PAP’s “digital consultants” during GE – what do election rules say?

People’s Action Party (PAP) Members of Parliament (MPs) are reported to have engaged digital consultants to help in their campaigning in General Election 2015, but who pays and how much?

The Straits Times’ report, “They helped six MPs shine online in GE2015“, said that six PAP MPs had engaged these digital consultants.

The report also said the MPs declined to be identified but that three of them were holding ministerial portfolio including one Senior Minister of State.

All six of them were re-elected to parliament, which the Straits Times said was the results of a year’s hard work.

While this may prove that the work of a local politician to canvass for votes should start earlier and not just when the elections come around, what it also raises are questions such as : who pays for such consultation work? The MP? The party? Or through some other means?

The Straits Times report cited two of the digital consultants thus:

“Ms Zhao and Ms Kwok, both from QED consulting, decline to reveal how much the MPs paid. Digital consultants can charge up to $150 an hour.”

Under the electoral regulations set by the Election Department, there is a fixed budget for campaigning for candidates seeking to contest in the election. This is to prevent individuals or groups with more financial resrouces from having an unfair advantage over their competitors.

However, in this case of hiring digital consultants, would such expenses be declared, given that the cost was incurred before the writ of election was called? Would the election department only require one month of the fees to be declared?

This brings a whole slate of questions to be asked about how much political parties or candidates can spend during the election.

Other than the activities and programmes organised by the PAP, the unions, etc, the ministries also introduced various programmes during the elections, such as the pioneer generation package which was promoted aggressively online via Facebook and Youtube, along with posters and ads on the streets.

Such unclear and ambiguous regulations surrounding limits on election spending, should be clearly defined and strictly enforced or ought to be scrapped in the interest of fairness.

A rally for supporters go online to quash dissenting opinions?

In the Straits Times’ report, it related how MPs identify and recruit supportive residents who would then be advised by the digital consultants on the dos and don’ts of online campaigning.

The report said:

“Ms Jenny Wee, a grassroots leader in the South West district, is a digital advocate – someone who cares enough about politics to voluntarily devote time and energy in the hope of making a difference.

“They use social media monitoring tools to “listen” in on online conversations, then let them know when action is needed. “Part of the battle involves picking the right battlefield. It may not make sense to have supporters go into overly hostile territory,” says Ms Kwok.

“Guidelines include having these supporters post replies from a genuine account, maintaining an objective tone, sharing personal experiences and refraining from personal attacks on other netizens.”

Indeed, many of such advocates turn up in support of their MPs on their fan pages and on the comment threads of mainstream media Facebook pages.

Anyone who has read such online comments during the General Election would have noticed how comments that are supportive of the establishment are cut and pasted on different threads and platforms, and how, for example, a particular party’s town council issues would surface as a key factor in why one should not vote for the opposition.

When all the individuals are recruited by the party machinery, what exactly is the role that they are supposed to perform? To explain the manifesto of the party? To attest to the said quality of the candidate? Or is there any other mission that they are supposed to carry out?