Saturday, October 15, 2011

'Policies are rational but politics is emotional'

From Straits Times, Oct 15, 2011

While in town recently, British politician Peter Mandelson spoke about a party's loss of emotional connection with voters and how that can lead to defeat at the polls. Insight reports on the discussions his comments sparked.

By Andrea Ong

HE WAS a co-architect of Britain's New Labour movement, which swept the party to victory in 1997 and helped it stay in power for 13 years.

But during a recent visit here, Lord Peter Mandelson was more focused on the reasons for Labour's loss at last year's polls.

He identified one crucial factor: emotional connection.

'As a party, we had begun to drift, to misplace our New Labour identity... Finally, we lost what I can best describe as our emotional connection with our voters,' he said.

Lord Mandelson, a former British secretary of state for business and European Union trade commissioner, was in town last month as a Lee Kuan Yew Exchange Fellow.

His words struck a chord with his Singaporean audience.

Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy dean Kishore Mahbubani said the two words to take away from Lord Mandelson's lecture were 'emotional connection'.

Soon after, an extract from Lord Mandelson's speech appeared on the People's Action Party's (PAP) website. It also generated fresh discussion online on the disconnect between the Government and voters.

The challenge of reconnecting with voters is an issue that has been much on the minds of PAP leaders since May, when the party saw its share of the national vote slide to 60.1 per cent - the lowest since Independence in 1965.

At the National Day Rally in August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed that going forward, 'we have to get our politics right as well as our policies right'.

And that means appealing to people's emotions.

'Policies are rational but politics is emotional,' was how Lord Mandelson put it. In politics, people are driven by emotional forces like passion, ambition and ideals, he said.

But after 52 years in power, is the PAP able to summon such emotional force among voters, and to move the people it governs?

Civil servant Jeremy Tay, 26, sums up his feelings towards the PAP in one word: indifference. 'They keep things running. I'm not sure there ever was much emotional connection to begin with,' he says.

For sales executive Cao Wei, 28, who has worked in two foreign multinational companies, it is the issue of foreigners competing with locals for jobs that can spoil the emotional connection.

'At the lower-income levels, you will never be cheap enough to compete with foreigners. At the same time, the top-tier jobs are taken up by expatriates,' he says.

The PAP, he says, should not just stop at explaining the rationale for foreigners' presence. Instead, 'they could show that they are taking people's views into account by having more forums and dialogues'.

The incumbent's dilemma

INCUMBENCY poses several challenges.

Successful parties that have been long in power have to find ways to continuously reconnect and not fall complacent, and that is difficult, Lord Mandelson said in his lecture.

At the same time, they come up against voters' rising expectations.

'People want better and cheaper housing, more subsidies in their lives as the cost of living rises, better urban living, ever-rising quality of public services like education, health, transport,' he tells Insight in an interview.

'These are the right demands for people to have, but you can't always satisfy them in the way and as quickly as people want,' he adds.

Minister of State for Defence and Education Lawrence Wong posted an excerpt of Lord Mandelson's speech on his Facebook page.

Mr Wong agrees that with incumbency comes added burdens, such as having 'to explain what you are doing across the entire front of government, from A to Z, everything that affects people's lives', whereas parties out of government can choose to champion a single cause.

A first-term Member of Parliament, Mr Wong acknowledges that the PAP government has to rethink how it formulates and communicates its policies.

'You need to find some way to not get too embroiled in the details and logic of each individual policy, and be able to put out an overarching message that is compelling,' says Mr Wong, who heads the PAP's publicity and publication sub-committee.

Dr Terence Chong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies says the PAP's relations with Singaporeans are 'transactional' rather than emotional in nature.

'You deliver growth, we remain compliant, things will be fine,' is how he sums it up.

'Perhaps the relationship was characterised by a grudging obedience since the PAP got things right more times than it got things wrong,' he says.

While the Government has a duty to ensure Singapore remains economically competitive, Dr Chong points out that 'it's difficult to build emotional connection by telling citizens that the big bad world will eat you up if you don't buck up'.

Dr Reuben Wong of the National University of Singapore says the PAP also has to contend with its reputation for a 'technocratic scholar-mindset which is increasingly removed from the average Singaporean'.

Voters thus associate the PAP with values like credibility, efficiency and capability - which do not stir the emotions.

'These have positive but very 'cold' associations as they do not relate to how one feels,' says Associate Professor Sharon Ng of the Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) business school.

Prof Ng, who researches on marketing, contrasts that with the 'very hot' topics which the opposition parties spoke out on, relating to people's aspirations and fears. These 'connected with the public on a different level', she says.

Rebranding the PAP?

AFTER the 2006 General Election, the 'post-65' group of first-term MPs tried to appeal to young voters by launching a group blog and performing a hip-hop dance at the Chingay Parade.

But those attempts to popularise the PAP soon fizzled out.

