Young Singaporeans Are Brutally Honest: The 4G Leaders Are Not Vibing With Them

This year’s Singapore General Elections (GE) has been one unlike any other. 2020 has been plagued by the Covid-19 outbreak, a virus which has forced a pause on the world, damaging economies and endangering livelihoods. It is exactly this which led analysts to believe that the ‘Crisis Phenomenon’ would re-occur, in which risk-averse Singaporean voters would ‘run back to papa’ like they did during the financial crises of 1997 and 2008. 

However, this was not the case. In a surprising turn of events, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) suffered a shock upset as its popular vote dropped from 69.9% of what it garnered in 2015 to just 61.24%, just barely above its worst showing of 60.1% in 2011. It had retained its supermajority of Parliament of 83 out of 93 seats, but this “clear mandate” is clearly not a strong one. 

By shifting the usual campaigning into the online domain, all political parties were unabashedly confronted by one particular demographic of the population which they previously had little interaction with – young voters. In fact, the effect of social media was also felt among older voters who inevitably had to come into contact with this outspoken group. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Reddit became the arena for political battles. Thus, the question is: if the PAP was dominating in previous elections, why is it only now when campaigning is taken online that it loses its edge? Is there a weakest link and do they need to rehaul their publicity campaigns? 

To determine the answers to these questions, we looked at the statistics provided by SocialBlade, a website that monitors the social media growth of these politicians. We specifically observed their number of Facebook likes per day and the number of followers they have on Instagram as two determining factors of their political clout and popularity.

The online campaigns of the 4G leaders have flopped, so PM Lee steps in to buy time

PM Lee Hsien Loong has had a head start in the social media game. (Source)

Unsurprisingly, the top three politicians with the highest number of Facebook likes per day are all from the PAP: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan and the Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin. However, the rest of the 4G leaders, such as Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat,  Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung and Minister of National Development and Multi-Ministry Task-force Chairman Lawrence Wong, are losing out. They all trail behind ex-PAP stalwart and Progress Singapore Party (PSP) founder Tan Cheng Bock and the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) Chee Soon Juan

This suggests that while the 3G leaders are familiar faces among the older voters, this popularity has not been rubbed off onto the 4G. Instead, the attention of the older demographic has been captured by the new opposition candidates such as the overnight sensation Jamus Lim, whose average number of Facebook likes multiplied tenfold in two weeks, and the ‘darling of the East’ Nicole Seah. It appears that Mr Lee had initially meant for 2020 to be the year of transition into the 4G leadership to mark the start of the post-Lee Kuan Yew era, but this flopped due to their lack of online clout. Thus, many speculate that it is for this reason that he chose to announce that he would “see this crisis through with (his) senior ministers”, creating a short window of opportunity for the 4G candidates to quickly consolidate their base of support.

Instagram, the new battleground for the hearts and minds of younger voters

It is interesting to note the difference in reach across the various social media platforms. Most are familiar with Facebook, but it is arguably a platform orientated towards connecting with the older generation of voters. Its popularity amongst the younger generation has indeed declined quite drastically. Instead, they have flocked to Instagram, which better appeals to their aesthetics. Hence, when politicians choose their platform of engagement, they simultaneously choose the demographic which they are reaching out to — and inevitably, whom they have less focus on.

Indeed, the PAP might not have received as much attention on Facebook as if it would have liked, seemingly drowned by the sudden stardom of the opposition candidates. However, it appears to have done even worse on Instagram, which could explain how it lost its contest at Sengkang GRC as the SMC has a big demographic of young families. 

To start off, the party was not savvy with how it interacted with its younger audience. Its Instagram features many profile interviews of its political candidates, which is admittedly good for viewers to get to know their candidates better. However, these were posted in the format of multiple videos, which simply does not work when it comes to the millennials and Gen-Zs. It has been reported that the younger generations have been developing an increasingly short attention span, such that they only spend ten seconds at most looking at a post before moving on entirely. 

Apart from the format, its Instagram Feed might have been misangled entirely. Singaporeans, because of our pragmatic and ‘kiasu’ nature, love useful information which can give us a heads-up (or even a head start, for example: discounts) on what is happening around us. This is even more so when it comes to appealing to the younger audience who loves infographics. Young people want quick, fast information that can be absorbed with a glance, and upon sharing the post we want our friends to be able to absorb that as quickly as they can too. However, the PAP’s Instagram feed has an astonishing lack of infographics. Matters were made worse when netizens have put the PAP’s manifesto side-by-side against the other political parties, in which a contributor to The Online Citizen has even called it out to have “no imagination, no redesign (and) no reset”. The now-leader of the opposition, Mr Pritam Singh, even likened the PAP’s manifesto to be a “convenient paintbrush” over Singapore’s Covid-19 issues, alluding to its overly broad approach and lack of depth. The ruling party took a serious hit from the perceived lack of clarity and comprehensivity of their manifesto, especially when compared against the WP’s. Regardless of whether these accusations are true or not, looking at the PAP’s Instagram feed, it is clear that their ideas could have been communicated better to young people. 

