Not fought on streets but in cyber space, Covid-19, enforced ‘digital GE’ will be like no other

Singapore’s 13th General Election 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
Singapore’s 13th General Election 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

SINGAPORE, June 27 — About a week before the writ of election was issued on June 23, veteran People’s Action Party (PAP) activist Abdul Rashid Ibrahim was surprised by the muted activity within the party despite heightened expectations that the General Election (GE) would be held soon.

Typically, by this time, party activists would have attended meetings and been briefed about the plans, or even begun hitting the streets and helping the party gauge ground sentiments. The only action was taking place in cyber space, via numerous virtual discussions. 

“We just Zoom,” said Mr Abdul Rashid, 65, who volunteers at the Tampines Group Representation Constituency (GRC). 

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. 

Another PAP activist, who declined to be named, had bought a new set of the party’s trademark white trousers last month because his waistline had gained a few inches during the circuit breaker period. 

However, he was slightly disappointed that activists and supporters would be banned from the nomination centres on Tuesday when candidates will submit their final paperwork to stand in the polls.  

Previously, party supporters would throng the nomination centres to wave flags and cheer their candidates on. “This year I may not get to wear my new pants much,” said the activist wryly. 

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).

With strict safe distancing restrictions placed on election proceedings, outreach activities and campaigning, political parties are turning to creative ways to capture the eyeballs of an electorate that is predominantly working from home and avoiding the large crowds that politicians typically target.

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.

But apart from what parties and candidates are doing differently for next month’s polls, the analysts added that there are deeper implications for voters when an election is predominantly fought over the echo chamber of social media — in terms of being able to scrutinise new candidates, form an impression about the various parties, and perceive the issues of the day. 

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.

With the election already at a feverish pace, TODAY’s political reporting team sought out the views of candidates across the political spectrum, as well as party insiders, for some insights into how Singapore’s first largely online GE will affect the political fortunes of those involved.

A scene at a nomination centre during the 2015 General Elections. This year, activists and supporters would be banned from the nomination centres on Tuesday (June 30) when candidates will submit their final paperwork to stand in the polls. — TODAY pic
A scene at a nomination centre during the 2015 General Elections. This year, activists and supporters would be banned from the nomination centres on Tuesday (June 30) when candidates will submit their final paperwork to stand in the polls. — TODAY pic
How outreach has been affected

It has been five days after the Writ of Election was issued on Tuesday, and the uniqueness of GE2020 is already evident.

New candidates are being introduced through virtual press conferences, unlike in the past where they appeared in person before a packed room of reporters and television cameras.

The Reform Party’s (RP) candidate introductions on June 15 faced glitches that forced the party to move its virtual stream to a video gaming channel. During one of the PAP’s candidate introduction sessions, a technical glitch that rendered candidates inaudible to the media led to a two-minute delay, as PAP activists rushed to fix the sound issue.

On the social media front, parties went into full gear as soon as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the dissolution of Parliament in a national broadcast on Tuesday.

The Workers’ Party (WP) released a widely-shared teaser video that unveiled 12 of its candidates — including Ms Nicole Seah, who created a buzz as the youngest candidate in the 2011 polls — in a vertically edited format meant for mobile phone screens. The video also found new life of its own when it was shared and parodied on social media platform TikTok.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) became the first party to venture onto the popular online forum Reddit, where chairman Paul Tambyah and member Alfred Tan fielded a host of questions for six hours on Thursday evening.

Mr Jose Raymond, the Singapore People’s Party chairman, at his office where he shoots his videos. — TODAY pic
Mr Jose Raymond, the Singapore People’s Party chairman, at his office where he shoots his videos. — TODAY pic

Mr Jose Raymond, the Singapore People’s Party chairman and its candidate for Potong Pasir, told TODAY how amid the strict distancing rules, his use of social media and messaging apps such as WhatsApp has allowed him to touch base with households in the SMC.

Even Red Dot United, the newest political party in this GE — formed last month after its founders left Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s Progress Singapore Party (PSP) — said it is planning to release online content soon, including videos.

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. Mr Baey said he is still learning new ways of engaging people online, even though he has been holding monthly live chats for the past eight years.

He said: “These sessions are much more regular now, occurring every week since Covid-19 emerged. Those who join can ask me anything, and I find they do give good ground feedback, and it is also a good chance for me to explain certain policies as well.”

However, some, like PAP’s Mr Victor Lye who stood in Aljunied GRC in GE2015 and is expected to contest again, 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.

Experts said online engagements, as well as the political broadcasts on national television, will lack the excitement of the large physical rallies in past elections. 

Rallies are not permitted as Covid-19 health advisories prohibit large gatherings. However, house-to-house visits and walkabouts are allowed so long as safe distancing rules are adhered to.

