It is significant that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is making the effort to meet members of the public who take the internet seriously. It is also significant that he says he wants it to be a regular part of his leadership. In fact, he is having a tea party with his online fans and friends on 13 March.
Najib’s strategy is understandable, since it was the young and urban folk, including online communities, who were partly responsible for the Barisan Nasional’s wave of losses in the 2008 general election.
But will Najib’s engagement work? If he is sincere in wanting to reach out and understand Malaysians, will he listen to a range of people telling him the realities of his cyberspace overtures, whether positive or negative? How different will this meeting really be from his other turun padang or walkabout events? Will he really be interacting with those at his tea party, or will this be a mere photo opportunity, one to tick off his publicity to-do list?
Screencaps of Najib’s Facebook page, Twitter account, and blog site
Cynics, though, should note that Najib is one of the world leaders who has taken the internet quite seriously and is taking concrete steps to reach out to younger and urban voters. He has a Twitter account, a blog site, a Facebook page, and a newsletter which is sent to subscribers on a regular basis.
Sure, there are doubts as to whether he actually personally replies or updates the sites. To be fair, many other heads of states and politicians also have their aides who handle their online updates. We know for example, that Internet-savvy Barack Obama has an army of online campaigners who helped his bid for the US presidency and continue to organise on his behalf. Also, Downing Street tweets on behalf of UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
If politicians can maintain an online presence through their aides and remain reasonably up-to-date with the public’s suggestions, complaints and comments, isn’t that good enough? And what’s the value of twittering or blogging yourself, when you can have a tea party once in a while to reach out? If you want to show that you are reaching out to the young and internet savvy, wouldn’t a photo op and accompanying news coverage suffice?
Value of interaction
Here’s the thing: online social networking services are offering new ways for people to interact and connect, and politicians who ignore this do so at their peril. Those who have engaged the internet in Malaysia and are actively using Twitter include Umno Youth head Khairy Jamaluddin, DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang, Umno veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and ex-Umno, current opposition strategist Datuk Zaid Ibrahim.
There are many politicians on Twitter who do not tweet regularly, and some who are probably not tweeting themselves, but the public strongly appreciates being engaged with personalised updates. Judging by the number of re-tweets (followers passing on the politician’s updates to their own network of followers) and the questions or comments the public pose to these politicians, there is value in having one’s own voice in cyberspace.
For one, politicians can gauge public opinion on issues or topics currently debated by the public. Two, they show a more human, personable side; the public feels like they know their leaders better. Three, the politician gets to connect to the public without intermediaries and vice versa. It is more honest and could be tougher, but it can also be heart-warming. For example in the two years since Twitter took off, I have seen detractors warming up to certain politicians, solely on the basis of the micro-blogging site alone. “He is not that bad lah,” a formerly anti-Khairy friend told me after months of following the Rembau member of parliament’s Twitter feed.
Smells like kilobyte spirit
So perhaps Najib could pick up some clues from Twitter users like Khairy to gain greater insight into what it takes to have successful online interactions and even what “success” means. Success could mean not even having to hold a tea party to spread your intended message. Because when an online strategy works, the masses spread the word for you unprompted. When the public is engaged honestly, five meaningful, sincere and personalised replies via Twitter, for example, could be worth 50 banal, routine updates.
But if the prime minister allows his officers and aides to sugar-coat issues and parade him for mere photo ops, then this tea party will be just another bureaucratic cliché. And if it turns out to be a cliché, we’ll all have to brace ourselves for the almost-predictable news coverage. I can just see it:
PM’s tea party for online friends a hit
Screencap of Mafia Wars, a game you are unlikely to play
with NajibPUTRAJAYA, Sat. — “I do want to interact with you more, but sorry, I won’t play Mafia Wars or Pet Zoo on Facebook.”
Surrounded by fans and friends from the online world, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said he was pleased by the interactions with them and would continue to engage them on a regular basis.
At his special tea party hosted at his residence yesterday, Najib chatted and played Facebook Scrabble with 10 bright-eyed students from all races while cameras flashed away furiously.
At one point the group watched the prime minister tweet Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, saying, “Hey @KevinRuddPM you may have MySpace but I have a tea party attended by 500 people! LOL See you at the next summit!”
The other 490 attendees had to make do with cursory waves and handshakes from Najib. Most, however, were impressed by the goodie bags filled with 1Malaysia thumb drives, stickers, a mug and a table ornament of the KLCC Twin Towers.
“I got to shake his hand and tell him I appreciated him replying to my question on Twitter on what kind of cake he likes,” said Vivian Lee, a 19-year-old food blogger from Malacca.
Those who were lucky enough to get one-on-one pictures with the leader were able to download and tag their photos online with the laptops placed on every table. They feasted on kuih lapis, roti jala, and teh tarik, as well as muffins, scones and piping hot cups of Earl Grey.
Koh Lay Chin does get a little thrill when she sees an email from “Najib Razak” in her mail box.
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