A quick look at the Instagram statistics proves as much. The 4th generation PAP politicians have been eclipsed by the likes of Tan Cheng Bock (PSP) and Jamus Lim (WP). Jamus Lim (FB: 51678, IG: 100420), became the oppa of netizens overnight because of his eloquent and tactful maneuvering during the national televised debate against seasoned debater Vivian Balakrishnan. He recently posted a picture of him eating laksa with extra cockles to joke around with his supporters, which further warmed the “cockles of (their) hearts”.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock (IG: 75626) or hypebeast ah-gong has radically adapted the lingo and culture of the millennials and Gen-Z. Apart from sharing light-hearted memes and videos made by his fans, he also shows a more personal and innocent side of himself in his day-to-day life which has won him the adoration of many young voters. His number of followers multiplied tenfold in two weeks as many were drawn to his enthusiasm to personally reply to each and every one of them. Similarly, another politician who shows a more personal and down-to-earth side of herself on Instagram is the ‘darling of the East’, Nicole Seah (IG: 54259). After her extremely popular campaign in 2011 with the National Solidarity Party (NSP), she returned to re-capture the hearts of the netizens with her sincerity in admitting she had an extremely high-paying job yet left it because she wanted to secure a good future for her daughter.

Nevertheless, not all went badly for the PAP on Instagram. Mr Tan Chuan-Jin (IG: 66830) blew up on Instagram as the “man who is literally running for the elections”. He regularly reposts memes made of him by his supporters, which is a testament of his awareness of pop culture and how to use it to his advantage on social media. This has helped him to rake in 13,000 new followers, placing him third on our list of the most followed on Instagram. Fortunately or unfortunately, Mr Heng Swee Keat (IG: 58531) went viral online for his iconic ‘East Coast Plan’ moment, which could have been a contributing factor for him securing votes in East Coast GRC. Some netizens even joked that he is either a “genius or a madman”, because this move worked brilliantly in drowning out his opponent Nicole Seah, thus narrowly defeating her by a margin of 4%. Debuting candidate Ms Gan Siow Huang (2758) also laughed off the memes made of her commanding Marymount SMC to ‘fall in and lights-out’. 

Upon comparing the publicity strategies which candidates from different political parties had, it is safe to say that Instagram requires content that is a bit more tailor-made. A delicate balance of down-to-earth, humanising content and also rational discourse on policy-making. Moreover, young people relish the personalised attention (through comments and online interactions) that they could get from candidates like Tan Chuan-Jin and Tan Cheng Bock, suggesting that many young voters desperately seek a connection with the cause. 

Mudslinging might have worked against the PAP and its social media campaign

WP candidate Raeeasah Khan apologises for allegedly racist comments. (Source)

What does it mean when something goes viral on social media? It means generating waves of discourse, reaching more social circles and spreading awareness about the person and the cause. It is perhaps the most essential part of an online campaign, where the Internet is oversaturated with information and everyone is looking for something new. To go viral is to boost your popularity and in turn consolidating a stronger base of support, which is necessary for any politician. However, the ruling party’s candidates have gone viral for all the wrong reasons this year. 

The first instance was Tan Wu Meng, where he tried to call out Pritam Singh for supporting an apparently anti-Singapore poet, Alfian Sa’at and went further on to imply that the leader of the WP was similarly not a “loving critic” of Singapore. Not only was this previously rebutted by distinguished ex-diplomat Professor Tommy Koh as “demonising” the poet, Singh also tactfully pointed out how this was definitely a politically motivated attack as Dr Tan did not object or question him in Parliament when he first expressed his approval of the playwright. Netizens, many of whom are young voters, also voiced their displeasure, calling him out for riding on popular veteran Tharman’s coattails into Jurong GRC.

Then came the attack on Raeesah Khan (31306), who was suddenly plunged into a police investigation for her two-year-old comments that allegedly had the deliberate intent to wound religious or racial feelings. The PAP jumped onto the bandwagon, rehashing the words said by Jamus Lim during the televised national debate, in which the WP “should not ask voters to write it a blank cheque (of approval) in Sengkang”. Instead of wounding the opposition’s reputation, this move backfired as thousands of netizens wrote in to show their support to her, many of whom were young voters who perceived this as an unfair fight. They even boycotted top influencer Xiaxue, who attempted to add fuel to the fire by accusing Ms Khan of racism. Some even compared her to Ivan Lim, noting that the former merely refuted, while the latter apologised. This boosted her number of followers by 1000 in a mere week.

Ultimately, the PAP’s online campaigns are still a “work in progress”, says Minister of National Development Lawrence Wong. But for how long? Can the 4G leaders do a good job of rehauling and reforming the publicity campaigns that the party so desperately needs? Is it true that middle-aged voters were responsible for the national vote swing against the PAP, not the younger voters this election? If it is false, this article would have aged well. If it is true, then so be it, as it is also true that one day these younger voters will eventually become old. Time will tell if the PAP lives or dies with this generation of voters.

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