09 October 2017

Decoding the social media narratives of the 2017 presidential election

It is significant that during the 2017 presidential campaign, the issues that the social media saw as significant to the election had very little congruence with what the candidates themselves, the People's Action Party government, and even we saw as significant and wanted to talk about. It is significant that instead of lulling the electorate to general apathy, this disconnect has served to galvanise them and stoke up their anger at the PAP.

Were these narratives part of an unofficial, yet highly coordinated campaign? Were these narratives more spin, conspiracy theory, and fake news than a reflection of the legitimate issue, that the PAP had compromised Singapore's national principles of multiracialism and meritocracy? Why does it matter if they were? Did we, the people goof up the presidential election as much as the PAP, the elections department, and the candidates themselves?
Tan Cheng Blocked

Image by Sonny Liew
Some people really believed that the reserved election was to block Tan Cheng Bock from running again. This narrative is grounded on public perception of the convoluted constitutional manoeuvring of the last year as well as occasional official admission from its leadership that the PAP does not owe anyone a level playing field during elections. Not only were the minimum requirements raised, the PAP still reserved the election for only Malay candidates just to be safe.

There are several problems with this narrative.

It assumes that Tan Cheng Bock would win the election hands down given his performance in 2011, when he came within less than a percentage point of Dr Tony Tan. This will happen regardless of whoever runs against him.

When a candidate is crowned as the winner even before the election is held, that's when alarm bells should go off because there is clearly an attempt to manufacture consensus and preempt the election. In reality, the result would depend on the competence of the political machines at the disposal of the candidates, and their actual campaigns. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom the media declared as frontrunner and presumptive winner of last presidential election in the US even before she formally declared her candidacy, may tell you that.

PAP rewrites history by proclaiming Wee Kim Wee as first elected president?

Some people actually believed that the PAP declared Wee Kim Wee as Singapore's first elected president. The narrative essentially accuses the PAP of defining Wee Kim Wee as an elected president just so that in 2017, there would be five terms without a Malay elected president, thus triggering the reserved election.

This is contrary to all evidence in the constitution and the Hansard that the PAP put Wee Kim Wee in the "countdown clock" for a reserved election for the post of elected president, but did not declare him an elected president.

As I pointed out earlier, this was a policy decision taken by the government, but not the most appropriate or competent policy decision it could have taken, nor proof that the Attorney General or the cabinet aren't running a clown show. The Wee Kim Wee decision opens up a can of worms: all the PAP or subsequent ruling parties need to do to reset any reserved election clock is to rename the post of the president. The correct policy decision was to have counted all presidents and heads of state of Singapore in the clock, given that the PAP belatedly argued that the late Lee Kuan Yew deliberately rotated his candidates for president to ensure every race had its turn.

Questions of cabinet and AG incompetence notwithstanding, it is unclear why the ground would spontaneously and unanimously agree that the PAP had indeed declared Wee as Singapore's first elected president, and that outrage had to be taken on behalf of Ong Teng Cheong.

That this did indeed happen is an indication of a deliberate campaign, whether or not it was coordinated. The purposes are two-fold: to pit an incompetent PAP against a popular, late president, and to create enough resulting anger to hobble the NTUC (Ong's former power base) as a political machine of the establishment candidate, Halimah Yacob.


It is perhaps telling that the #NotMyPresident hashtag was appropriated by Singaporean social media users to signal their displeasure with the outcome on Nomination Day.

Taken at face value, the narrative suggests the illegitimacy of Halimah Yacob's forthcoming presidency, and how deeply unpopular she has become. While it is true that approval ratings of the PAP have fallen dramatically since the reserved election, it is unclear that the presidency has become that big of a clown show yet - though the narrative's creators would like you to think so.

People who used this meme wanted you to think of them as heroic revolutionaries,
not conformist and unimaginative cowards
Of all the political memes (remember those Avengers-themed posters and the Optimus Prime truck from the previous general elections?) that could've been chosen, #NotMyPresident made the dubious cut. Positioning-wise, it is a hashtag that would appeal to a narrow sub-group of shrill, liberal, Trump-hating social media user enough for them to use it in Singapore's context. That is to say, it is entirely a campaign driven by a section of Singapore's social activists to achieve international attention, and not a campaign designed to raise temperatures on the ground.

Who could be behind all this? Does it matter if it or isn't the public?

We are fairly certain that #NotMyPresident is the creation and campaign emanating from a faction or fraction of Singapore's liberal activist scene. Like all their other publicity campaigns, the meme died down the moment these activists lost interest; there is no real public anger or popular usage of the hashtag. It is an astroturf campaign as fake as the Twitter Arab Spring, but far more amateurish.

What of "Tan Cheng Blocked" and "ZOMG Wee Kim Wee"? Surveys will need to be conducted to ascertain whether these were real issues that reflected ground sentiments or whether they were social media outrage campaigns. But one way of determining cause is to ask who has the most to gain from this.

The Tan Cheng Blocked narrative establishes Tan Cheng Bock as the presumptive president. Given the party that stands to gain most from this narrative is Tan himself, it is probable that the narrative originated from his proxies or would-be political machine. What of the outrage over Wee Kim Wee being declared as Singapore's first elected president? Tan's single legal challenge may have been an opportunistic leveraging of seeming public anger, but we posit this issue benefits any opposition party in parliament that is courageous enough to raise it for the next 5 years, but isn't in the position to debate about the PAP's compromising of meritocracy and multiracialism.

One may despair at how outside of a rapidly shrinking middle ground, the presidential election was dominated by three intellectually dishonest but politically effective narratives, none of which are likely to have spontaneously emanated from the ground up. A contrarian could argue though that this is part and parcel of a mature democracy: that once a population is educated enough to be politically savvy, various factions within it will wage increasingly effective campaigns.

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