An apparent calm has descended on the unofficial campaigning for the coming Presidential Election with the aspiring candidates relying on their Facebook accounts to continue engaging the public, especially since it has now become clear that the Writ of Election will probably only be issued on or after 3 August 2011.
The last report by the mainstream media featuring three presidential candidate hopefuls had been on Monday (18 July) as part of a story on the impending closure of the KTM railway tracks for removal works. The candidates were Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Mr Tan Kin Lian and Mr Tan Jee Say, and last Sunday was the final day for the public to have access to the railyway tracks, save for a three-kilometre stretch from Rifle Range Road to the Rail Mall which will be open until the end of the month.
Following on that report, the mainstream media covered a lecture by Dr Tony Tan, another presidential hopeful, on the futures of higher education. The weight of the report is sure to feature for quite some time in the collective consciousness of the general Singapore polity, comprising both the traditional and new media constituents.
In media reports on the lecture he delivered at the Singapore Management University, former deputy prime minister Dr Tony Tan was portrayed as favoring a 'Singaporeans first' policy in higher education. But in order not alienate new and potential citizens, the reports in the mainstream media also took pains to highlight Dr Tan's distinction between 'Singaporeans first' and 'Singaporeans only'. Dr Tan had said that being 'Singaporeans first' is different from saying 'Singaporeans only' and that it would be a grave mistake for Singapore to close its doors to foreigners.
Looking at it as objectively as possible, one cannot help but feel that the lecture and the media reports have boosted Dr Tan's candidacy and ingrained an impression of him as a president who would have the interests of Singaporeans at heart - something the 'not in favor of PAP' ground have doubts about given the seemingly pro-foreign talent policy instituted in the universities during his seven-year tenure as education minister and more than 20 years as minister-in-charge of the university sector.
With six weeks to go before the 31 August deadline for the Presidential Election, I would not be surprised if we see the mainstream media generating more of such reports that are designed to present Dr Tony Tan as the president for the people, especially when the official campaign period begins.
Despite the growth of new media and the active involvement of its constituents, let us not forget that there is still a sizeable constituency (the non-Internet savvy constituency) out there that is primarily reliant on traditional mainstream media, a media that continues to play a significant role in shaping and influencing public perception and opinion.
And unless all the 'players' in the upcoming race to the Istana have equal access to or treatment by the mainstream media, an unfair advantage would accrue to the person featured more regularly or favourably by the media. This critique of the mainstream media had also been the subject of many discussions in relation to the conduct of general elections (both recent and past).
Cynics would argue that Dr Tony Tan has an unfair advantage by virtue of his previous role as chairman of Singapore Press Holdings, the parent company of The Straits Times and its sister newspapers, and need only point to the lack of coverage of the activities of the other potential presidential candidates in the run-up to the official election campaign.
But the onus also lies with the other potential presidential candidates to find and create opportunities for them to be heard and covered by the mainstream media. Most recently, Dr Tan Cheng Bock visited a temple in Yuhua village while Mr Tan Kin Lian attended a Halal Food Expo. However, save for a small photo story on Dr Tan's temple visit in Today, neither Dr Tan Cheng Bock nor Mr Tan Kin Lian gained much mileage from their activties.
The challenge then for the presidential hopefuls is to mount a campaign that is both a public relations exercise and an exercise to build their credibility as the people's president. At the end of the day, what you say and how you frame what you say in relation to the bigger picture matters more to the media than your physical presence, which may or may not merit a photo story.
While the Internet has provided an alternative and independent channel for them to reach out to the voters, they must not forget that there are still many voters out there who are unfamiliar with the new media. To wait until the start of the official campaign period, which would include televised broadcasts, to reach out to them may be too late, as opinions and decisions may already have been formed by then.
Even though the potential candidates cannot officially campaign for the presidency yet, opportunities are still a-plenty for them to create impressions and help voters, especially the non-Internet-enabled ones, form an opinion of them.
Build the right impression with these voters and half the battle may already be won.