Friday, November 7, 2008

Obama's win: Lessons for local politics

Nov 7, 2008

The election of Barack Obama as 44th president of the United States captured Singaporeans' attention more than that of any other US president. Does the event hold lessons for local politics? Insight reports.

By Clarissa Oon

Does style matter?

AS AN impassioned yet steady political communicator who inspired voters with his message of change for America, United States President-elect Barack Obama has captured the imaginations of many around the world, including Singaporeans.

However, any impact of his rallying style and heart-racing oratory on Singapore's political culture will not be felt any time soon, say political analysts.

This is because Singaporean voters have come to accept the prevailing mode of political messaging here. It tends to appeal to facts and figures rather than emotions, and any 'change talk' stems from pragmatic discourse rather than a unique personal vision.

'While Singaporeans cheer and dream along with Americans as global citizens, when it comes to local politicians, they just want them to make sure the street lights work in the evening and there are jobs in the morning,' says Dr Terence Chong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

'They accept that Singapore leaders don't do inspiration, they do competence and reliability,' he adds.

Much of this goes back to the different political systems and how leaders are selected and groomed in completely different ways.

The US system favours eloquent politicians who can connect with the ground. Its bottom-up, campaign-intensive system allowed Mr Obama, a one-term Illinois senator, to rise to the presidency after over a year of convincing his party and then voters across the nation that he was right for the job.

This contrasts with the People's Action Party's (PAP) top-down, meticulous screening of candidates before putting them up for election. Any subsequent rise through the ranks of government involves proving themselves at managing various ministries. This tilts the balance towards technocrats and administrators rather than communicators.

Still, there are those who believe that it is circumstances which throw up the type of leader a people need.

Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore notes that beginning with former prime minister and now Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, political 'mobilisers' have always been around in the PAP. Only in post-independence Singapore has a more bureaucratic, less-talk-and-more-action form of leadership held sway.

'In Singapore, we need the great communicators too. One cannot always bank on the party's success or economic growth. The younger generation is actually crying out for mobilisers,' he argues.

He believes that it is 'only a matter of time' before the 'political mobilisers' will re-emerge, be they from the PAP or the opposition. These are men and women who are able to 'carry the message to voters'.

In general, the PAP has been distrustful of touchy-feely speech-making and political theatrics, analysts say.

Mr Lee set the tone with a conversational, slightly bellicose style that 'appealed to the head - and dragged the heart along by convincing the head', as Straits Times Review editor Janadas Devan put it in a recent column.

Any 'change talk', such as the Remaking Singapore exercises earlier in this decade, is usually framed as 'precipitated from the outside, that this is the way the world is, we need to catch up or we are in trouble', says Dr Gillian Koh of the Institute of Policy Studies.

The rhetoric in that exercise was part of a larger national 'discourse on pragmatism and vulnerability'. 'It's primarily about not wanting to be left out in the race, adjusting to trends and they avoid the 'grand vision' type of language. Obama does both, addressing an America in crisis,' she adds.

In recent years, analysts have noted some attempts to soften that mode of communication. Some examples: former PM and now Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's use of personal stories, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong incorporating use of multimedia in his National Day Rally speeches.

However, they doubt that PAP politicians will go much further than that as it is just not the party's style. Worse, there is a fear that it may come across as 'gimmicky or insincere' and breed cynicism, says Dr Chong.

It would take a new baptism of fire, such as the current financial disaster facing the US, for an inspirational orator in the mould of Mr Obama to emerge here and be embraced.

'The notion of Obama will be at the back of people's minds, especially the younger generation. If someone screws up the system, then an Obama figure who personifies hope and inspiration will emerge somehow,' Prof Singh believes.

