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Yes, we (look like we) can

Yes, we (look like we) can

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Will the image of a Singapore politician change in the next General Elections?

By Justin Zhuang

A WEEK after a bear was sighted at Ulu Pandan, another bear was out on the loose at Bukit Panjang. This time around, no one panicked when they saw it – some stopped to take pictures, while children even went up to touch this brown bear.

Unlike the earlier sighting that turned out to be a publicity stunt for Philips Electronics gone wrong, this one got the right attention and seemingly done the impossible: getting Singaporeans to openly embrace the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) – in the form of their new mascot, Danny the Democracy Bear.

Photos: SINGAPORE DEMOCRATIC PARTY

Two years ago, in the place of Danny would have been the political party’s secretary-general Dr Chee Soon Juan, who instead of wearing a cute red t-shirt printed with ‘I ♥ SDP’ would have had one hand painted in angst with ‘Democracy Now’.

But like the Ulu Pandan ‘bear sighting’, this old image of SDP only attracted the attention of the authorities to hunt them down, and made Singaporeans hysterical.

Danny the mascot marks a change in strategy for SDP.

Once notorious in the eyes of the public for being a nuisance through its campaign of civil disobedience in the last decade, it seems the SDP now wants to win over the electorate by replacing its fiery brand of politics with something more friendly and fuzzy instead.

Such ‘branding’ of politics is hardly a recent phenomenon, but it’s something less talked about in public as most politician would rather stick to their policies and programs.

In the 2008 US presidential elections, however, it came to the forefront with Barack Obama’s successful campaign that showed how branding, graphic design, and popular culture could propel a relative newcomer like him to victory.

Since then, much has been written about how Obama successfully cultivated his branding and projecting an image down to the right font that sold himself to becoming the President of America.

In Singapore, the tight laws and regulations governing political expression have restricted the marketing efforts of political parties, which have been rudimentary at best.

One of the most successful ones is the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) white-on-white uniform that became iconic when a recent history book about the party was titled, “Men In White”.

Men in White, 1988. Picture: NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF SINGAPORE

This uniform with a party pin instantly bestows any wearer the status of a PAP member and its associated symbols of purity and integrity. In recent years, other parties have also put in similar efforts to cloth themselves in their party brand.

The Workers’ Party (WP) goes with light blue shirts in line with its history of standing up for blue-collared workers, while members of one of the newest parties, The Reform Party, are often seen wearing yellow shirts.

Other efforts to brand a party have turned up in pins, newsletters and posters, though its quality varies vastly.

For instance, when one looks through the archival collection of election posters over the last four decades, one can see why the PAP has been so successful in elections.

Most parties have been contented with plastering their posters with their candidate’s photo and name, the party’s logo and name (often in all four official languages), and even a plea to ‘Vote for…’.

People's Action Party, 1980. Pictures: NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF SINGAPORE

Worker's Party, 1980.

In contrast, the PAP’s posters look disciplined, clear, and distinct. The party has also consciously designed its campaign posters, juxtaposing images and text to visually communicate its slogan and messages.

One reason for such professionally designed materials is probably how much resources the PAP has access to, although one also has to take into account that election rules limit the budget for each candidate.

PAP, 1980.

PAP, 2006

PAP, 1988. Pictures: NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF SINGAPORE

But, of course, a poster alone cannot win you an election. If it did, the 1980s election posters of then WP’s J.B. Jeyaretnam were not deserving graphically to break the PAP’s monopoly of Parliament.

Neither were the SDP’s posters of 1991; the year when the party helped the opposition win the most number of seats since 1963. It wasn’t visually attractive materials that helped these two politicians win a seat in Parliament, but it certainly mattered how the public saw them.

The late Jeyaretnam with his fiery rhetoric was seen by many as a symbol of the ordinary man’s rage against the PAP machine, winning him two successful election victories.

A much more lasting image appeared in the 1991 elections in the form of then SDP’s secretary-general Chiam See Tong.

His party won three seats that year as Chiam had successfully sold himself in the previous elections and won it for the first time. His character and style showed how politics could be quiet and gentle, in contrast to the fiery battles between Jeyaretnam and PAP’s Lee Kuan Yew, winning over a new generation of voters.

SDP, 1984. Picture: NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF SINGAPORE.

This heralded the arrival of the new image of a Singapore politician, including the likes of WP’s Low Thia Khiang and PAP’s new leader Goh Chok Tong.

In the 1991 elections, Goh tried unsuccessfully to re-brand the party, promising a ‘open and consultative style of government’, but they still lost an unprecedented number of seats.

Perhaps, the no-nonsense politics of Goh’s predecessor was still synonymous with the PAP in the voters’ eyes. Proof that this new image of the Singapore politician was established can be seen in the fortunes of SDP since the 1997 elections.

By then, Chiam had left the party after falling out with his protege, Dr Chee. While Chiam went on to start the Singapore Peoples’ Party and continued his reign in Potong Pasir in the last decade, SDP went down the route of civil disobedience under Chee and has yet to receive popular support.

But it can be argued that the SDP has been the most innovative political party under Dr Chee. Beside cuddly bears and demonstrations, it was the first party to put up Internet podcasts before it was found to contravene elections rules. Now it publishes regularly on its website, Facebook and even produce its own videos.

The SDP has successfully caught the attention of the public, but translating it into votes and projecting the ‘right’ image of itself has been more difficult.

So what will be the image of a winning politician in the next general elections? With a Singapore electorate that is more cosmopolitan and sophisticated, it is no longer enough for a party to do nothing to take care of its ‘image’ but to build upon it.

As compared to Obama’s campaign, the political parties in Singapore have taken a very conservative view of branding and marketing themselves, if they even bothered at all.

They’ve stuck to the politics and kept it straight, and perhaps rightly so. After the 2006 elections, the PAP tried to engage the new generation of voters with its ‘P65’ Members of Parliament.

Born after independence, this new slate of MPs were supposed to be cooler, and they tried to hip-hop and blog their way to the hearts of Singaporean youths. Probably because it was an establishment project, it was an ‘epic fail’. The P65 blog has since been revamped and the P65 tag is less used now.

So will SDP and its Danny the Democracy Bear tank too? Will the electorate see it as a gimmick and even a joke? And can the image of a raging Dr Chee ever be replaced by a fuzzy bear?

Photo: M LEE

After the last two decades, the quiet and gentle politician may no longer be enough to engage an increasingly apathetic electorate.

Obama’s win has shown that a new generation is waiting to be roused, entertained, and even educated – if you’ve got the style. This is something that is missing in our politics here today.

It’s no longer just about substance, but in our image world today, you have to look like you have it too.

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