“Touching lightly” isn’t it. Here’s how to do a better job…

Business district night view by etoile

My friend gets his daily dose of Singapore news online, and pretty often he’ll find interesting news you will never see locally in Singapore. This recent article from a Thailand business newspaper (via AFP) shows you how Singapore’s dominant political party only recently realized how they were losing grip with reality. Just take a look at the eye-raising article as replicated below, then look at my remarks:

Singapore’s ruling PAP changes strategy
04 Jun 06 15:33 via AFP

SINGAPORE – Singapore’s ruling party has confirmed it will change its political strategy in future elections after one in three voters supported the opposition in last month’s polls.

”We can’t fight the next battle using today’s strategies,’’ former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, now the top adviser to his successor Lee Hsien Loong, was quoted as saying by the Sunday Times of Singapore.

He was reacting to a post-election study showing Singaporeans no longer put top priority on so-called ”bread and butter’ issues like jobs, housing and other essentials. It also showed voters want checks and balances in parliament.

”We will not know what people’s attitudes will be like four to five years from now, but we know it will be a different electorate,’’ added Goh, who had led the party’s failed effort to win back two districts from the opposition.

The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has won every election since 1959, managed to keep 82 of the 84 seats in parliament in the May 6 polls but saw its share of votes cast fall from over 75 percent in 2001 to just under 67 percent.

In the two opposition-held districts, voters not only rejected the PAP but enlarged the winning margin of the opposition despite the government’s offer of more than 100 million US dollars in public housing upgrades and other perks.

Politicians and analysts say the PAP could face a stiffer challenge in the next election, which is due in five years although a snap vote can be called anytime under the British-inspired parliamentary system.

Singapore’s state-linked Institute of Policy Studies said last week that a post-election survey showed voters’ most important concerns were efficient government, fairness of government policy, and the need for different views and checks and balances in parliament.

Goh, who is now Senior Minister, indicated that the government may have to relax the restrictions on using the Internet for political campaigning, including a ban on voice and video recordings on party websites.

It looks to me that the average Singaporean would be willing to sacrifice immediate benefits in favor of long-term concerns, such as the over-arching issue of how Singapore should be governed. Checks and balances are essential to prevent corruption, why the difficulty in accepting it?

This grassroots movement towards “striking a balance” can be seen online, especially since the rise in political blogging in the recent local elections. Where the local mainstream media’s coverage favored the incumbent political party, bloggers seeked fair and balanced coverage by reporting what the media failed to acknowledge (refer to Citizen Journalism). The inherent liberal structure of the Internet, combined with the ease of personal publishing (i.e. blogging), has allowed Singaporeans to be more politically vocal. In essence, blogging does makes it easier speak out, so much so that it becomes convenient to take the risk of expressing one’s political views openly.

Although electoral advertising on blogs and podcasts were banned by the government during the Singapore elections, it wasn’t exactly clear then on whether this applied to political blogging and podcasting. Regardless of the case, the aftermath has seen a few notable bloggers either going ahead with the citizen reporting, or using alternative means to get their message across, such as the use of well-crafted satire. Aside from walkovers, the opposition has already gains a larger winning margin in this elections. Based on this combined trend, it is apparent that the next elections would end up with very different results.

The government’s recent response to political bloggers was interesting to say the least. Information, Communications and the Arts Minister Lee Boon Yang recently said that “[t]he Government will review the way it manages new media such as the Internet and podcasts and work towards a ‘lighter touch’ in the next general election” (see video by MrMiyagi).

Lighter touch?
I seriously think that the Singapore government has really missed the point entirely.

Not long ago, there were complaints of politically apathetic Singaporeans. Now we have thinking citizen bloggers who partake in civic responsibilities at various levels, including how Singapore is governed. With greater political awareness among the local population, why is there an obsession with control?

Treading lightly implies lighter control, but instead of controlling the internet, the government should really start realizing that it can and should participate in it. The blogosphere isn’t as chaotic as it may appear to be and reputable bloggers always take responsibility for what they say. You will get the occasional troublemaker, but the rewards are still worth the risk.

Simply read the Cluetrain Manifesto and understand we are living in completely different times here, where draconian regulations are just plain unproductive and old fashioned. It is such a shame that the government hasn’t realized how to harness the collective intelligence of its networked population, but instead prefers to stifle them.

Rather than focus on gaining more control of Singaporeans, a worthy party would learn to respect the transparent structures constructed by local bloggers and be frank enough engage in useful discussions with the matured online citizen. Don’t try to own the Internet because you don’t and you can’t.

Instead, engage us on our level-playing field known as the blogosphere by having politicians runs their own blogs. With that, take a look at Loic Le Meur’s seminal blog post on the “10 reasons why should a politician blog“:
1. To get closer to their audience, their supporters
2. To create a permanent open debate with them
3. To test their ideas easily and quickly, to enrich them and get new ones
4. To switch the way they talk to people usually from institutional to more personal
5. To better understand the criticism of the people against their ideas
6. To spread their ideas easily if they are supported by many people, in a decentralized way
7. To raise funds for their cause, party or campaign
8. To reach a younger audience and help young people get more interested in politics
9. To create around them network effects
10. To become famous if you are an unkown politician, or to start a political action, even locally

I advise you to read in detail some of the examples this French blogger shares in building his points. To help our government along, here are some popular U.S. politicians , as well as popular British MPs who blog. Yes, more and more governments are embracing blogs as we speak, all except ours… So start blogging already!

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5 thoughts on ““Touching lightly” isn’t it. Here’s how to do a better job…

  1. that’s true.. in Finland they used blogging for their recent elections too.. but maybe it depends on the openess of the society and whether they think that the audience are mature enough..

  2. Hi Kevin, I think blogging and podcasting is just one aspect of what the PAP might consider in reviewing their strategy, but it won’t be the main one. I doubt if those who voted against PAP were necessarily swayed by what was posted in blogs and as podcasts. The issues might be more systemic. It might have something to do with how politics is covered as a whole in Singapore, and the political awareness of Singaporeans.

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