SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The odds are always stacked against opposition candidates in Singapore elections and for Nicole Seah, a political novice contesting in the backyard of a popular former prime minister, they should be overwhelming.
But are they? The winsome 24-year-old is already the city-state’s second-most “liked” politician on Facebook and she enjoys a higher profile than many seasoned campaigners. She has clips on YouTube and is avidly discussed in blogs.
As Singapore gears up for elections on May 7, no one is sure how social media like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter will affect the outcome. What is clear is these outlets are sharply different to the pro-government local newspapers and TV.
“What used to be mere coffee shop talk can now enter the public discourse, for better or worse,” says Cherian George, associate journalism professor at Nanyang Technological University.
“Whether it will have any impact and to whose benefit is anyone’s guess.”
The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore with an iron grip since independence in 1965, usually wins elections by a huge margin. But at the last election in 2006, when it won 82 of 84 seats, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter either did not exist or were in their infancy and confined to the West.
According to the government’s Info-communications Development Authority, 81 percent of Singapore households had access to the Internet at the end of 2009.
Facebook is particularly popular in the wealthy Southeast Asian city-state where there are an estimated 2.5 to 3 million users in a population of 5.1 million, according to industry estimates.
In a recent survey by the Straits Times newspaper, 36.3 percent of people between the ages of 21 and 34 cited the Internet as their top source of local political news compared with 35.3 percent who preferred newspapers.
According to local media, “Generation Y” citizens, or those born after 1975, make up one in four voters. And opposition parties have been quick to take note.
“There is this explosion of new media tools and we have been able to use them effectively to reach out and tell the truth about our party and what we stand for,” Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), told Reuters.
But despite the Internet’s growing reach, Singapore’s newspapers and TV stations continue to command a much wider audience. The Straits Times, for example, has an average daily circulation of 350,000 while the Online Citizen, a popular Singapore news and commentary site, gets around 25,000 hits a day.
Singapore Press Holdings, which has a near-monopoly on newspapers in the city-state, follows a strongly pro-government line. MediaCorp, which runs the TV stations, is a unit of state investor Temasek.
Seah, who set up her Facebook page just a week ago, had already received 22,372 “likes” as at 4 pm on April 26, far more than any Singapore politician other than the country’s senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew.
Still, that may not be enough for her and her alliance from the National Solidarity Party to unseat the team from the PAP led by former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in a five-seat, winner-takes-all constituency.
“Social media has been more useful in forging connections between parties and sympathizers, for example, by helping party members identify people they could engage with in party activities,” said Giorgos Cheliotis, who teaches communications and new media at the National University of Singapore.
“But I do not think that it has much power in swaying public opinion.”
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson