When prime ministers should say less on Facebook

JUNE 16 — Facebook — well, social media in general — has proved itself to be a powerful tool in the world of politics.

We’ve seen revolutions and elections deeply influenced by social media campaigns and powerful politicians like Donald Trump have been able to use social media platforms to speak directly to supporters and the people at large, bypassing traditional media.

Of course, in Singapore and Malaysia, we see politicians of all stripes regularly taking to social media for all sorts of reasons — though obviously self-promotion is the priority.

Personally, I’ve long been a fan of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook page.

The team behind the page have struck a strong balance between current information and content that make the prime minister seem human and approachable.  

But recently the team made something of a blunder.

In a condolence message posted on Facebook following the death of former Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda on May 26, PM Lee praised ex-PM Prem for resisting the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in the late 1970s.

This post led to immediate condemnation from the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia. 

Because the “invasion” mentioned in the post effectively ended the disastrous rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. It also set in motion the events that would lead to current Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen taking power. 

Not surprisingly Hun Sen issued a statement condemning Lee’s choice of words.

The Cambodian PM went on to say that Lee’s statement “reflects Singapore’s position then in support of the genocidal regime and the wish for its return to Cambodia.”

The Vietnamese foreign ministry also issued a missive criticising the comment. 

Rebukes from our neighbours and partners shouldn’t be taken lightly; the point is that Facebook posts can have consequences and that history is a matter of perspective.

Factually PM Lee is right: Vietnam did indeed invade Cambodia in the late 70s. 

Now whether their primary aim was liberation or extending their own influence is open for debate but the end result was the end of a terrible regime in Cambodia.

Remember this was a time of Soviet, US and Chinese blocs all competing for influence and things were a bit murky from every perspective.   

The simple reality though is that there was probably no need to bring all this up in a condolence message. 

In fact, beyond points of Cold War history, PM Lee’s message raised a few other troubling questions. 

By condemning Vietnam’s 1970s/80s involvement in Cambodia, the PM was effectively restating Singapore and Asean’s long-standing policy of non-interference.

Basically, regardless of circumstances, Asean members should not interfere in each other’s domestic business — but is this really a sound policy?

Having seen Asean sit by largely idle as Myanmar worked to exterminate the Rohingyas, you have to ask if it’s the right path. 

PM Lee’s message also reminded the region of Singapore’s traditional alignment towards the US as the US was a staunch opponent of Vietnam’s activity in Cambodia and a strong ally of Thai PM Prem.

Again, in a changing world and region, is that the stance we continue to hold... to be closer to the US than any other major power? 

Lots of questions from a single FB post. In future, I suggest the social media team stick to something simple like, “Sorry for your loss.” 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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