Ivangate and the perils of a social media election

Moral of the story: your ghosts will come back to haunt you!

Welcome to another edition of GE20Watch!

As parties gear up for Nomination Day, most of them have fully released their slate of candidates, and laid claim to the constituencies they want to contest in. Parties will now be releasing their manifestos over the next few days.

For some good resources on election analyses and voter education, do check out student-run sites Singapore Votes and CAPE. As this newsletter curates news, it may not have time to go in-depth into explaining electoral mechanisms, so if you are confused about any terms or concepts, those sites are good resources to consult.

Now, moving on to the story of the weekend, there’s only been one big one…

Ivan the Terrible?

One of the PAP’s new candidates, Ivan Lim, has withdrawn his candidacy from the upcoming elections. Lim, a general manager at Keppel Offshore & Marine and who was one of the first candidates unveiled by the PAP, had come under increasingly strong criticism online with respect to his conduct in school, reservist, and at Keppel. One of the most damning ones was from a battalion Regimental Sergeant Major that he worked with during reservist:

Other allegations targeted his ‘elitist’ and ‘condescending’ attitude. These allegations were unusual as they did not appear to be a concerted ‘internet brigade’ effort, coming from real accounts and alluding to specific details that could be verified. Furthermore, they painted a consistent picture of Ivan from different periods of his life. PAP vice-chair Masagos Zulkifli added fuel to the fire by addressing these allegations and saying that the GE was an ‘opportunity’ for candidates to redeem themselves, drawing accusations of hypocrisy that the PAP had not applied similar standards to their rivals such as SDP’s Chee Soon Juan.

On Saturday morning, DPM Heng Swee Keat then said that Lim should come out himself to clarify the allegations made against him, which Lim subsequently did in a press cover note. Lim denied allegations that he was involved in any bribery cases in Brazil, suggested that people can have ‘different perspectives’ of the army incidents, defended his behaviour at Keppel by saying that ‘high standards’ were demanded, and said that he did not recall an incident where he did not smile at his neighbour, but acknowledged that he knew some neighbours better than others. He then said that he would ‘stay the course’ and serve if he was elected.

This statement did not assuage people. For one, it appeared as though he had conveniently skirted over certain aspects of the allegations and not addressed some outright. A petition was soon set up to call for his removal from the elections, while the RSM who spoke out earlier doubled down and said he was willing to reach out to DPM Heng.

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Some defended Lim, comparing his treatment to that of Chan Chun Sing and Tin Pei Ling in 2011:

A video was also released containing testimonials from colleagues who had worked with Lim. However, the feedback was still overwhelmingly negative all over social media. Others pointed out that while Chan and Tin were mocked for their mannerisms, with a dash of sexism for Tin’s case, the allegations against Lim were much more targeted and pointed at a character defect.

Finally, on Saturday night, Lim announced his withdrawal from the election, citing that he did not want the election to be focused on any specific individual and should instead focus on ‘greater issues at stake for our Singaporeans’. He also cited how the controversy had caused pain and stress for his family. PM Lee accepted his decision, and said that ideally there would have been a thorough investigation into such allegations, but the short period of the campaign meant they did not have the time to do so.

(Well, you could have made the campaign period longer)

What does this issue teach us? For one, it’s perhaps the first time the internet has cyberbullied a Singaporean political candidate into submission:

What stood out though, was the volume of criticisms against Lim. Everyone, from opposition to concerned PAP supporters, was at least receptive to the allegations and called for an investigation into his leadership capabilities. It did help that the allegations came from verifiable sources rather than nameless blobs, giving them greater weight. This also hints that the social media will be a formidable battleground for candidates to navigate: instances from your past can and will be shown for the world to see, and for the online mob to judge. You can try to control the narrative, but do it poorly, as Ivan did, and you will be exposed.

On some level, the backlash against Lim also indicates that the electorate is wising up to the mechanisms of the political system. The petition puzzled me at first - why is there a need to urge someone not to run? If they run, just don’t vote for them! However, there were rumours that Lim was going to be fielded in Jurong GRC with the massively popular Senior Minister Tharman, and so Lim would be seen as riding in on Tharman’s coattails. This may have been too much for people to stomach, but it also shows a level of political maturity amongst Singaporeans that they will no longer tolerate subpar candidates freeriding on their more established colleagues in GRCs.

As political scientist Bridget Welsh puts it, Singaporeans are no longer afraid of making their voices heard on social media when it counts:

Thus far, the opposition parties have been circumspect about the whole issue, perhaps leaving Lim’s fate up to the netizens. PSP’s Lee Hsien Yang said that this whole issue signalled that the PAP’s screening process was ‘not as thorough as it can be’, but emphasised both sides needed to be listened to. WP chief Pritam Singh said that there was no ‘failsafe mechanism’ to vet candidates, and did not address Lim specifically but went through WP’s own process of vetting their candidates.

While the use of social media during elections isn’t new, this level of engagement online is somewhat unprecedented. With online comments being given greater weight due to the reduction in physical engagements, and with netizens being much more sharper and social media savvy than in the past (you only have to visit Twitter and Reddit to see what I mean), parties and candidates would do well to have a much sharper social media strategy and marketing outreach.

And of course, be a nice person. Deal with the skeletons in your closet!

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