[Yes. It would take the PAP to screw up royally that a "messiah" promising change would grab the ears and hearts of the Singapore Voters. Obama did not win the election. Bush lost it for the Republicans. Yes, because Obama was charismatic he won over a large number of voters. But Hilary would also have won. The Democrats won because the Republicans under Bush screwed up royally for the last 8 years. McCain was an unfortunate candidate. He lost not because he would make a bad leader, but simply because he was hitched to the Bush presidency and legacy. Such is the case with a 2-party system. The pendulum swings back.]

Does youth matter?

By Kor Kian Beng

YOUNG Americans helped Senator Barack Obama clinch victory in the American presidential election.

According to polls, 66 per cent of those aged 18 to 29 backed the 47-year-old Democratic candidate over his 72-year-old Republican rival John McCain.

In contrast, 54 per cent of Americans aged above 65 preferred Mr McCain, finding appeal in his emphasis on health care and lower taxes.

The war veteran's years of political experience were also a key factor.

The age divide in the United States triggers questions for Singapore, where there appears to be huge support among the youth for President-elect Obama.

A Straits Times poll of 110 undergraduates last month showed that 90 per cent of them supported Mr Obama, compared to only 5.5 per cent for Mr McCain. The rest were undecided.

If the presidential election had been fought out here, would we see similar voting trends as in the US?

The answer is not clear-cut, say political observers.

They believe that while age is important, there are also other factors that Singaporeans bear in mind.

Mr Eugene Tan, a law lecturer at the Singapore Management University (SMU), says age doesn't matter to Singaporeans, as long as it doesn't impede the candidate's ability to do the job well.

What matters more is the candidate's track record.

'If you put Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in a single-seat ward, no one is going to begrudge the fact that he is 85 years old.

'Singaporeans are discerning. They're looking for substance in the candidates,' he says.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin points to another factor Singaporeans value: the ability to implement.

Describing Singaporeans as a pragmatic lot, he says: 'One thing that sets Singapore apart from other countries is that we have been better able to implement our ideas.

'So, for Singaporeans, it's not enough to just have good ideas and be able to communicate them well, the candidate must also be seen to have the ability to implement them.'

Age is a factor that can cut both ways. It has different advantages among different groups of voters.

Says the businessman: 'A younger candidate might be able to resonate better with younger voters, while an older one is seen to have the ability to understand the past and the vulnerabilities of older Singaporeans.'

Singaporeans who spoke to Insight say that age counts for little in their considerations.

Mr Derek Tang, 31, says he believes Mr McCain's defeat was partly caused by his poor judgment in picking Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate.

Mr Obama, on the other hand, showed astute judgment in picking the right people to run a well-organised campaign for him.

Says Mr Tang, a graphic designer: 'This shows that age doesn't guarantee good judgment or a good job.'

Housewife Koh Ah Lian, 57, says she also has no qualms about picking a younger candidate over an older one.

She says: 'Age is not important. It is more crucial that the person is able to lead the country and do the job well.'

To political observers, however, age can matter in one particular situation: if the electorate is dissatisfied with the status quo.

Mr Zulkifli says: 'Americans were desperate for change. They were upset with the Bush administration.'

This was why they flocked to Mr Obama, who has promised a change from the current administration.

SMU's Mr Tan believes that the US presidential election has sent a clear message to the ruling People's Action Party and the opposition parties about the need to adjust constantly as the electorate profile here changes.

More than half of the voters at Singapore's next general election, which is due by 2011, will be those born after 1965.

This explains why the PAP has placed much emphasis on its crop of post-65 parliamentarians.

Says Mr Tan: 'A good mix of candidates from different age groups will help the parties reach out better to different segments of the electorate.'

[The young voters will be a more difficult electorate to capture. Young Candidates in and of themselves may not connect. Youth is also relative. A 40 yr old candidate is young, but to a 22-yr-old voter, he is still "old". A 40-yr-old and a 22-yr-old may not have the same concerns, may not be in the same life phase. What is necessary is for the candidate to show that he is aware of and will lobby for the interests of the young voters. That will connect them with the voters.]

Does the Internet matter?

