The most popular Singaporean public figure on Facebook is not a pop star, actress or athlete.
Nicole Seah (佘雪玲), 24, who lost as an opposition candidate in Saturday’s election, had close to 97,000 “likes” on her public Facebook page on Tuesday, overtaking a page set up by supporters of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), 87.
Seah, who is back at her day job in advertising, generated a wave of support with her photogenic looks and passionate appeals to help poor Singaporeans left behind by the city-state’s rapid economic progress.
The neophyte’s rise into an instant icon among young Singaporeans underscored the dramatic emergence of social media in a society in transition from strict political control to a more open democracy.
The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has been in power for 52 years, was stunned when its share of the vote fell to an all-time low of 60 percent, even though a bloc-voting scheme limited the opposition to six seats out of 87.
“Online media has definitely been a game-changer in that it allows for the democratization of all voices,” said Kelly Choo, co-founder of online business intelligence firm Brandtology. “If all voters are only made up of people expressing their opinions online, then the opposition seems to be in a better position.”
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍), the son of Lee Kuan Yew, couldn’t agree more, acknowledging the impact of social media on the results and describing the election as a “distinct shift in our political landscape.”
The PAP had long relied on pro-government media, such as newspaper group Singapore Press Holdings and broadcaster MediaCorp, during election campaigns.
It quickly found itself swamped by critics on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Web portals as technology and demographics conspired to undermine the PAP’s domination of the political debate in the traditional media.
Official statistics show that nearly 30 percent of Singapore’s 3.77 million citizens and permanent residents are between 15 and 34, a generation that relies heavily on the Web and mobile phones for information and social networking.
Alternative news site The Online Citizen saw its unique daily visitors spike to 100,000 in the week leading up to polling day, more than three times its regular audience of 20,000 to 30,000, editor-in-chief Choo Zhengxi said.
MSN said page views on the news section of its Singapore Web site xinmsn hit 2.87 million in the same week — more than 10 times its viewership a year ago.
Another extremely busy site was Yahoo Singapore, which said “Nicole Seah” was one of its most heavily searched keywords after she emerged as an opposition candidate late last month.
Even the Straits Times newspaper, long seen as a PAP mouthpiece, benefited from the shift to the Web, declaring 6.5 million hits on its Web site on election night.
“The Internet has played a very prominent role in terms of enabling the various parties, especially opposition parties, to reach out to voters,” said Eugene Tan, an assistant law professor at Singapore Management University who tracks local politics.
The ruling party made an attempt to tap into social media in the final days of the campaign.
The prime minister hosted an hour-long Facebook chat, but was swamped by 5,000 postings, leaving him unable to catch up with the torrent of questions, comments, praise and insults from the public.