BLOG: Why the Singapore PM needs a Facebook page

Zafar Anjum | April 26, 2012
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong joins social media. It should not be seen just as a rite of passage for a statesman. It is an act of statecraft in the age of “virtual” politics.

When the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong joined Facebook and Twitter last week (Aril 20), it made headlines.

Explaining why he joined the popular social media forums, the Prime Minister said that he had decided to "join the fun" and that he wanted to "use it to talk about some of the things I am doing, and thinking about".  Moreover, he added, I would also like to hear from you.

His second reasoning, that he is using social media to keep both his ears to the virtual ground, needs special attention.

I, for one, support the prime minister's move to join Facebook and Twitter. The only thing I wonder about is why he took so long to embrace social media.

I remember, during the last parliamentary elections in Singapore, most young Singaporeans were using social media (especially Facebook and YouTube) to discuss political issues of the day. I could see people watching campaign videos and posting comments on Facebook pages while travelling on buses and trains.

Clearly, as evidenced during the Arab Spring in the Middle East and elsewhere, social media has become the fifth pillar of democracy. And as a politician and public servant, Mr. Lee has done the right thing by joining this platform to connect with people.

In a culture where "I share, therefore, I am" is the dominant trend, connecting with people online is very important. It is not even a fad, a rite of passage, anymore. It has become de rigueur for anyone wanting a role in the public domain.

And it makes great sense. Just apply Marx's theory of Dialectic Materialism in this case--the linkage between social media and politics. Most of the middle class people (voters) work in virtual environments today. In a technology-dependent society like Singapore, most people use online tools and social media to share work-related as well as personal information. So, when most things for most people (that is, means of production and distribution) have moved online, politics too will move online. That's why Obama had cleverly used social media for his last campaign in the US elections. And it worked beautifully for him.

And perhaps, this is why PM Lee has joined the social media platform too, which is good.

I am sure this will work well for him as well as for the people of Singapore. The fact that his Facebook page received tens of thousands of likes within hours of being launched is a proof of the popularity of his move.

Unfiltered Feedback

Perhaps the best part of a direct media like Facebook is that it will funnel unfiltered feedback to the PM. That is something which is most valuable for both public servants as well as companies. The only difference is that companies call it Big Data.

Why I say this is crucial for the PM can be best illustrated by an example.

In his bestselling business book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins says that one of the secrets of good to great companies (individuals too) is that they confront the brutal facts, yet never lose faith in themselves.

He gives the example of Britain's wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Churchill had a strong and charismatic personality. "Your strength of personality can sow the seeds of problems, when people filter the brutal facts from you. You can overcome the liabilities of having charisma but it does require conscious attention," says Collins.

Churchill, says Collins, understood the liabilities of his strong personalities and he compensated for them brilliantly during the Second World War.

How did he do it?

Even though he maintained a bold and unwavering vision that Britain would not just survive but prevail as a great nation, Churchill did not fail to confront the brutal facts of the war. What were the brutal facts? In its darkest days, nearly all of Europe and North Africa was under Nazi control and United States hoped to stay out of the conflict. Yet he said, "We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime. From this nothing will turn us - nothing. We will never parley, we will never negotiate with Hitler or any of his gang. We shall fight him by land, we shall fight him by sea, we shall fight him in the air, until with God's help we have rid the earth of his shadow and liberated its peoples from his yoke."

Churchill succeeded despite the odds because he did not allow others to filter the brutal facts from him. "So, early in the war," writes Collins, "he created an entirely a separate department outside the normal chain of command, called the Statistical Office, with the principal function of feeding him-continuously updated and completely unfiltered-the most brutal facts of reality."

That is the point. In the changed times, Facebook and Twitter are a means of getting unfiltered feedback from the electorate.

Brutal or not, by joining Facebook and Twitter, PM Lee can confront the facts. He can go to bed peacefully at night, and like Churchill, tell himself, "Facts are better than dreams."

Zafar Anjum is the online editor of MIS Asia, CIO Asia, Computerworld Singapore and Computerworld Malaysia.