Asian leaders making their online presence felt

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 24, 2013

ASIA'S leaders have been setting virtual forums abuzz with some candid comments lately.

Japan's Premier Shinzo Abe, 58, stirring change and controversy in his country since he took charge, fingered former diplomat Hitoshi Tanaka by name, accusing him of being "unfit" to talk about diplomacy recently.

Malaysian Premier Najib Razak, one of Asia's most popular leaders in the virtual world with 1.6 million followers on Twitter and 1.7 million "likes" on Facebook, has been mulling his recent narrow win in a general election that he had declared would be the nation's first "social media election".

And Kuala Lumpur recently ordered all bureaucratic heads of department and their deputies to open their own Facebook and Twitter accounts to defend the government and clear misperceptions.

Meanwhile, in the Indonesian archipelago, two-term President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's surprise gains in the digital world, despite launching his Twitter account only on April 13, has had political observers taking notice. He has since collected over 2.5 million followers with just 469 tweets.

Indeed, Asian leaders, led by those in South-east Asia, have stepped into the virtual world to air their views, circulate speeches, trumpet their achievements, attack opponents, seek feedback and charm their electorates.

Those in power as well as those seeking power are communicating directly with fans and foes, tapping into the power of the Web to bridge divides. Some have dedicated teams managing their virtual public relations.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong kept citizens updated on the Government's efforts to engage Indonesia on countering the haze, as it hit record levels in the city state, through his Facebook account, started last April.

"Sent Minister Vivian Balakrishnan as my Special Envoy to deliver my letter to President SBY today. I shared Singaporeans' grave concern over the haze, urged Indonesia to take action, and offered our help, including aircraft for cloud seeding," he wrote last week, signing off with his signature LHL.

Elsewhere in Asean, Philippine President Benigno Aquino uses his Facebook page - that is managed by a team - to share photographs of him attending official functions, for announcements by government agencies and to post links to favourable media articles.

Visitors to Mr Aquino's social media sites hoping to get a more personal glimpse into his life will be disappointed.

Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was forced to suspend her @PouYingLuck Twitter account in 2011 after it was hacked for a short while, has had a more trying time with social media.

In December 2011, she had to send a formal apology to King Bhumibol Adulyadej when her team posted the wrong picture on her Facebook page on the occasion of his birthday.

Even leaders in Myanmar, which has among the lowest Internet and mobile phone penetration rates in the world, are now virtually connected.

President Thein Sein's Facebook page has so far drawn a modest 6,400 or so "likes", but that of his spokesman and Deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut has drawn over 39,000 followers partly because of the more frequent posts and updates on his page.

In India, where nearly a 10th of the nation's 1.2 billion people use the Internet, there is a general apathy towards technology among Indian politicians, most of whom are old enough to be granddads. Neither Congress president Sonia Gandhi nor her son is present on social media.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's office set up a Twitter account last year, and carries updates on the work done by him. It has slightly over 600,000 followers. Meanwhile, hardliner Narendra Modi, likely to be the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's front-runner to be prime minister next year, has 1.1 million followers on a microblogging site.

None of China's top leaders uses social media. So far, the highest-ranked leaders on its Weibo microblogs are provincial party secretaries. Likewise, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying does not use social media.

Still, for the leaders who are virtually connected, the benefits come along with headaches, many a time in the form of brickbats and ridicule.

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou has been nicknamed "Facebook President" by the opposition for frequently taking to the Web to comment on policies and controversies of the day.

Mr Abe's government, meanwhile, found itself facing the ire of other countries after Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who is also an opposition party member, tweeted remarks on comfort women, calling them "necessary" in wartime.

Some political leaders such as Mr Banri Kaieda, the 64-year-old leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, the nation's largest opposition group, have chosen to eschew social media completely.

In fact, aides apparently complain that he declines to even own a smartphone.

Additional information by Lee Seok Hwai in Taipei, Krittivas Mukherjee in New Delhi, Zubaidah Nazeer in Jakarta and Alastair McIndoe in Manila.

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This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 24, 2013

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