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Saturday March 7, 2009

Engaging the young and restless on their virtual turf

Although the government was the prime mover in shaping a Net-savvy citizenry, it is only now thinking of making its first move into Internet politics.

CLEARLY conceding that Singapore’s new generation has moved away from its old media strategy, the government now wants to make its first move into Internet politics.

Until now, it has enthusiastically embraced the digital revolution for economic development, but shunned – and even rubbished – it as a political platform.

This may soon change.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview that his government would actively engage and leverage the new media in the next election, due in 2012.

It could lead to the gradual dismantling of long-standing media policies instituted by his father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, since independence.

No one expects that his People’s Action Party (PAP) will resort to the liberal, free-swinging politics associated with many websites.

It will likely be a gingerly entry, a cautious use of the Net to engage in political issues with the rising number of web-savvy citizens. The bigger impact will come years later.

According to the Prime Minister, the authorities have already built up some capabilities.

“(It) is the way the new generation operates. It is going to happen in politics, too,” he said with some caution. “We are still learning. It is not easy to make this transition.

“It is like going from sea to land or vice versa.

“You are changing your medium and you need to get comfortable with it. And we are working hard at it.”

Several years ago, the then group editor of The Straits Times, Cheong Yip Seng, expressed concern at the number of young people who have stopped reading newspapers.

His paper went online and multimedia, and now operates one of the most read forums.

For many years, the Internet has been rapidly gaining popularity among young Singaporeans and has been responsible for much of Singapore’s progress.

It has also become the main channel for public discussions on politics and current affairs.

Who are the participants? More than 80% are young, anonymous and anti-government.

The government’s political absence has effectively isolated it from the young population, leading one commentator to observe: “The PAP is losing this important war by default.”

So why is it acting now? There are two reasons.

First is the changing generation of Singaporeans and, second, the PAP has seen how effective the new technology was in helping the opposition in last year’s US and Malaysian elections.

Prominent blogger Gerald Giam believes that until now the PAP did not see a need to use the Internet because it had firm control of newspapers and television.

Ironically, it’s the government which was the main catalyst for a Net-savvy population. For years, it had invested heavily on wiring up the island with broadband cable and educating its youths for the information age.

Singapore has more than 100,000 Internet users. Some 70% of homes have accounts, with 4.11 million people – or 99% of the population – being able to gain access anywhere in the city.

At last count, some 64% of the 15-19 age group are on the web, blogging or podcasting, operating some 120,000 blogs.

The younger ones (between 10 years and 15 years) are more avid users, with nine in 10 going online.

Among adults aged 20 to 24, just under half (46% ), do so, while 18% of the 39-49 age group are bloggers. It’s been a tremendous transformation.

PM Lee, however, injected a reality, too. “There is still a place for traditional media to be the trusted source of information,” he said.

Since independence, his father had relied on newspapers and television to maintain the PAP’s hold on the populace. They’re used to disseminate and explain government policies in a positive way.

Having their role eroded could result in a loss of political leverage, hence the decision to move online. But this has long-term implications.

The Internet is just another means of communication, faster and more effective, but nothing more.

Merely using it to transmit the same message, especially if delivered by dull bureaucrats in officialese, will not win young readers.

It needs articulate skills that few Singaporean leaders (unlike Lee Kuan Yew and his past cohort) and civil servants have.

In his interview, PM Lee apparently realised it. Moving forward, he said, what is needed are young MPs who are comfortable with the new media landscape.

A future requirement for politics will not only be a bright mind, but communication skills capable of winning over young voters, something not many in the PAP adequately possess.

Many of the leaders today are scholars – untested politicians or untrained communicators – who have had successful careers in the professions, business, the civil service and military.

Debating ability or tech-knowhow was never a PAP entry requirement for MPs.

But the ruling party is rich, efficient, and has tremendous resources. Despite rising public unhappiness, the perception of the majority is that the country is well run.

The online decision to fight the next election will have a positive impact for it, however slight.

If the message – as well as the mode of delivery – can be changed to move closer to young Singaporeans, it can continue in power for a long time, some analysts believe.

Reason – the youths, including the angry ones, are generally serious and rational about the country if injected with a sense of real participation.

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