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A masterclass in communication

The 2015 General Election has been a lesson for those who believe in the power of communication and brand strategy.
Wednesday, September 16, 2015 - 05:50
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Last week, Singaporeans enjoyed front-row seats to the "heat and clash" of politics, a phrase which founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew once used to describe Singapore's desire for political competition.

IN THE new normal of personality politics, 2015 General Election (GE2015) was a lesson for those who believe in the power of communication and brand strategy, and those who take the concept of unpolished, authentic leadership all too literally. Last week, Singaporeans enjoyed front-row seats to the "heat and clash" of politics, a phrase which founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew once used to describe Singapore's desire for political competition. In GE2015, the People's Action Party (PAP) saw an almost 10 percentage-point surge in votes, retained Potong Pasir and wrested Punggol East from the Workers' Party (WP). The Opposition, on the other hand, were - in the words of political pundits - "shell-shocked".

The case for storytelling for brands and organisations is well established. At the crux of a great story lies a narrative which is both compelling and consistent. I shall venture to explain three key factors in communication (among others) that contributed to the PAP's win.

MASTERFUL COMMUNICATION

PAP's manifesto - themed "With you, for you, for Singapore" - was a carefully architected platform that leveraged the mood of the day: the electorate's desire for consultative, servant leadership; confidence in the PAP's track record of more than 50 years; and a keen sense of consciousness of the socio-political uncertainties in the region.

From the onset, PAP established itself as an underdog, a position that the Opposition had embraced in GE2011. The party demonstrated how much it listened, acted on feedback and asserted that despite doing so, there was more to be done. It was a message that appealed not only to PAP supporters, but also struck a conciliatory tone to fence-sitters. On the contrary, the Opposition had decided early on to take its people's movement further by contesting all 89 constituencies. So confident that they had the mandate to take down the PAP, supporters even went so far as to jeer PAP candidates at the nomination centres.

The first phase of GE2015 saw the opposition parties put forth policy alternatives while hammering away at the Establishment with critiques on the cost of living, the country's wealth gap and foreign immigrant inflow. To these attacks, there was no immediate response from the PAP. It was only after the party had entrenched itself as a servant leader did the PAP up the ante at the mid-way mark of GE2015. As a curtain raiser for what was to come, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, anchor minister for Jurong Group Representative Constituency (GRC), launched a point-by-point rebuttal to the Opposition's policy alternatives. The next day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong led the party into high gear with his milestone rally at noon, followed by precision strikes from PAP big guns in the evening.

Resembling a military campaign, the PAP government blanketed national sentiment with air-cover, "With you, for you, for Singapore". The country remained receptive to such a manifesto as it embraced Singapore's achievements and promise early on during the Golden Jubilee celebrations. There were boots on the ground during the campaign period with the slog and sprints from house-to-house visits; and finally, there was a responsive team of social media guerrillas - which was practically non-existent in GE2011. In 2011, WP online activists - dubbed "Internet Brigades" - cemented the impression of a people's movement towards a "First World Parliament" by amplifying the massive attendance at rally sites, and launching successive online attacks on the moral legitimacy of the ruling party by hitting out at selected PAP candidates. One would remember how Member of Parliament for Marine Parade GRC, Tin Pei Ling, experienced vitriol online. In short, the absence of a coordinated chorus online to fend off mud-slinging was disastrous for the PAP.

DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT VOTES

A second factor that could have contributed to PAP's win was the astute way in which it harnessed its portfolio of brand personas in the party. Not to be bogged down by tactical pot-shots, PM Lee focused on laying out a compelling vision for Singapore as the country charted towards a more uncertain future, while calling for a strong mandate to form the fourth generation leadership team.

From the mismanagement of the Aljunied Hougang Punggol-East Town Council (AHPETC), to the ouster of Chiam See Tong by Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan, anchor ministers for Nee Soon and Holland Bukit Timah, K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan, led the offensives against the Opposition's seeming deficiency in character and accountability. Specific to the contest for Punggol East and Aljunied, PAP focused on the AHPETC issue with Teo Chee Hean, anchor minister for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, and Charles Chong, candidate for Punggol East, leading the charge.

In the battle for the people's minds, DPM Tharman focused on the merits of PAP policies and the flaws of the Opposition's, while Lim Swee Say, anchor minister for East Coast GRC, tackled sensitive topics such as Singapore's foreign immigrant policy. And in the battle for hearts, PAP tasked first-time candidate Sun Xueling, who likened the PAP's relationship with Singapore as a married couple in a 50-year relationship.

By having a set of clearly defined roles for its members, PAP was not only able to rise above the fray, it was also able to respond quickly to opposition attacks without distracting the electorate from the big picture.

OPPOSITION OWN GOALS

A third factor that cost the opposition some votes were some "own goals". At the strategic level, WP did not live up to its vision for a "First World Parliament". WP chairman Sylvia Lim suggested in Parliament that protests be allowed on the streets of Singapore to enable our riot police to "practise". And when questioned by Law Minister K Shanmugam about impropriety in AHPETC, Pritam Singh responded: "Well, minister, if you were my resident, I will answer you."

In another blunder by the Opposition, the people's movement in 2011 had been allowed in 2015 to escalate to one which aimed to displace the government. Much has already been written about how this position was one of misplaced courage that turned a rally cry of hope into one of fear among the electorate.

In closing, GE2015 served as a lesson for those who believe in the power of communication and brand strategy, and those who take the concept of unpolished, authentic leadership all too literally.

When applied correctly, voters were treated to a compelling narrative, a coordinated campaign and a brand portfolio strategy that bolstered their candidate's sense of conviction by clearly amplifying his/her campaign messages. When these best practices were ignored, we saw how a chorus of voices could easily become confusing for the electorate, leading to "own goals" and even the loss of election deposits.

  • The writer leads public and analyst relations in Asia-Pacific for Tableau, an NYSE-listed US data analytics firm, and serves at Singapore Management University's UOB-SMU Asian Enterprise Institute
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