Political analyst Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law from the Singapore Management University (SMU), 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.” 

This excitement comes not only from attending political rallies but also being engaged in the issues of the GE in an intensive way. When things go online, however, emotions may become subdued, he noted.  

“Speakers will find it harder to connect to voters because they are often speaking to a screen and can’t see, hear, feel how the audience is responding to their speeches,” he added. 

“At physical rallies, spectators and speakers feed off the energy of each other. This energy that comes from a crowd listening attentively and responding to questions and provocations will be hard to replicate online.”

Still, Assoc Prof Eugene Tan pointed out that rallies have not been game changers in the past, except in closely contested seats where undecided voters may affect the final count. 

He referred to a 2016 study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) which found that a large portion of voters made up their minds before campaigning officially started. In the last election in 2015, 47.3 per cent of respondents had decided who to vote for before Nomination Day, out of which 11.3 per cent decided on their vote between the election announcement and Nomination Day.

However, Dr Felix Tan, associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said this does not mean that campaigning is moot during Singapore’s elections, as undecided voters want to listen and question the candidates’ motivation, and their plans for the constituency and the nation.

He said: “Campaigning does matter when candidates and political parties need to reach out to the disenfranchised lot in society — the elderly, the disabled and the low income families — who may not have the means or the resources to have their voices heard.”

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) said the emotional excitement and the fiery, candid speeches often heard at physical rallies have an impact on how voters perceive issues. 

He said: “Being in the company of others in a huge physical rally may produce an emotional experience, which may reinforce or demolish one’s views.”

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 (at rallies) whom they do not know personally. That is a key part of deliberation in a democracy, to engage and discuss matters with (others).”

He said that rallies also “provide an outlet for the release of popular sentiment and emotion”. 

“A predominantly online canvassing period takes such opportunities away from the electorate and society,” he noted. 

Some PAP MPs had been organising online engagement sessions for its residents during the pandemic, prior to the dissolution of Parliament. — TODAY pic
Some PAP MPs had been organising online engagement sessions for its residents during the pandemic, prior to the dissolution of Parliament. — TODAY pic
Difficult to target certain residents

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

Voters who enjoy the entertainment value of, and fireworks at, physical rallies may also lose interest in the campaigning season entirely, since television broadcasts are likely to come across as “sanitised and scripted”, said Dr Tan Ern Ser.

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

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,” she said.

People’s Power Party secretary-general Goh Meng Seng agreed about the inability to target specific voters.

“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,” said Mr Goh.

On his part, PAP’s Mr Baey is planning more targeted forms of digital outreach.

As the Senior Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, he had been able to reach out to youths through online dialogues in the weeks before the dissolution of Parliament, he said.

Now that his tenure as MP in the last Parliament has ended, Mr Baey intends to close the loop with private groups of residents who are online, as a more targeted means of outreach.

“We have actually a few upcoming Build-to-Order developments and I’ve noticed them forming their own private Facebook groups to talk about issues in the estate, so I’m hoping to do live chats with them too, starting this weekend.

“That arrangement is very targeted. 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.

Experts said online engagements, as well as the political broadcasts on national television, will lack the excitement of the large physical rallies in past elections. Rallies are not permitted as Covid-19 health advisories prohibit large gatherings. — T
Experts said online engagements, as well as the political broadcasts on national television, will lack the excitement of the large physical rallies in past elections. Rallies are not permitted as Covid-19 health advisories prohibit large gatherings. — T
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 (PA) lending its expertise to these, such as aiding in viewer registration, moderating questions for the MPs, emceeing, as well as planning the format of these webinars.

For example, netizens who want to register for these webinars would sign up through filling in an online government registration form. PA is a statutory board under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

Some PAP MPs had been organising online engagement sessions for its residents during the pandemic, prior to the dissolution of Parliament. 

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 government resources.

Separately, they noted that the loss of physical rallies could also deprive political parties of an important source of funding.

In a press conference on Wednesday, SDP’s Dr Chee Soon Juan said in response to a question from TODAY that mass physical rallies were the party’s “go-to fundraising activity” in the past.

“Thousands and thousands of people gathered together, and all we did was just ask them to please go to our booth there to buy some of our merchandise, if not donate, and that’s another source of revenue for us,” said Dr Chee whose permit application for a three-day outdoor fundraiser had been rejected by the police due to public health reasons. 

Other opposition parties also said 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 since most fundraising now occurs online, some potential donors have expressed concern about the need to disclose their personal 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.

“Donations have been slow, but consistent. But perhaps because more people are not working and the economy isn’t good, so maybe people can’t donate as much. Back then, we could see a thousand dollars in a single random donation,” she said.