By Zakir Hussain

THE next election is not due till 2011, and their party is in no risk of losing power.

But some activists with the youth wing of the People's Action Party (PAP), the Young PAP (YP), have been watching Mr Barack Obama's embrace of the Internet to learn how they can use new media to their advantage.

Among them is consultant S. Shaikh Ismail, 29, who signed up to receive e-mail messages from Mr Obama's website several months ago and was struck by the daily stream of information on the campaign and its appeals to supporters.

'The engagement is non-stop. I think that's something we can replicate,' he says.

There is much more they are taking note of.

From the start, the Obama campaign used the Internet to organise itself, not just raising tens of millions of dollars online but jazzing up its websites and cultivating bloggers to get its message across.

It also created its own channels on video-sharing site YouTube, and set up Facebook groups to drum up support for their candidate and discuss his stances.

And when false information about Mr Obama began to spread, the campaign started a website to fight the smears.

But supporters themselves helped correct these smears where they found them, on blogs and via e-mail.

In doing so, they created a formidable network of grassroots volunteers online.

The Internet was in effect the 'central nervous system' of the Obama campaign, according to analyst Julie Germany of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University in the United States. But Associate Professor Ian Gordon, convener of the American Studies programme at the National University of Singapore, says the technology would not have been enough to win without a candidate like Mr Obama.

For one thing, he built up his campaign through old-style groundwork two years ago.

And it was because he had a message of hope that his campaign was able to snowball and reach out to a younger generation more savvy with new media sites like YouTube, Facebook and Flickr.

'They did not just recruit people and get them to blog away, but energised them to actively recruit other friends and do the hard work of knocking on doors and talking to people about the candidate,' Prof Gordon tells Insight.

Mr Obama's supporters also collected mobile phone numbers and sent out SMSes to supporters to remind them to vote. 'We should never forget that he had that grassroots ground team going around, talking to people,' Prof Gordon adds.

In short, to harness the Internet, a campaign needs to also ensure it can net volunteers to work long hours for free.

Can local political parties cross this human hurdle before they get to the technological one?

The Singapore Democratic Party seems the most Internet- savvy. The Workers' Party website is very low-key.

The ruling PAP tries, but has yet to make significant headway.

Its challenge, at a time when younger members have more diverse views and want to be heard, seems to be to get members empowered to do politics on the Internet - the favourite hangout of a younger generation.

Two years ago, the PAP started a quiet campaign to get members to go into Internet forums and blogs to rebut anti-establishment views that are rampant online and make anonymous postings.

The effort has remained just that - quiet - leading some like lawyer Nicholas Lazarus, 36, to worry that anti-establishment views drown out PAP voices online and call on YP members to be more confident to challenge them.

In a blog entry in May, YP member Ephraim Loy, 26, was critical of blogs set up by post-65 MPs and the YP for not being actively updated and for not making the effort to debate issues that matter.

'Some posts are there for the sake of being there,' he wrote. 'If that is the kind of effort that is put in, then I worry for the party in the next elections.'

He tells Insight: 'Online engagement will not be the deciding factor in the next elections, but it will matter a lot more.'

New YP chairman Teo Ser Luck - who like many on his executive committee is already on Facebook - says YP is working out a strategy for extending its new media presence and capabilities.

This includes having a louder voice on current issues, he feels.

The committee, appointed two days before Mr Obama's victory, made a start with a statement on the US elections yesterday.

Mr Obama's victory had a particular resonance with Singaporeans, it said, 'for we are a nation pledged to unity regardless of race, language or religion'.

[Singapore Bloggers are not likely to provide the kind of grassroots support that Obama tech-savvy supporters put up. Firstly, the two-party system in place in the US makes for a equal-confrontational environment, so there there are sufficient bloggers on either side. Secondly, the mainstream media here is seen as too pro-establishment and so blogs emerged or become the de facto alternative viewpoints. A pro-PAP blog would be redundant.]

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