Governance of a City-State
Campaigning can still be inclusive in coming poll

On 8 June, the Elections Department (ELD) released details of the procedures it would institute for a general election to be held as safely as possible while the COVID-19 virus presents a threat to public health.

Medical experts project that the virus will not be neutralised for another year and the rules demand that an election be held by April 2021. Hence there is every likelihood that these procedures will be needed.

The ELD was not able to say if the mainstay of opposition campaigns — mass gatherings or walkabouts — would be allowed. It said that this would depend on whether the Ministry of Health judged that it was safe enough to have such spontaneous political activities at the time.

It “encouraged” parties to find alternative modes of campaigning, the most obvious being online media. While such campaigning is not new, it is likely to become the most dominant form of outreach during the pandemic.

The question that follows is: Will there be a generational divide if that is the case?

In this pandemic, more people have come to understand how to work, play, pray and pay through online platforms. Internet-based, interactive media are no longer the preserve of young digital natives but have entered the communicative mainstream across the country and, indeed, the globe.

In the same way, if the level of the health crisis means that the hustings will be held primarily on online media channels, the temptation is to think that this change will cater to the younger demographic and exclude the older demographic since the stereotype is that seniors are not savvy with anything that is online and digital.

However, if we consider the question carefully, online campaigning would make it convenient for those who are less mobile and those who have less time to “attend” campaign rallies, to engage politicians online in the run-up to Polling Day.

Voters, and certainly seniors, can simply watch these election campaigns from the comfort of their homes. They can share comments and have their questions addressed through real-time interactive channels such as Zoom and Facebook Live. Politicians can engage audiences in languages and formats that are not constrained as yet by the rules of mainstream, regulated media.

These rallies or virtual town halls can be recorded and made available by political parties so that voters can view them at leisure and share them across their social networks.

Younger members of a family could help senior members tune in; younger friends could help their older friends get engaged.

Apart from the issue of accessibility, for the first time, this change places younger voters in a position to influence sentiment about the vote. The generations will not live in their own political silos. Vivid, live material being streamed through phones and computer screens will provide a focal point for discussion on politics and governance.

Parties with youth wings can take these two points into consideration in planning their outreach, and younger supporters can become force multipliers.

For seniors, it will be like watching television that you can talk back to. They can pose questions and listen to responses to their peers’ questions. That active engagement will feel more relevant than set-piece speeches delivered on a distant platform.

Hence, it is not quite a foregone conclusion that a primarily online campaign will be hold the threat of the political exclusion of seniors.

But if there seems to be a danger of exclusion, especially for seniors who live on their own, the ELD has stated it would make more effort to allow political parties to put their messages out through public broadcasting.

In term of other forms of campaigning, parties can also rely on paid online advertising and persuade their fans and well-wishers to write about them out of conviction and goodwill. Also announced is a strengthened protocol of disclosure to the authorities and audiences when parties or candidates use paid advertising, which will deter content creators from putting out falsehoods as they can be held to account. Also, voters will know if what they are reading is independent analysis, or the promotional material of parties. Spending on such advertising must be included under the general cap by which parties have to abide as part of normal election rules.

As for political and critical media literacy – asking yourself what is important for Singapore’s political development, what are the standards by which to ascertain good governance, and when you are being misled by material that you find online – voters of all ages would benefit from long-term strategies to address this vulnerability. But we all know that there is never a time when you should stop asking yourself if you should believe everything that you read.

Overall, electioneering online will be more convenient for voters, and cheaper for parties. Real-world mass rallies are costly and run up against a lot of rules and bureaucracy. Online electioneering, when all have to rely on it, levels the playing field for younger or less well-resourced parties.

Acing the medium will be less a question of financial resources, and more a question of social networking skills and the knack for engagement and communication. It will be about the ingenuity and innovation of the parties and, at the end of the day, about whether they have compelling arguments and answers to issues that voters care about.

Online communications media is familiar territory to the Workers’ Party, which has used online real-time streaming techniques regularly. The Singapore Democratic Party is a veteran of online advertising. The new Progress Singapore Party has held online social media engagement sessions in this COVID period. Ruling People’s Action Party Members of Parliament are already meeting their constituents through the Internet in lieu of face-to-face Meet the People’s sessions. Virtual town halls have become a feature in the presidential campaigns in the United States because of the pandemic.

At a time when the rest of the country is having to adapt to the COVID new normal, Singapore’s political parties should make their best efforts to ensure that the online medium is an inclusive tool for getting the country talking about the most important political issues of our time.


Dr Gillian Koh is Deputy Director (Research) and Senior Research Fellow with the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore.

Top photo from Unsplash.

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