The General Election Media Machinery in Motion
Top image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo

By now, most Singaporeans already have some sort of inkling that the general election (GE) is likely to take place sooner rather than later—probably as soon as Q3 2024.

This isn’t the usual conspiracy theorist fare where every single government handout is eyed with suspicion. It’s largely driven by the media machinery that’s already begun churning out election-related content.  

The leadership transition from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, set for May 15th, has only renewed speculation that the next GE is coming soon. In response to media queries, DPM Wong revealed little—only that the party has been consistently preparing for the next election. 

But one doesn’t need to make radical assumptions to surmise we’re on the precipice of election season. We take a closer look at the moves the media has been making from within the industry. 

The Humblecore Pieces

Puff pieces—essentially fluffy, positive content—on local politicians are par for the course year-round. Think unoffensive Ask Me Anything-type videos or Taylor Swift song challenges. They’re a win-win. Media outlets get to mine content out of such interviews, and the interviewees get publicity. 

Don’t forget: they’re also a way to build relations with decision-makers. You can’t just wait till the election rolls around to call politicians up and ask them for interviews. Engaging with them consistently throughout the year doesn’t guarantee press invites during the general election, but it does keep you on their radar.

It does feel like we’ve been seeing more of such endeavours. Take the Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing’s recent appearance in a CNA video interview. He was there to field questions from kids on the education system. 

The candid, casual conversation was with students Hanna, Kaylea, and Sujay. The kids only found out who they were talking to at the end of the video. In fact, we’re not sure some of the kids fully grasped who they were speaking to. Ah, childhood innocence. 

In any case, ministers are busy people. They don’t just agree to interviews or videos apropos of nothing. There has to be something in it for them. 

For Minister Chan, it’s likely to engage the Ministry of Education’s stakeholders—parents and students—and come off as someone approachable. Some good press wouldn’t hurt after the intense public scrutiny MOE recently received. 

The video largely accomplished that, although not perfectly. CNA’s removal of a short section of the video where Kaylea brought up Chan’s viral cotton gaffe ended up sparking some online debate. 

With the recent news of DPM Wong’s impending ascension to the PM role, the fluff has been taking over our newsfeeds. I’m talking about all those articles listing things you should know about DPM Wong (yes, we know the man plays the guitar) and the pieces chronicling everything from PM Lee’s math genius to his career milestones

It’s timely, yes. But it’s also likely that media outlets are cashing in on this leadership transition for content as GE peeks around the corner. 

Ramping up GE coverage

We have to emphasise that we aren’t accusing other media outlets of having insider knowledge of the elections. Even when I used to work in a bigger, government-accredited news outlet, we didn’t have any advance notice. Most of us in the media are just working off little clues like the appearance of new faces, the timing of leadership transitions, and the input of political commentators. 

But ramping up GE-adjacent coverage is a sure sign that the media knows it’s arriving soon.

Even before the official announcement that Parliament has been dissolved, most media outlets prepare for the GE period by creating a content pipeline of infographics, listicles, story angles, commentary pieces, and more. 

To be fair, RICE isn’t above it either. We recently interviewed former PAP stalwart Inderjit Singh and asked him for his GE predictions. 

The conversation on the timing of GE isn’t new by any means. With the intensity of Swifties scouring Taylor Swift content for easter eggs, nearly every big move by the government is accompanied by a thinkpiece about what this means for the election. Case in point: the articles following Budget 2024.

With the recent leadership transition, this has reached a fever pitch.

This brings us to the topic of Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University and mainstream media’s de facto political analyst. 

It might just be impossible for a local journalist to cover politics without getting a quote from Prof Tan, we fear.

He’s been out and about speaking on the accelerated timeline of PAP’s leadership handover and what this means for GE. From mainstream media like CNA to alternative outlets like Mothership, he’s certainly made clear about his hunch that GE may come soon.

If your man on the street or average journo says that the election is coming, it’s nothing more than speculation. But when it comes from a seasoned political observer, it holds weight. And giving Prof Tan the time of day for a hot take or two is an editorial choice. 

Opposition Moves

Naturally, the moves of opposition parties have also been under the microscope. It emerged on April 11 that Terence Tan, two-time GE candidate and husband of MP He Ting Ru, had resigned from the Workers’ Party. He’d wanted more time with his family and to focus on his career, he told The Straits Times.

He also revealed that he had actually stepped down from the party months prior, in January

Why was the resignation only made public in April? 

The push for GE content has resulted in a mischaracterisation of “opposition movements”, too. Recently, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies Dr Gillian Koh misrepresented the WP’s electoral agenda in an opinion piece for The Straits Times. She initially said the WP planned to “tilt towards the strategy of fighting to form the government at the next GE.”

Worker's Party GE General Election
Image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh corrected the claim, declaring that the WP’s medium-term goal was to ensure that at least one-third of parliamentary seats were not occupied by the PAP. Dr Koh has since apologised, and the article has been corrected

Corrected, it may be, but the initial claim could still put a dent in the WP’s electoral efforts. Singapore’s biggest opposition party understandably wants to avoid any perceptions that they are planning some sort of coup. Even traces of such an idea could scare away conservative or undecided voters.

Of course, this raises the question: Where did the information come from? Although Dr Koh apologised to Mr Singh for the error, she failed to answer the question on everyone’s minds. And the damage has been done. 

Walk the Talk

As election speculation heats up, the media tends to scrutinise walkabouts on the ground more. Suddenly, new faces become headline fodder. Even before they’ve been confirmed as candidates, their resumes and accolades are dissected. 

It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that political parties may use this to their advantage and as a way to subtly introduce potential candidates to the public. 

So far, the media’s got its eye on Dr Choo Pei Ling, Assistant Professor with the Health and Social Sciences Cluster at Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), who appeared alongside PAP minister Tan See Leng at a Marine Parade walkabout. 

Harpreet Singh, a Senior Counsel of the Supreme Court of Singapore, has also caused some buzz after turning up at Workers’ Party walkabouts wearing the party’s iconic blue polo shirt. 

PAP GE General Election
Image: Low Yen Ling / Facebook

Recent activities on the ground include the PAP giving out free ice cream in Sunshine Estate—that’s one handout we won’t think twice about accepting. PAP Sengkang East division branch chairperson Marcus Loh has also been showing up at grassroots events and building his TikTok presence

Greasing the Cogs

There’s no doubt that the media (and everyone else in Singapore) believes that the General Elections are upon us. We don’t know when exactly it’ll be, but what we do know is that the cogs of the election machinery are being oiled up. That means we’ll see a lot more headlines about politics in the next few months—and probably more than a few bold statements intended to smear the characters of GE candidates.

At best, Singaporeans are left to wonder what strategies the WP will consider to shift the narrative away from Mr Singh’s court case. And how will the PAP fight to regain the district they lost in the last election? 

For now, we wait for Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong to take the office of Prime Minister on 15th May—which wasn’t at all surprising, even though the amount of media coverage might tell you a different story. The leadership transition took place in very visible ways. That’s why political transitions in Singapore are so boring.

And if Singaporeans can see it coming from a mile away, does that mean the early stages of GE media machinery have any significant stake when the time comes? We think not. We’ll do what we always do when the day arrives—vote for the people we like and vote against the people we don’t.  

But it’s nice to be reminded every now and then that the new Prime Minister can play the guitar. 

Additional reporting by Hykel Quek.

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