Politicians should not be too afraid to come out of their comfort zones. Andrew Loh.

Engaging netizens – time to come out of comfort zones, politicians

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Andrew Loh

If discussions on issues of importance are to progress, both parties have to accept that perhaps it is time to stop staying on their respective sides of the fence.

We have come some ways from the anonymous and sinister-sounding “counter-insurgents” which the government was reported to be sending into cyberspace to counter its online critics in January 2007.

Now, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is adopting a different approach. Its “embrace of the diversity of views”, mentioned by its newly-appointed president of its Youth Wing, Mr Teo Ser Luck, includes those in cyberspace. It wants to engage netizens upfront, it seems. And it has delegated the task to its youth branch, the Young PAP (YP). Mr Teo has made this his priority, apparently. “When I took over YP, I wanted to make sure there’s an embrace of diversity of views. So, you will see more diversity and more participation,” Mr Teo is reported to have told the Today newspaper.

While there will be cynics who will pooh-pooh this cyber outreach by the PAP, the move is to be applauded, nevertheless. Political parties in Singapore have, all this while, seemed unsure and hesitant about engaging netizens, including those from the opposition parties. So far, such engagements do not include what I would call “close quarter contacts”. Parties would put up articles or postings on their sites – and that’s about it. There are no replies from party elders to the comments from readers.

However, this seems to have changed in recent times, especially with the PAP. On Facebook, for example, Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo has been more willing to explain his position on certain issues. This writer had an exchange with the minister over the recent Thein Sein orchid-naming controversy. It was cordial and civil. However, Mr Yeo has yet to emerge from his own corner in Facebook or blog to respond to postings on other people’s sites. But he did, to the surprise of quite a few people, invite his Facebook friends to join him for a morning jog recently.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak, PAP MP for Sembawang GRC, has also been posting comments on other people’s Facebook accounts – commenting on Abdul Salim Harun’s Facebook, for example. Mr Salim, up till recently, was a Workers’ Party member. Dr Lim too had an exchange with this writer over the issue of foreign workers on this writer’s Facebook page. Most of the so-called P65 MPs have Facebook accounts.

The YP set up its Youngpap blog some time back but the postings there have been roundly castigated by netizens each time they appear. The blog was more for defending its parent party, at times rather illogically, and not for a true and sincere exchange of views with readers. Its YoungPAP Facebook is more lively, and has more than 600 friends. Its Facebook looks to be more engaging too. Its latest posting, titled “Opposition redundant?” has had a decent discussion, with most disagreeing with the suggestion, including YP members.

A blog, which seems to have been created by either pro-PAP or pro-government supporters, was set up in 2008 to specifically counter the SDP’s views. Called Not My SDP, a reference to the SDP’s website which is named “http://yoursdp.org”, it is unknown who the people behind the blog are, though some suspect that it may have been set up by PAP grassroots members. Notmysdp perhaps is the clearest manifestation of the so-called “counter-insurgents” from the government. (TOC has written to the blog and is awaiting a reply.)

What about the opposition?

The Workers’ Party secretary general, Mr Low Thia Khiang, does not have a presence in cyberspace beyond his own party’s official website – save for a fan page created by supporters. The same for its chairman, Ms Sylvia Lim. On its official website, the postings consist mainly of Parliamentary speeches and press releases. The WP, however, has members and supporters who are quite active in blogs and in social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter but there has been very limited engagement on current affairs. On the blogs, members do share their views on some current and national issues from time to time, most notably its Organising Secretary, Mr Yaw Shin Leong and former CEC member and GE2006 candidate, Mr Tan Kian Hwee.

The WP’s youth wing has an official website which is best described as a ghost town, really, and thoroughly uninteresting. Its latest posting is an entry about the then newly-elected Youth Wing Executive Council – in August 2008. Party supporters previously set up The Hammersphere blog, but it has since also become inactive. The party’s youth wing got into the Facebook bandwagon recently. Besides the party’s official websites, the party has given no official endorsements to the other sites or blogs.

The Singapore Democratic Party is perhaps the most active on the Internet with its daily website updates. However, on closer look, its party leaders too are not as actively engaged as perhaps its supporters and members, in terms of close-quarter contacts.

Party leaders write articles and post them on their official website. Dr Chee Soon Juan and assistant secretary general, Mr John Tan, would then highlight such postings on their Facebooks. Close-quarter dialogues between the leaders and readers are not very frequent. The SDP had, however, engaged forummers in 2007 on a forum for a one-week period, with party leaders discussing various issues with forummers. The party made a slight revamp to its website on April 6 to make it “more user friendly and easy on the eye.”

The Young Democrats, the SDP’s youth branch, has a Facebook “closed group” account. One has to request to join or be invited to join before one can have access.

[Update: Thanks to Jaslyn Goh for informing the writer that a "Friends of  SDP” Facebook group has also been set up.]

The relatively new Reform Party’s chairman, Mr Ng Teck Siong, recently set up a Facebook account and has been noticed posting an occasional note on others’ pages.

The SPP’s Youth Impact too seems to be dormant on the Internet.  The NSP and the RP have no youth wings.

It can thus be seen that there is much room for improvement for the political parties, if they want to engage the Internet generation. Engagement would and should go beyond the postings of reports or articles or pictures. The key is dialogue – and sadly, not many politicians are doing this.

The fear, perhaps, is that getting into discussions opens one up to attacks and turns such dialogues into a rowdy and meaningless farce. While there is always a possibility of this happening, there are ways to minimize these. One way is to require commenters to register, as the SDP website does, before any person is allowed to post replies. Another way is to moderate comments, as many sites do. Those who are serious about engaging the issues will find this acceptable, while those who are bent on attacking the other parties may not find it so appealing. But at the end of the day, everyone should respect and accept that it is the site owners who set the rules for their sites – and that they have the right to.

Internet engagement by politicians is a new phenomena in Singapore – and parties on both sides of the fence are adopting tentative stances towards it. The politicians do not want to get into something they are not familiar with; while netizens are wary of politicians usurping Net space for their political agenda.

But if discussions on issues of importance are to progress, both parties have to accept that perhaps it is time to stop staying on their respective sides of the fence.

As of now no party leader has a presence on the Internet whose presence is of any consequence. Most seem to prefer to stay in their comfort zones. However, with a virtually 100 per cent broadband penetration rate in Singapore (as reported recently by the Straits Times), politicians cannot afford to ignore cyberspace much longer – and sooner or later, the fence will have to come down.