Singapore’s personality politics in the age of Facebook

For political leaders, when done right, social media provides the perfect tool to reach and influence audiences both domestically and abroad. In practical terms, a successful social media operation can help strengthen transparency, authenticity and legitimacy. Social media also provides a channel through which heads of state can bypass the traditional media and present these attributes to their audience free from other people’s agenda.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has proved to be an incredibly skilled operator in the world of digital communications. His page recently passed the one million likes mark – not bad for a country with a population of 5.5m – yet more impressive when viewed through the context of how the page is used: specifically as an online extension of the Prime Minister’s personality.

The mission statement to his page reads: “On this page I talk about the things I’m doing and thinking about, but I would also like to hear from you, about what we can do together for Singapore.” Unlike the majority of political leaders the PM plays an active role in the operation of his channels, with his team suggesting approaches rather than just managing on his behalf.

This position has been cultivated through experiment and feedback. PM Lee is supported by a small team who pass ideas to him around different formats and topics – some serious, and many light-hearted personal ones. This has allowed them to refine their style and approach for their audience, ensuring that even dry topics are presented in ways that the community will best engage with.

A key factor in this approach is PM Lee’s openness to new ideas. One of his most popular posts shared the code for a Sudoku solver he had written which resonated beyond expectations with the tech community. The idea arose from a speech to a group of tech entrepreneurs, where he mentioned that he used to write code in the past. His social media team asked him if he still had his old code and suggested that he publish it.

The lesson here is the way in which the PM has managed to replicate his character, affability and personality through his online proxy. By replicating his public persona as accurately as possible and personally overseeing the channel, his authenticity shines through. Over time, through trial and error, PM Lee and his team have become more comfortable and clearer about their communication strategy. The FB posts give the public an insight into the persona of the PM — open, approachable, a bit of a geek and someone who appreciates the beauty of nature and has a bit of a photographer’s eye. With social media becoming a primary news source for digitally engaged citizens, this allows him to project his personality to a much larger audience than he ever would be able to do offline, spreading his personal brand both at home and abroad.

On a practical level, the engagement that takes place on digital platforms strongly complements face-to-face contact. It not only allows the PM to reach citizens, but gives them a glimpse into what their elected leader is working on and give feedback through their thoughts and opinions. A worthwhile pay-off if it helps residents to feel more empowered in the political process and invested in the state. A popular format on PM Lee’s page is his #facesofsg posts – photos and stories of the people he meets on walks or at events. Coupled with informal sessions where PM Lee is able to meet his fans, his page enables him to bridge the online and offline worlds. Inviting citizens to reflect and contribute on these commonly shared experiences has helped to construct a genuine connection and opportunity for dialogue between citizens and their leader.

Of course, the page is more than just a way to humanise the Prime Minister, it is a multi-purpose political tool that allows him to communicate domestic and foreign policy, support diplomatic efforts and advocate for Singapore around the world. For example during a dry spell this year, the water level in Malaysia’s Linggiu Reservoir, which supplies half of Singapore’s water needs, fell to its lowest level ever. Raising the issue on his page, PM Lee asked Singaporeans to conserve water and explained what Singapore was doing to diversify its water sources.

When PM Lee invited Indonesian President Joko Widodo to breakfast at the Istana (the official residence and office of the President of Singapore), he posted a photo of them having nasi lemak (a Malay dish of rice cooked in coconut milk). They were in formal surroundings, but eating street food from a very popular hawker stall. The post worked well not only because of the passion for food that Singaporeans and Indonesians share, but also because it showed the comfort level between the two leaders.

It is with a clear strategic framework that social media works best. Digital diplomacy can often become lost, with no clear idea of what it is being used for, without a defined set of goals that support wider policy objectives. PM Lee’s approach combines the strength of his personal brand, with a clear vision for how it can support foreign and domestic goals, an approach that is clearly working given the fast growth and positive engagement seen for the page.

Singapore jumped two places in this year’s index, unsurprising for a country that has placed a renewed emphasis on establishing itself as more than just an economic destination through greater global engagement. With its leader’s efforts clearly geared towards helping achieve that goal, Singapore has a great chance of rising even higher in years to come.

Max Kellett

Account Manger