GE Special

Singapore GE: Campaign going online may shape poll practices in the future

Despite talk of the online sphere dominating this election, hustings are ultimately about connecting with voters, says Prof Eugene Tan.
Despite talk of the online sphere dominating this election, hustings are ultimately about connecting with voters, says Prof Eugene Tan. ST FILE PHOTO

Singapore's political system has always evolved incrementally, with change taking place in a carefully managed way, but as with other parts of society it is not immune to the headwinds brought forth by Covid-19.

The Elections Department (ELD) has taken care to emphasise that the new campaigning rules it announced last week - should hustings be held in phase two - are meant to be a special, one-off arrangement given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but observers say that some of these stipulations may yet shape future elections.

Compared with the Non-Constituency MP scheme that has slowly evolved since it was introduced in 1984, or Cooling-off Day which was on the table for years before it was announced in 2009, Covid-19 has accelerated the shift towards more use of digital technologies in mere months, note experts.

Being homebound the past few months has led to people being more accustomed to using technology to meet different needs - whether to work, study, meet up with friends and family members, participate in religious worship, or even to attend weddings, notes Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Carol Soon, who studies social media, politics and public engagement.

"Seeking out information on political parties and candidates is likely to be part of this new norm, especially when the election campaigning rules prohibit political rallies and limit group size for offline engagement," she says.

And while past elections such as GE2011 and GE2015 were billed as the online space's coming-out party in terms of its ability to mobilise political support, the coming hustings represent "our first true Internet election" given the special rules that have been outlined, says Professor Ang Peng Hwa from the Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

"That is, it is very possible that undecided voters, and they are a sizeable swing vote, will decide on the basis of information they come across or are sent via the Internet," he says.

This means social groups are also likely to play a major role in this election through "horizontal conversations" among friends, and less so between a candidate and a voter who cannot shake his hand and develop an emotional connection up-close, he adds.

Media veteran Woon Tai Ho says MPs from both the PAP and opposition parties will have to think out of the box about how to prevail in a contest taking place under these novel conditions.

While the rules are a one-off, "in the end I think both the PAP and the opposition will try to be good at this, and things that work will become a convention while things that don't work will be discarded," he says.

Among the wide repertoire of digital tools available to parties are social media, instant messaging apps and YouTube channels, while live videos have taken off in a big way, said Dr Soon.

The Progress Singapore Party and the Singapore Democratic Party have, for instance, been holding regular virtual sessions on social media to interact with the electorate, while the Workers' Party has been pushing out regular updates on its members' activities and posting links to its social media accounts on WhatsApp, she notes.

But Dr Soon says smaller parties will have to put in a lot more effort to gain mindshare among voters.

Whatever the medium, parties must remember that winning an election is about winning hearts and minds through authenticity and persuasion, said associate professor of law Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University (SMU).

"Online rallies mean that parties have to think hard about how to attract and retain eyeballs, compared with physical rallies where there tends to be a captive audience," says Prof Tan, a former NMP.

Political parties here may learn from the hustings in other countries to include pre-recorded content and performances or even quizzes to keep their audience engaged, and "many of these ideas could move over to physical rallies when they become available again in subsequent elections", he adds.

Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh says one thing that remains unchanged despite Covid-19 is that candidates who have consistently invested time and energy on the ground will reap the electoral rewards. This is even as political parties here find new ways to strengthen their online and social media campaign capabilities to reach out to voters who are increasingly comfortable engaging through social media platforms.

"All parties will learn from this experience, and the serious parties like the PAP and the WP will not wait for a GE to reach out to the ground," says Mr Singh. "It will be a continuous affair."

SMU's Prof Tan agrees, noting that despite talk of the online sphere dominating this election, hustings are ultimately about connecting with voters, a task made more difficult by Covid-19.

"This election will reiterate the importance of groundwork in between elections, physical campaigning and going door-to-door," he says.

"The quest for votes is inherently a very physical activity, and if parties completely shift their campaign online, then I think they are going to lose out significantly in having real touchpoints."

Lim Yan Liang and Toh Wen Li

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2020, with the headline Singapore GE: Campaign going online may shape poll practices in the future. Subscribe