May 21, 2013 00:00 By Achara Deboonme
At 60, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cannot be considered old-looking. At the official launch ceremony of a new building complex in Marina Bay, dressed in a plain black suit, he could easily convince many that he is much younger than 60.
But compared to a few years ago, he has aged quickly. In 2010, he looked much younger when presiding over the completion ceremony of Royal Dutch Shell’s US$3 billion petrochemical complex. That day he wore a shirt without a jacket. Locals agree that he has aged quickly, and one reason could be a loss in a by-election to the opposition Workers’ Party, stemming from rising anger in the wealthy city-state over soaring living costs, reliance on foreign workers and a widening income gap. “The opposition is much stronger, aside from many emerging civic groups,” one local said.
This may explain why LHL, as the premier calls himself on Facebook, for which he has attracted 123,000 “likes”, had to claim some credit for the completion of Marina Bay Financial Centre.
Aside from his speech, he said on his Facebook page: “I felt good to see this project completed. I was involved in its inception in the late-1990s, when I was in MAS [the Monetary Authority of Singapore].” Though the country’s general election is still three years away, it is necessary to seek public support for his People’s Action Party before that.
Stress can wear people out, particularly top leaders who are responsible for short- and long-term policies. Where do they release their tension? Among the options, it shouldn’t be Facebook.
Leaders can’t avoid connecting with the world through Facebook. It’s a space where they release tension. But it can also place another burden on them, when they are required to share something with “stakeholders”.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak does not share his personal feelings. His page, with 1.7 million “likes”, is entirely filled with posts on the political and economic development of Malaysia, more so after the general election this month.
Lee never misses the opportunity to post on special occasions like Mother’s Day or May Day. But he shares other things too. In a message posted on May 17, he shared with his fans a BBC article on local food sold in open-air complexes, so-called “hawker food”. “Like all Singaporeans, my family and I enjoy hawker food – Tiong Bahru tau huay and Zion Road char kuay teow are some of our favourites”, he said.
His style reminds me of Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’ page. With 114,000 “likes” to his page, Thaksin has been extremely active on this network – diligently updating on what he sees in this or that country on a busy travelling itinerary while living in exile.
I liked his posting on May 17 about a signboard in Kempinski Dubai. Erected to block reconstruction works, the signboard said “What you hear are the sounds of change.” It spares hotel guests from annoyance and instead encourages them to anticipate a better future. On May 14, he congratulated fans of Manchester United Football Club on their team winning the English Premier League. His posting on May 17 on government control of central banks is a little bit dry, but effectively and immediately aroused a counter-attack from politician Korn Chatikavanij, who happens to also have lots of free time for Facebook.
Comparatively, the pages of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva are rather dry, containing mostly political activities. You may see some human touches on Yingluck’s page (particularly the Saturday posting of her photo at her niece’s wedding) but there are none on Abhisit’s page, which spooked me by stating “Stop the phony reconciliation”. So, it sounds like he leaves us no room for optimism.
It is not surprising that Yingluck and Abhisit’s pages draw comments mostly from their supporters and some from those who despise them. They are zones where neutral people do not tread. After only five minutes there, you can develop a headache.
It is not surprising either that many Thais see their Facebook pages as personal stages to reveal whatever they like, regardless of the mixture of “friends”. One of my friends posted a message to support a particular party during the Bangkok gubernatorial election. She knew that her message would infuriate some friends, and she said “Unfriend me if you don’t like it.”
When Lee shared the BBC article, one commentator said, “Thanks for sharing”. I guess in Thailand, if Yingluck or Abhisit did the same thing, supporters would cheer them on something related to the article, while their opponents would not hesitate to bury them if they didnn’t like it. No need to look for the simple phrase, “Thank you”.
All politicians seem to live in a very surreal world – a world where joy is not evident. Can laymen like us show them how to enjoy life – by posting pictures of flowers at home or specially cooked meals? We need to do that, with genuine joy. People can age too quickly because of tension.