 April 2011.

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