Is the PAP in need of a new branding campaign? After all, politicians in various countries are heading down that path.

British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared on the cover of GQ men's magazine ahead of last year's polls. US President Barack Obama's 'Yes We Can' campaign in 2008 banked on pop culture and online media like YouTube and Facebook.

Most recently, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak embarked on a 'cool campaign' to shore up support for his party ahead of the national polls. Reportedly advised by former New Labour campaign members, he showed up at pop concerts and radio stations, and tweeted about his appearances.

Opinion is divided on whether the PAP should employ such soft marketing tactics.

Dr Reuben Wong believes Singapore politics is becoming Americanised, with television and social media becoming increasingly important platforms.

He cites the recent presidential election, during which all four candidates faced off in three roundtable discussions that were broadcast on traditional and new media.

Others are of the view that political marketing cannot replace substance.

New Labour came to power in 1997 with a savvy 'Cool Britannia' campaign which saw former prime minister Tony Blair being backed by popular bands like Oasis, Blur and Suede, says Dr Terence Chong. 'But they abandoned him when they felt he no longer spoke for them or the working youth,' he notes.

Mr Lawrence Wong is similarly sceptical of branding efforts.'Policies still matter because that's the substance of what the Government does,' says the former career civil servant who entered politics earlier this year.

But the Government can improve on how it communicates and presents these policies, he adds. People have to feel, not just understand rationally, how policies can benefit them.

There is also greater scope for consulting citizens when formulating policies. And when policies are implemented, the Government can afford to be more flexible in how it treats people at the margin, who just miss qualifying for help, Mr Wong says.

Lord Mandelson, labelled 'the Sultan of Spin' by the British press, agrees that emotional connection cannot be forged from political style alone.

'It's to do with truthfulness, authenticity and being consistent with what you think, say and do. It's called leadership,' he says. 'And Singapore continues to have leadership in ways and on a scale that a lot of other countries are denied.'

Ministers and MPs have also been stepping up their use of social media in a bid to engage the public. But the jury is still out on whether such attempts represent real change.

Associate Professor Benjamin Detenber from NTU's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information says it will take time to cultivate a genuine connection and presence online.

'Just having a Facebook page and updating your status does not automatically qualify as connecting,' he notes.

People judge politicians through a whole series of online activities, such as the comments they post and the photos and links they 'like', he adds.

Dr Reuben Wong regards Minister of State for Manpower and National Development Tan Chuan- Jin as 'one of the better ones' among the PAP MPs using social media. But, he notes, Brigadier-General (NS) Tan still steers clear of controversial issues.

Agreeing, Dr Terence Chong argues that engagement is not just about the medium but the message. 'The medium must never become the message. If so, it'll just be the Government giving you the same stock answers, this time in 140 characters or less,' he says, referring to the maximum length for a message on Twitter.

Reconnecting from the ground up

BRANDING aside, the PAP has quietly set itself a bigger goal in connecting with voters.

After the General Election, both the Prime Minister and former foreign minister George Yeo spoke about reform within the party.

PM Lee said at his post-election press conference that the PAP would embark on 'soul-searching' in the months ahead, to find a formula to go forward.

Mr Yeo, who lost his Aljunied GRC seat in the May 7 polls, was more forthcoming.

'I think it should be the revitalisation of a movement, of a movement which, in an earlier phase of great unity, created Singapore and enabled us to make the astonishing progress that we've made.

'What we need to do now is re-achieve a new unity so that in this century, with all the challenges of globalisation and information technology, also fragmentation, we continue to surge ahead. We're smack right in the middle of a region which is bursting with energy. If we get our domestic politics right, we'll have a very bright future,' he had said then.

Dr Reuben Wong says that in order for the PAP to relaunch itself as a mass movement, its members first need to question what the PAP stands for and some underlying assumptions.

For instance, the PAP may have to look beyond its usual pool of civil servants and professionals for candidates.

'The PAP needs to regain street credibility and show they understand how ordinary Singaporeans feel,' he says.

In the meantime, MPs are expanding their outreach efforts. They are employing new platforms, such as townhall meetings and policy dialogues, to engage people whom they have not been as effective in reaching out to in the past.

The party's committee to review its election results has been at work since May but has said little in public about its findings.

Perhaps the party's preferred strategy is to talk less and do more, especially in reaching out to Singaporeans on the ground and beefing up its support at the grassroots.

Mr Lawrence Wong hints at these efforts. He says reconnecting with voters may involve small changes, such as re-timing house visits to suit the schedules of young professionals who work, or organising activities beyond the usual block parties and karaoke sessions.

'It may not make a huge, nice, sexy story, but it's the small things that can help MPs connect emotionally with their residents and present a human face to the party,' he says.

It remains to be seen if the PAP can - as it did in its early years - tap into the spirit of these times and stir hearts to its cause once again.

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