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For some, a general election without real rallies is missing something

Some contenders lament the absence of an "electrifying atmosphere" and a platform to bring Singaporeans from all walks of life together. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (above) speaking at a rally in the 2015 election.

It is especially felt by the opposition parties, which traditionally have used rallies heavily to reach out to the crowd. WP's Low Thia Khiang (above) speaking at a rally in the 2015 election.


OPEN fields awash with props of all shapes and colours, whistles and catcalls amping up the atmosphere, and a captive audience all fired up - these are the stuff of physical rallies, which have been a mainstay of hustings for Singapore's parliamentary elections until the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

This year, the colourful fanfare have been replaced by pre-recorded broadcasts and online rallies. Social distancing restrictions have also pushed political parties and candidates to up their social media game. While some among them appreciate the virtual forms of outreach, some contenders The Business Times spoke to still lament the absence of an "electrifying atmosphere" and a platform to bring Singaporeans from all walks of life together.

It's especially felt by the opposition parties, which traditionally have used rallies heavily to reach out to the crowd. Workers' Party chairperson Sylvia Lim said that Singaporeans have told her they find this general election "eerily quiet".

"The atmosphere of rallies can be electrifying. It is also a meeting point for Singaporeans from all walks of life to talk among themselves in the crowd about what kind of Singapore they want; this is a rare occasion for such interaction across social classes," she told BT.

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Ms Lim contested in the past three elections and most recently served as Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC.

A digital-first rally has brought her party back to the drawing board, she acknowledged, pushing them to be creative in engaging with social media.

The party released a video featuring its candidates and campaign slogan on June 24. In less than a day, it was viewed over 250,000 times and shared over 3,000 times.

It is a resources game at the end of it all, she said. Still, she is concerned that those among the electorate who are less digitally connected may feel "marginalised" in the campaign.

Hazel Poa, assistant treasurer of the Progress Singapore Party, shared a similar concern.

To that end, PSP candidates have been spending as much time as they can on the ground and knocking on doors in constituencies they are contesting in, said Ms Poa, who is part of the party's West Coast team led by former People Action Party (PAP) MP Tan Cheng Bock.

Ms Poa, who was once secretary-general of the National Solidarity Party, also compared the three minutes each candidate is allocated for the televised constituency broadcasts in this year's campaigns, compared to physical rallies, which are typically allocated to parties in three-hour blocks. While the e-rallies go on longer, non-digital natives are left out.

She added: "In a physical rally, we can see, hear and feel the response of the audience as we are speaking. We get instant feedback on how our messages resonate with them. In broadcast and e-rallies, the communication is only one-way."

Citing the example of watching a football match at home versus at the stadium, she said: "The atmosphere and the emotions of the participants fuelling one another, that sense of participating together and the resulting community bonding is missing (this year)."

Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) chairman Desmond Lim, who ran in the past four elections under the banners of the Singapore People's Party, then SDA, said the lack of financial resources is a challenge for his party. "Thus we will naturally not have the deep pockets to go toe-to-toe with them."

Mr Lim is leading a team to contest Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, which will see a three-cornered fight with a PAP team led by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, and new opposition party Peoples Voice.

Singapore Democratic Party chairman Paul Tambyah, who is contesting in Bukit Panjang SMC, said: "It deprives us of the opportunity of getting up close and personal with large numbers of residents, takes away our chance to sell merchandise in person and also prevents us from responding in real time to the accusations of the ruling party."

Candidates from the PAP are more sanguine. Tan Chuan-Jin, who served as Speaker of Parliament before the House was dissolved, differed with Ms Poa and considers communication over social media and e-rallies more dialogic.

"Physical rallies are more of a monologue, whereas on social media, you can have a chat with people, which adds a different dimension to the conversation," said Mr Tan, who is contesting in Marine Parade GRC, where he has served as MP since 2011.

"These are also all-weather, and to some extent more accessible because people don't have to put in effort to travel. You just log in and that's it."

He added that he had opted not to hold a rally in the 2015 elections as he wanted to make use of other ways of outreach.

Zaqy Mohamad, PAP candidate for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, also felt that online campaigning offers greater flexibility in reaching out to voters.

Both Mr Zaqy and Mr Tan acknowledged, however, that the atmosphere at physical rallies cannot be duplicated in a virtual, mediated space.

"You have the crowd there and everyone is full of emotion when you talk about certain themes. That atmosphere you can't replace, honestly," said Mr Zaqy.

This loss is felt on the ground, too.

Social welfare researcher Kwan Jin Yao, who started a podcast tracking the nine days of campaigning, said the lack of rallies would affect more the opposition parties, which have traditionally depended on this platform to reach a wide audience and gain support in a short period of time. "It has always been difficult for the opposition, but rallies were a special, vibrant feature...they brought Singaporeans from all over the country to a single spot at the CBD (Central Business District), an open field, or a stadium," said Mr Kwan.

"In the past we would see Facebook and Twitter pages as well as mainstream newspapers flooded with content from the many rallies. Yet now, we're all just talking about the same issues. Issues like the ones we heard at the broadcasts," he said, describing the broadcasts as "frustratingly bland".

Auditor Ong Yi Qin, who frequented rallies with a group of friends, said: "The whole atmosphere is very special, and it's nice to see Singaporeans coming together to support something they are passionate about. It's different when you watch alone at home."

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