Given the peculiar conditions of GE2020, National Solidarity Party secretary-general Spencer Ng believes that a political party’s success at the ballot box this time all boils down to “how much you’re splashing on advertisements and the people you can get to set up this social media infrastructure”. 

Political pundits interviewed differed on whether the cards are stacked against opposition parties, which typically have fewer resources than the ruling PAP, in a digital election.

Some felt that resource-rich parties would indeed fare better than those unable to afford glitzy digital campaigns, while others said that the Internet and social media can level the playing field.

A recent study, Digital learning and extending electoral authoritarianism in Singapore, 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. The study was published in the journal Democratization on June 2.

She also pointed out how the GE2015 expenses reports, which had included Twitter engagement and Facebook ads for the first time, showed that the PAP outspent the Opposition overall. The PAP spent S$5.3 million (RM16.3 million) while the eight opposition parties spent S$1.8 million  in all.

The PAP had also engaged social media consultants, such as QED Consulting, then. When contacted, QED Consulting declined to participate in this article.

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.”

Agreeing, Dr Chong said while the barriers to entry for social media campaigns are generally low — any person can use a social media site — better resourced parties are in a stronger position to obtain assistance to produce better, more attention-grabbing, as well as emotionally engaging online content of various forms.

However, Dr Tan Ern Ser 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 added that opposition parties are able to mount several online campaigns for the price of holding a single physical rally.

“Too much should not be made of the resource gap because it is very much the content that matters,” he said. “Equally important is authenticity of the campaign (With) more content placed online, this enables voters to access all campaign material, broadcasts, webinars, virtual  town halls, and the like 24/7. This can be a tremendous boost for the opposition parties, particularly the smaller ones.” 

Peoples Voice chief Lim Tean said Covid-19 pandemic has not affected the party’s efforts to get its message out. The current election has actually been a blessing as it has enabled the party to refine its social media strategy, he added.

Red Dot United co-founder Michelle Lee also felt that her fledgling party can benefit from the nature of GE2020. 

She said: “This type of election benefits us, because we will be on a slightly more even footing, because there won’t be big rallies which would be very hard to organise given we are so new and we are so small.”

As journalist-turned-data analyst Chong Zi Liang noted on his blog on Thursday, any party can harness technology for its own purpose.

“When social media first gained prominence, it was the realm of the underdogs, who adroitly used it to bypass traditional means of communications. 

“But  as we’ve seen in recent years, the authorities across the world have grown increasingly adept at using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms as well. Social media doesn’t inherently favour one side or the other,” he said.

Those who are unable or unlikely to access webinars, such as elderly voters, would miss political parties’ online messages altogether, experts said. — TODAY pic
Those who are unable or unlikely to access webinars, such as elderly voters, would miss political parties’ online messages altogether, experts said. — TODAY pic
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,” he cautioned. 

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

The IPS 2016 survey found that social media — including online discussion forums and portals — was less trusted than mainstream media by people when seeking information and news about the GE held in that year. 

Mainstream media had also played a bigger role in providing election news, with television news used by around 53 per cent of respondents at least once a day to access election news, compared with 34.6 per cent for social networks and 29.7 per cent for instant messaging platforms.

Noting this, Assoc Prof Netina Tan wondered if this could mean that a good proportion of voters will be excluded from understanding the key election issues and platforms.

Those who are less well-off or not digitally literate could be left out, she warned.

Dr Felix Tan said the slick videos and the candidate introduction films seen thus far target mostly social media users and netizens.

“There are political parties that introduced their candidates, reading off a prepared script, with just a lack of a personal touch,” he added of the various candidate introductions seen in the past few days. 

“However one sees it, voters, especially those older folks and those who do not necessarily engage with online sources, will find some difficulties in connecting with the (newer) 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. 

Some analysts noted how in the SDP Reddit event, forum users had pored through the party’s manifesto, asking esoteric questions or surfacing topics which one would not expect to hear traditionally.  

For example, several had queried the party about its stand on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, which the SDP did not answer.

However, Dr Ong said it is unlikely for topics that play well online, such as climate change, to dominate in this GE, just because the bulk of campaigning will take place on social media.

“They are important but less salient topics to begin with among the general population. As usual, voter concerns about ‘pocketbook’ issues like the state of the economy, jobs, inequality, and the fourth-generation leadership transition will be more salient issues that voters will have to contend with,” he said.

These bread-and-butter concerns that precede Covid-19 mean that the Government’s handling of the pandemic will not be the sole issue on voters’ minds, added Dr Felix Tan. 

Instead, voters will be more concerned with economic fallout from Covid-19, he said.

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.” — TODAY

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