SINGAPORE: The most popular Singaporean public figure on Facebook is not a pop star, actress or athlete.
Nicole Seah, 24, who lost as an opposition candidate in Saturday’s election, had close to 97,000 “likes” on her public Facebook page on Tuesday, overtaking a page set up by supporters of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, 87.
Seah, who is back at her day job in advertising, generated a wave of support with her photogenic looks and passionate appeals to help poor Singaporeans left behind by the city-state’s rapid economic progress.
The neophyte’s rise into an instant icon among young Singaporeans underscored the dramatic emergence of social media in a society in transition from strict political control to a more open democracy.
The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has been in power for 52 years, was stunned when its share of all votes cast fell to an all-time low of 60 percent even though a bloc-voting scheme limited the opposition to six seats out of 87.
“Online media has definitely been a game-changer in that it allows for the democratisation of all voices,” said Kelly Choo, co-founder of online business intelligence firm Brandtology.
“If all voters are only made up of people expressing their opinions online, then the opposition seems to be in a better position,” he said.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, couldn’t agree more, acknowledging the impact of the social media on the results and describing the election as a “distinct shift in our political landscape”.
The PAP had long relied on pro-government media such as newspaper group Singapore Press Holdings and broadcaster MediaCorp during election campaigns.
It quickly found itself swamped by critics on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and web portals as technology and demographics conspired to undermine PAP domination of the political debate in the traditional media.
Official statistics show that nearly 30 percent of Singapore’s 3.77 million citizens and permanent residents are between 15 and 34, a generation that relies heavily on the web and mobile phones for information and social networking.
Alternative news site The Online Citizen saw its unique daily visitors spike to 100,000 in the week leading up to polling day, more than three times its regular audience of 20,000-30,000, said editor-in-chief Choo Zhengxi.
MSN said page views on the news section of its Singapore website xinmsn hit 2.87 million in the same week — more than 10 times its viewership a year ago.
Another extremely busy site was Yahoo! Singapore, which said “Nicole Seah” was one of its most heavily searched keywords after she emerged as an opposition candidate in late April.
Even the Straits Times newspaper, long seen as a PAP mouthpiece, benefited from the shift to the web, declaring 6.5 million hits on its website on election night.
“The Internet has played a very prominent role in terms of enabling the various parties, especially opposition parties, to reach out to voters,” said Eugene Tan, an assistant law professor at Singapore Management University who tracks local politics.
The ruling party made an attempt to tap into social media in the final days of the campaign.
The prime minister hosted an hour-long Facebook chat but was swamped by 5,000 postings, leaving him unable to catch up with the torrent of questions, comments, praise and insults from the public.
Popular blogger Lee Kin Mun, who runs the satirical site mrbrown.com, said the PAP was not used to the spontaneous, two-way communication in social media.
“They have full control of the media here, so you’ve got mainstream media, papers and TV stations and radio stations toeing the line for you and disseminating your views, your spin to the public,” he told AFP.
“Now you can’t be shielded any more… You tell people to ‘like’ you on your Facebook page, I will ‘like’ just to go in there and say something I don’t like about you,” he added.
Outgoing foreign minister George Yeo, the biggest victim of the opposition surge in the election despite being the most web-savvy cabinet member, said the PAP should transform itself to win back voters.
“It’s not good that so many of them feel alienated from the Singapore they love,” he said in a farewell news conference at the foreign ministry.