In politics this week, a kerfuffle erupted over a video produced by cadres of the People's Action Party's youth wing, Young PAP (YP), who were lampooned for their bad acting.
The four-minute clip about the youth wing's hopes for the PAP and Singapore went viral for all the wrong reasons, and got some quarters drawing conclusions that it was yet another sign that the party was out of touch with voters.
This forced a response from the party, which said in a Facebook post that the "humble, in-house production" in no way detracts from the genuine and sincere work that the youth wing had done on the ground. Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan quipped that "actions speak louder than words" in the PAP.
What happened with the video raises interesting questions about the way politics and political parties present themselves in Singapore today.
In this instance, it seems like style, or the lack of it, can detract from substance in people's evaluation of a party and its members.
First the style: The video was stitched up from a series of short clips filmed by YP members in each district, and featured them mostly standing in groups and reciting lines en masse. In some segments, only one person from the entire group was speaking, while the others stood alongside looking wooden.
Critics online slammed their "robotic" voices, "stiff" poses and stilted delivery of a "prepared script", with many claiming that they could not bear to watch the entire video.
Even PAP members who stood by the video, such as Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, acknowledged it was "raw and unpolished".
But those who got past the bad acting would have heard messages of youth wing members calling
upon their party to "balance economic development without forgetting the soul of the nation", to "distribute resources in a caring manner... for people to cope with living expenses" and to maintain a "good ratio of green lungs" in Singapore.
The youth wing members in East Coast GRC also said they hoped that MPs would be drawn from more diverse groups, "other than lawyers, doctors, military men and civil servants".
Surely some of these messages echo what many Singaporeans who are not PAP members want for the country.
Yet all that was lost on many who watched the video but were more focused on the execution than its content. Worse still, people drew negative inferences about the party as a result.
Some wondered about the competence of the youth wing members, when they could not even produce a "watchable" video.
Others commenting on the "robotic delivery" blamed the party for grooming a whole generation of "followers and not leaders".
It later emerged that the video was meant for internal consumption and was first broadcast at the party's convention in December. But it was uploaded to the party's official YouTube account three weeks ago.
The political culture here, as shaped by the PAP, has long been one that is wary of style trumping substance, and emotion sweeping aside information.
During elections, the PAP had frequently called on people to refrain from passing judgment based on superficial qualities, and to consider instead the merits of the policies a party espouses.
The idea of winning support through image, by appealing to the emotional instead of the rational side of voters, is thought to pose a threat to democratic ideals.
To hedge against this, Singapore has instituted various rules in terms of political films and campaigning. For example, the Films Act bans the making, import, distribution or screening of a "party political film". There is also a cooling-off day before Polling Day, during which political parties are not allowed to campaign, even on social media.
This has led to a rather dour landscape in terms of what political parties can do to get voters interested in them and their policies.
In this case, the Media Development Authority explained that the Young PAP video had passed regulatory muster partly because it did not have animation or dramatic
elements. The subtext is that it was not exciting enough to rouse emotions, but as a result, its message was also lost on many.
More and more, there is an acknowledgement that style and branding do matter in modern politics. That has clearly been the case elsewhere. United States President Barack Obama appears regularly on talk shows where he sings and delivers punchlines all in the name of cultivating an image as an approachable head of state. In the US and since 2012 in Britain too, televised debates are the norm during elections.
This has led to criticism that politics has become a matter of theatrics, with people latching on to sound bites and catchphrases, and watching to see which candidate delivered his or her lines more effectively.
But London School of Economics lecturer Margaret Scammell, an expert in media and political communications, argues that it is important for political parties and candidates to develop a brand too. That is not incongruent with "proper" political discourse, she says. Since reason and emotion are not mutually exclusive, applying brand concepts to politics can bring together the hard and soft dimensions of policy and image, she adds.
In Singapore, recognition has also grown among politicians that sometimes, sincerity and substance alone are not enough. With social media, politicians are gaining more exposure to the public and seeking to cultivate an image.
Some MPs and ministers have become adept. Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng, for example, has the image of being cool and social media savvy, and is popular with the young. Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has also cultivated the image of being an experienced elder statesman.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose Instagram, Facebook and Twitter posts often garner thousands of comments, has built up a more approachable and hip image over the years.
What is clear is, while politics should never be devoid of substance, that does not mean we cannot have more style.
For surely if the YP video had been more dynamic, maybe those who saw it may have been more receptive to its message.
This article was published on May 17 in The Straits Times.
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