Goh Chok Tong

Social media and the evolving polity – Goh Chok Tong and John Major

John Major, Kishore Mahbubani and Goh Chok Tong
John Major, Kishore Mahbubani and Goh Chok Tong

By Howard Lee

The presence of social media and the evolving voting public has drastically changed the way that governments approach policy making and engagement, although good governance must necessarily focus on long term .

These were the points that two former Prime Ministers – Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Sir John Major – could both agree on, when they spoke at the SG50+ Conference on governance models in the future where the landscape for democracy is changing.

“Governments are expected to analyse events, understand events, and respond to events, but with 24-hour media, they are rarely given very little time to consider those events, before they are required to respond,” said Mr Major. “And this dilemma is even more difficult for democracy than for autocracy.”

“Democracy is more difficult – it is slower, it’s painstaking, because democracy has to obtain consent and agreement, and legislative approval.”

Nevertheless, it is a necessary situation as citizen sought to express themselves more to their governments, and the key question is how governments can be part of the new media landscape, rather than against it.

John Major
John Major

“We can’t dis-invent the Web, nor frankly should we choose to do so. It is a magnificent invention. But the question for governance is this: can its use be controlled, and how can it be used to improve the quality of life and government?”

However, he cautioned that Internet use cannot be deemed misuse “simply because it embarrasses the government”, but when it “aids illegality and crime, and governments simply cannot ignore that.”

“The truth is that social media has added a new dimension to the opportunities and pitfalls of government. It can help or it can hinder… because a direct form of communication can aid a government in understanding public needs and attitudes, and in responding.”

The use of social media as a means of connecting people was also noted by Mr Goh.

“Social media allows leaders to get closer to the people,” said Mt Goh. “They can share their thoughts with a wider group of people more easily. It also enables leaders to consult with citizens in a more timely fashion, rather than communicating decisions only after they have been made.”

“But social media also adds another layer of complexity to governing, a job which is already challenging. For example, the government’s voice is not as dominant as before. To get its messages heard, read or seen is a challenge.”

The complexity of government was also not lost on Mr Major.

“I suspect that the impact of these changes will be to make government more complex than it is now, and the public more demanding than they are now,” he said.

Goh Chok Tong
Goh Chok Tong

The two former leaders also took time to address issues relating to what makes a good politician, good governance and how citizens will react to their leaders, with Mr Major referring to the UK’s example, in particular his predecessor Lady Margaret Thatcher.

“Countries elect the nature of leaders that the times demand. In the 1970s, we were in dire economic difficulties… There was a public will for dramatic change to deal with an over-mighty trade unions, and the public elected someone who had the temperament to do that.”

Mr Major also noted that it was a capable Cabinet surrounding Lady Thatcher who developed the ideas that she had to carry through. However, he also noted that the future needs more consensual leadership. “A sophisticated electorate will elect a nature of leader that is necessary to your particular problems by the nation.”

The advent of social media poses new challenges to leaders, as the public is increasingly tuned in more to political controversies, rather than longer term issues that matter to their lives.

Mr Major suggested that this could be resolved a leader “speaks above the clamour” and to set out a long terms vision and promises. Doing so would improve the quality of debate both online and in Parliament.

Mr Goh also highlighted the broader altruistic qualities that government leaders should have.

“Candidates and the people must see political leadership as both a noble calling and a worthwhile profession,” he said. “If politics is just a calling, in good times, Singapore will see fewer and fewer people in their prime prepared to make the sacrifices.”

“The twin drivers of growing expectations and social media mean that politicians will face increasing challenges in both running for office and running the office,” said Mr Goh. “How then does democracy produce a good, effective government?”

Mr Goh also noted that different segments of Singapore society will have different expectations on the government, and “the party that can capture these wants and help deliver them, will win.”

“For Singapore to continue to succeed, you must first have leaders who can think ahead, who are prepared to stand up for their convictions, and be prepared to take on (their political opponents)… Among their team members, they would want people who can understand the business of governance – economics, foreign policy, geopolitical situation – and the team supports, but the team leader must be able to lead in that kind of Cabinet of the future.”