Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How powerful is the Pen?

Monday, September 19, 2011 will be a very special day for me. It was the day I had the first hand experience of the changing media landscape. At around 1500 on that day I was described by someone as a “Useless blogger with no credibility and not read by anyone.” Half an hour later, I received a sms telling me that I was “Quick to sell people off.” I replied that I would only do so if the price was right or if I was doing a public service at about 1700. Two hours later, the same person sent me a note saying, “I beg off you…” and that was followed by a phone call, imploring me to edit one of my postings because it had just come up on a Google search and he feared his misdeeds would become easily available. I edited the post in return for undertaking that the person in question promised to be become a nice person to his family. However, that really got me thinking about the new communications world that we live in today. Thanks to the internet, information has become readily available. For better or worse, information is so easy to get hold off that professional censors have been on the retreating end of the battle. This has been especially visible in the politics of totalitarian regimes that had a heavy hand in censoring the media. The internet and “smart phones,” have made it easy for people to organise demonstrations efficiently and effectively. One has to look at the General and Presidential Elections of 2011 in Singapore to get an idea of how the internet has been changing politics. Singapore politics is traditionally boring. There are usually so many uncontested seats in a General Election that the ruling party is returned to power before the first vote is cast. Presidential elections are even more predictable – the person that the government praises somehow ends up walking into the Istana without any contest. This time things were different. There was a contest in all but one constituency and the presidential election was won by the ruling party’s preferred candidate but only by the skin of his teeth. A few members of the ruling party, including an independent political analyst have argued that the talk about the internet changing things was pure hype. After all the ruling party did win 81 out of a possible 87 seats in parliament and the preferred candidate did win the Presidential Election. Their argument runs like this – the internet postings gives an impression that Singapore is highly polarised and people are going to vote out the ruling party in a landslide causing a revolution similar to the Arab Spring that ousted long time rulers like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. That didn’t happen and so the argument runs – this proved that the internet chatter is purely hot air for a disgruntled minority. As appealing as this argument might be, it is misleading and dare I say delusional. This argument assumes that the internet is a magic wand that you can wave to make things happen. This attitude is similar to the idea that advertising invents product advantages and the right lawyer can convince judges and juries about things that don’t exist. Bill Burnbach, the legendary founder of DDB once made the point that, “Advertising cannot invent a product advantage that doesn’t exist.” Advertising is a method of communication and not a product advantage. The same is true for the internet. It is a forum for communications and not a magic wand. Singapore’s 2011 elections were like all other elections before it – they were about issues. Votes were won and lost based on how the public viewed certain issues. Generally speaking, life in Singapore remains fairly liveable and a large part is due to good governance. Then, there was the issue of the opposition. While the opposition fielded more attractive candidates than they had before, they remained fragmented and fought for the sake of fighting rather than on forming the next government. These were old fashioned reasons for voting. You have to consider the fact that Singaporeans may not be happy about certain issues and let off steam on the internet – but on the overall scheme of things they want the PAP government – it’s done a fabulous job. I know, I am one of them – I’ve been a critic of certain policies and of the presentation of policies but I believe that this is a government that has generally done what I want it to do. I also voted for Tony Tan because I thought he was the best person for this primarily ceremonial role. I simply didn’t feel angry enough to try to kick the party in the gonads… Effective communications can make the difference between success and failure. It cannot alter ground realities. Like many voters, I know whether my buses run on time and whether my bus ride is going to bankrupt me, regardless of what is being said in the main stream or on the net. What the internet did do in the election was to allow alternative view points and it gives us a different way of communicating. Things were easy in the day when the mainstream media was the only way of getting messages out there. The person who controlled the media could simply pump messages out to the masses who would passively accept them. As the governing party, the PAP has the levers of control of the media, which they used to their advantage. What the internet does is that it allows more voices to have their say. To all intents and purposes, this is the only forum available for opposition politics. Thanks to the internet, the PAP is not the ONLY voice around. Think of Tin Pei Ling who was caught stomping her foot online like a petulant child and posing like a na├»ve girl with her Kate Spade Handbags. In the mainstream media such videos would have been edited out by an editor. Now, people merely upload pictures and videos onto sites like Youtube and hey presto, your worst party pictures are known to the world. On a more serious note, there was the issue of Dr Tony Tan’s son’s lack of national service. This story broke on the internet and the main stream media had to react by giving more coverage to the issue. Simply put, control of the agenda was no longer in the ruling party’s hands. If there was only mainstream media they could talk about all their good deeds and expose the follies of their opponents. Thanks to the internet, they found that their follies being exposed. So how did the internet change things? It gave the opposition a chance to fight back. As a consumer of messages, I heard both arguments and I could make up my mind, which one I liked better. Like it or not, the PAP won because the opposition was merely a better prepared opposition rather than a credible alternative government. The margin of victory is by most standards very respectable and the number of seats held remains commanding. However, much of this has to do with the system of electoral boundaries. If one analyses the results, the PAP is in danger of losing its dominance thanks to the internet. The reason is simple; the PAP is so accustomed to fighting as if it was a gorilla with a baseball bat going into a boxing ring against a Yorkshire terrier that has had three of its hind legs broken and its teeth removed and its been given a lobotomy the night before and being cheered on by the crowd. If you follow this analogy the internet is a magic tool for the Yorkshire terrier. No, it doesn’t give him super strength to take on the gorilla. However, this is the magic tool that allows the terrier to heal his legs so he can run around rather than wait to get beaten up. It is also the tool that puts his teeth back in so that he can nip the gorilla (which won’t hurt initially but if done enough times….) and more importantly it allows the Yorkshire terrier to even the odds by inviting a untold number of Yorkshire terriers into the fray (think of bees – one is small and insignificant – if the swarm comes after you – run). In this round, the gorilla wins because it’s still the biggest animal and the army of Yorkshire terriers hasn’t learnt to fight as a single unit. However, the little nip from the Yorkshire terrier has shocked the living day lights out of the gorilla. Suddenly the gorilla is crying that life is unfair because the Yorkshire terrier isn’t sitting around to clobbered on the head and finds a way of nipping back at the gorilla – which if you listen to the comments about how Singapore cannot afford a ‘two-party’ system is precisely what’s happening. In five years time, the Yorkshire terrier and his very large family will learn to work together. Furthermore, this magic tool, which healed the Yorkshire terrier’s wounds, might be able to give the gorilla food poisoning on the day of the fight. Suddenly the odds have shifted in favour of the Yorkshire terrier. The good news for the gorilla is that the same magic tool that has helped the Yorkshire terrier can also help the gorilla. How? This has to do with the fact that the internet is an active form of communication. It is two parties talking to each other and not one party giving dictation to another. This was precisely where the PAP failed. Look at the way the Prime Minister was left apologising for mistakes a few days before polling day. Look at the way the Prime Minister devoted one day of an election campaign to address concerns of the people on the net only a few days before. He looked miserable – in short, he was the gorilla with a club getting the shock of his life because the Yorkshire terrier didn’t wait to get clobbered and actually nipped back and the crowd cheered for the Yorkshire terrier instead. The internet is not going to magic away certain ground realities which have thus far been in favour of the ruling party or if you like, the gorilla with a club. However, the rules are changing to neutralise the advantages of the gorilla. The Yorkshire terriers suddenly realise they can hurt the gorilla and the idea that they can take down the gorilla has entered their heads. It’s up to the gorilla to realise that the rules have changed and his game plan must follow suite.

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