Culture Vulture

Social media, Singapore style: eloquent, creative, sensitive, the great leveller

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's death has shown that online, there is eloquence, creativity and sensitivity in Singaporeans

I have been mulling the world of social media in the past week and wondering if there might be a tipping point now where online conversations about Singapore are as much about the positive as they have been about the negative.

News in both mainstream and alternative media has of course been dominated by one subject - the death of Singapore's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.

In The Straits Times, the digital newsroom was marshalled to cover events in real time. It was a concerted, coordinated effort to deliver the news on multiple platforms: we had our Facebook and Twitter accounts, our website as well as a dedicated microsite with a live blog, and push notifications routed through smartphone apps.

And it was probably the first time in its 170-year history that The Straits Times broke such a major news event not in newsprint, but in binary code sent over the ether to its readers.

I helped man the live blog, and everyone in the digital team was keeping an eye on social media for hashtags and trending topics, alert for any grassroots level story that might emerge from viral images and tags.

As I looked up hashtags such as #RIPLKY, #rememberingLKY, #noYewnoUS and #thankyouLKY, I confess to some initial trepidation.

Would the haters come out of the woodwork, I wondered. One never knows in the digital realm when you will encounter neanderthal bullying or an act of grace. The former one has come to expect while the latter is always a pleasant surprise.

Online culture in Singapore, as elsewhere in the world, has spawned much negativity. Trolls are an inevitable part of online life and have been since the early years of the Internet when communications was via bulletin boards and mailing lists.

In the social media age, everyone is armed with a cyber loudhailer courtesy of Twitter and Facebook. And in recent years, online space in Singapore also seems to have become the dumping ground for discontent, where people broadcast their angst and discussions degenerate into combative stances on opposite sides of an abyssal divide.

In the wake of Mr Lee's passing, however, social media has coalesced into a surprisingly supportive space, with a quietly respectful mood.

It has been heartening to see tributes springing up spontaneously in the twittersphere and on Facebook.

Twitter users @Prxise's merging of the Singapore flag with Mr Lee's profile, @minliangtan's stark overlay of Mr Lee's face with the island's outline, as well as political satire site SGAG's rather moving image of a Mr Lee-shaped hole in the country were some of the pictures that were circulated almost immediately.

On Instagram, it was aspiring artist Ong Yi Teck's impressively laborious pen portrait of Mr Lee, composed of Mr Lee's name written 18,000 times, which went viral.

On Facebook too there have been lovely sketches by home-grown artists: Ashley Virgilius Leong's sweetly sentimental cartoon of Mr Lee sitting on a bed with one hand clasped tenderly by Mrs Lee with the caption, "Come, it's time to go", and comic artist Evangeline Neo's winsome sketch of Mr and Mrs Lee's smiling faces in the clouds, overlooking Parliament House.

It is also intriguing to see how the People's Action Party and other business organisations have tread very carefully in this minefield.

One of the most viral images I've seen is the black ribbon with Mr Lee's profile embedded in it. It was picked up quickly by Facebook users as a profile picture in the hours after the news of Mr Lee's death broke. It has since been turned into car decals, acrylic brooches as well as a tattoo.

In the newsroom where we are conscious of copyright and attribution, we were attempting to track down the creator of this image, only to be stymied. My Lianhe Zaobao colleague Wei Lim managed to get a confirmation from MP Baey Yam Keng last Wednesday that it was created by the PAP. But it was only on Thursday that MP Alex Yam revealed on his Facebook page that he and his team were the brains behind the image.

The fact that the party was so wary about revealing their connection perhaps reflects an awareness of how netizens sometimes have a knee-jerk negative response to anything seen as originating from the establishment.

But it is possible to disagree with a perspective without dismissing everything associated with it as pointless and/or useless. And this viral image, which captures so eloquently a mood of mourning, is a case in point. It went viral because the image resonated with people and it is as simple as that.

Netizens also demonstrated their ability to forgive missteps in the past hectic week. Look at BreadTalk, which introduced a commemorative Lee Kuan Yew bun on March 25, only to pull it hours later when netizens criticised it for insensitivity.

The company's prompt reaction and instant Facebook apology mollified quite a few netizens who posted positive reactions to the company's response on its Facebook page, and addressed the trolls. Such balanced voices give me hope in the future of social media spaces.

Because, despite multiple hiccups, social media has been a great leveller and offers an important avenue of expression for Singaporeans. Look at the outpouring of sentiment online and banish forever the idea that Singaporeans are a stoic, silent bunch. There is eloquence and creativity and sensitivity.

There is a certain irony in seeing some trolls complain that the space has been hijacked by cheap sentiment from unthinking followers.

In my humble opinion, it has been nice to see Singaporeans uniting and focusing on the best things about the country instead of complaining about its failings.

Here's hoping that we can continue to acknowledge our differences and sometimes rise above them when the occasion calls for it. Because trolls or not, one thing that I've seen in the past week is that Singaporeans are inordinately proud of our little red dot even if we do disagree about what, or who, has made it great.

sorfern@sph.com.sg

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