Singapore’s First Internet (Only) Elections 2020: Global Lessons for Post- Pandemic Democracies

Lessons from Singapore’s election campaign for India are enormous. Source: internationalaffairs.org.au

The General Elections of 2020 are Singapore’s first poll where most voter and candidate interactions have moved online. To be fair, there was still some on-ground canvassing; groups of up to five people were allowed (masks on, no shaking hands) to campaign via house visits or at the Singaporean sociocultural mainstay called the hawker centre or ‘kopitiam’, dotting every few housing blocks.

However, the online space dominated the elections; for the resource-poor opposition, this was an opportunity to be creative in its outreach, and they made the most of it.

The lessons from Singapore’s election campaign for India are enormous. India is adopting digital as fast as a fish takes to water. Despite the dubiousness of Whatsapp, people are increasingly receiving information from Whatsapp forwards, coining the rather pejorative term “Whatsapp University”.

With impending polls in Bihar later this year, in a pandemic environment, digital poll campaigns have already begun, with numerous Facebook Live rallies held, in particular, by the ruling party. In India, it would soon be common to receive electoral campaign information on our smartphones in these ‘semi-normal’ times of the pandemic. Hence, it makes sense to explore – in this social distancing era, how did Singapore carry out an electoral outreach?

The Aesthetic Palette

When digital is the only medium available, the visual aspect of political communication takes on a whole new meaning. It was intriguing to observe the various formats political parties adopted to break through the attention-fatigue clutter.

The opposing Workers’ Party’s trailer and campaign video introducing all 21 of its candidates made a dent among the populace. It was refreshing, sophisticated yet simple, and edited super sharply, giving it the feel of a movie trailer. Good use of the portrait mode made it both disarming and capable of human connect, without an in-the-face vibe despite watching it several times.

The ruling PAP’s manifesto video had a steady story boarding of a corporate communications video, clean and clinical, espousing stability and seeming to have gone through multiple reviews and refinements. The visuals could sit in well for a Singapore Tourism Board marketing collateral.

There were also online rallies, streamed on YouTube and Facebook Live. The leader of the opposing Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) designed a personal digital rally with the vibe of a news episode; he spoke to the person in the living room of an HDB (the state linked Housing Development Board or HDB for the uninitiated). The SDP’s physical poster was quirky and stood out. Their electoral campaign volunteers seemed to have a professional design background, but they faltered on the messaging.

The Workers’ Party rallies were down to earth – candidates read out of a paper, especially in Mandarin, for instance – in comparison to their campaign trailer, although the easy vibe continued here as well. The PAP rallies carried the corporate aesthetic with steady visuals of studio quality. The opposing Progress Singapore Party adopted a talk show format, introducing candidates in a show named ‘Up, Close and Personal’.

Messaging

The heart of a political campaign lies in the meat of its messaging. What policy choices did the parties offer their voters? In a highly information-savvy country, every word from the poster to the manifesto to the debate is dissected. As I followed the campaign from mid-June to 3rd July, I could easily gauge that the voters were a highly perceptive audience.

The PAP focused on its interventions during the Covid-19 crisis, its support to businesses and livelihoods, and, by and large, navigating a choppy future on the backdrop of a geopolitical trade war and an economic contraction with solid hope.

In stark contrast, the SDP harped on high ministerial salaries, stoking anti-immigrant sentiments instead of offering holistic solutions. The SDP is welfare-centric; it called for greater social protection coverage for the elderly and the unemployed. However, it did not present the financial logic behind the plans, which the PAP punctured holes into.

The Progress Singapore Party too took the anti-immigrant stance, evoking nativist sentiments, much in common with the populist zeitgeist enveloping political culture globally. Its octogenarian leader expressed himself in ‘millennial speak’ in order to resonate with younger voters.

Moreover, thanks to party political broadcasts, smaller parties such as the Reform Party, National Solidarity Party and People’s Voice were able to make their case more effectively this election.

The Workers’ Party messaging deserves special mention; it was constructively framed and focused on delivering the message that the party needed the votes to create a check in the Parliament and ask the hard questions. The spirit of “Make Your Vote Count”, the campaign slogan, was consistent all through the campaign.

Reach

Singapore is a hyper-connected state, and almost all have access to social media in some form or the other, though variations persist. The elderly in particular are less adept at accessing the Internet in English as they largely speak local dialects. While dialects have been discouraged in favour of Mandarin as an instrument of state policy, this election brought back some of them, as candidates used them to reach out to voters.

Every voter sub target group needed a different digital approach. Whatsapp forwards worked better with the elders, and interaction with children, as the Education Minister learnt the hard way, turned out to be a no-go area.

Based on the Singapore experience, Internet-only elections, especially in the campaign phase, would entail curating specific codes of conduct depending on culture and customs, for smooth functioning. The intervention of fake news too is an angle worth noting, as each party would have its own set of zealous trolls spinning a nuance either way.

in a culturally contextual approach for smooth functioning of future electoral activity. The intervention of fake news is an angle which will be interesting to note as each party has its own set of zealous trolls that spin a nuance either way.

Conclusion

Singaporean Scholar Jin Yao Kwan has called this general election a “muted, rally-less campaign”. He has opined that since the opposition draws its strength from charged rallies which bring them in the mainstream media’s limelight, their absence grossly tilts the balance in the favour of the ruling party.

Singapore is small in geography, but is a regulatory sandbox for technological innovations, especially in governance and finance. This election is a case study in progress which will yield policy lessons for pandemic-era democracies across the globe.

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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