In a 10-second TikTok posted by Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s soon-to-be-appointed deputy prime minister, the politician removes his mask. In dramatically slowed-down footage, backed by a moody hit from K-pop group Blackpink, he walks down five shallow steps onto a city street.
The video, posted in March, intended to show that mask-wearing outdoors had become optional. The video seemed unremarkable, but the public reaction was effusive.
“SLAY,” says one follower. “Ooh … that #swag!” says another. “Never been so invested and engrossed in the Singapore politics scene so much!” Nearly two million views, almost 90,000 likes — enviably viral results for an account that still has only some 60,000 followers.
It’s not just Singapore’s deputy prime minister. Health Minister Ong Ye Kung posts TikToks of himself performing martial arts and exuding uncle energy, while Baey Yam Keng, senior parliamentary secretary for transport, sustainability, and the environment — considered handsome by the public — tends to exercise in a tank top. Since the last general elections in mid-2020, more than 20 staid Singaporean politicians and parties have embraced TikTok. Many are younger leaders from the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP), which has held power for more than six decades.
Singaporeans are embracing the content with almost exaggerated enthusiasm. Hearts, hug emojis, and admiring reactions are the norm; neutral or negative comments are rare.
Media experts told Rest of World that they didn’t think that paid pro-government fans, common elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia, were a factor. Instead, they point to the political inexperience of Singapore’s online youth, alongside the fact that authority figures are usually seen by citizens as private and guarded. Combined with media laws which some activists say restrict open criticism, the conditions have generated a TikTok bubble of enthusiasm.
“Seeing them singing and playing guitar, riding bikes … they’re not just in their own ivory tower,” Josiah Leong, a popular creator who makes content with his 90-year-old grandmother, told Rest of World. “These are things the common man wants to see.”
“Singaporeans have been schooled for decades on ‘out-of-bounds markers’” — a term used for topics permissible for public discussion — “and it’s been internalized,” said Crystal Abidin, an associate professor at Curtin University specializing in digital anthropology and internet cultures, to Rest of World. “Singaporeans are politically active, but not in the spaces that are there to entertain or to have fun on.”
Politicians’ attempts to engage with youth on TikTok can easily backfire. Italy’s older politicians trying to swing youth votes by using TikTok faced brutal bullying, while U.S. and Australian politicians have expressed skepticism of the platform amid data privacy concerns.
But since the election of 2011, when the opposition Workers’ Party won six seats in parliament — a concerning moment for the PAP, and attributed by some to fierce debate on social media — the ruling government has made efforts to cover every current social media platform.
“They need to make sure they’re reaching out to the full spectrum of voters, particularly younger voters who are converging around TikTok,” Lim Sun Sun, the dean of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said to Rest of World.
Young creators told Rest of World that their response to the politicians’ efforts ranged from ambivalent to enthusiastic. Ian Jeevan, 25, whose parody content around race and identity has gained him a TikTok following of almost 160,000, extended an invite to the Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam — who has about a tenth of Jeevan’s following — to co-create content. (He hasn’t received a response.)
But there’s no political angle to his offer; he’d be equally satisfied with an opposition politician, he said. “I’d be happy to collaborate … It’s an opportunity for them to let younger audiences understand their point of view.”
Pauriah Carey, 28, stands out as one of the few younger creators who engages in political discourse on TikTok. Carey openly discusses LGBTQIA issues, and isn’t afraid to conduct open debates on his page. Once, he critiqued a minister’s attempt at cracking a Kanye West-related joke. He observes that younger Singaporean audiences on TikTok are too young to have undergone a political awakening. As a result, they’re taking positively to non-overtly political, short-form videos by ministers.
“They may not have developed the certainty or confidence in their own opinions and beliefs yet,” Carey, who requested to be identified only by his TikTok handle, concerned about consequences to his professional career, told Rest of World. “But, as compared to older generations, we’re definitely less afraid of speaking out.”
In the past, high-profile defamation and libel cases brought by PAP figures have left Singaporeans with hefty fines to pay. In one instance, an opposition party member was driven into bankruptcy. For older Singaporeans, that fear has been carried forward by their own generation, who witnessed political critics suffer harsh punishments meted out by the PAP in its early years of ruling. Media laws like the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) and Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) have been called out by activists as putting further pressure on online dissenters. Unpopular opinions these days are voiced online, but on niche forums like Sammyboy and HardwareZone — not a mainstream platform like TikTok.
Walid J. Abdullah, an assistant professor who teaches political science at the Nanyang Technological University, is one of the few public critics of the government. He told Rest of World that in an informal survey he carried out with his students in 2020, the majority couldn’t name the member of parliament in charge of their own constituency.
“We’re comfortable, and as a result, have been depoliticized as a society,” said Abdullah. “Our expectations towards our own ministers are very low.”
“When we get access to these politicians, we get excited,” he added. “But we need to be more mechanical in our assessment. A man who positions himself as a good father or husband on TikTok does not mean he would be a good politician.”
In the latest 2020 elections, the opposition Workers’ Party gained yet another major constituency, setting the PAP back by 10 seats out of the 93 contested. The creators Rest of World spoke to were all well aware of the party’s TikTok play. They know a team of staffers works hard to help curate and manage their feeds, and they don’t believe enthusiastic feedback necessarily means a favorable election result.
“Singaporeans are quite rational,” said Leong. “Knowing my people, I have faith that they will do their due research.”
Abidin thought differently. “Being familiar and liking them might be the beginning steps to warm [audiences] up to what they have to say,” she said. “Long-term exposure to friendly faces, you’ll be less guarded by the time they want to deliver something hard-hitting.”