Lee family spat: Social media a devil you must learn to dance with

A few years ago, a spat within a family - a member of whom is a national leader - would have been nipped in bud for the fear of losing reputation.

In a matter of few years, both the spat and the attempt to counter it are on social media, consciously posted by the parties involved. This is the transformation social media has brought about.

Recently, Lee Wei Ling accused brother and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of trying to “establish a dynasty” when they came to odds on how the late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s first year anniversary should be commemorated. This exchange came to light after a spat she had with The Straits Times over the draft of an opinion piece she had written objecting to the hero worship of the late Minister Mentor LKY.

The opinion was not published by ST and eventually made it to her Facebook page. While the post was later deleted, it had been widely circulated before being pulled. PM Lee took to social media, almost immediately to address the issue. In a Facebook post he said:

"I am deeply saddened by my sister Dr Lee Wei Ling’s claim that I have abused my power to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing in order to establish a dynasty. The accusations are completely untrue.

The first anniversary of a person’s passing is a significant moment to remember him and reflect on what he meant to us. The more so with Mr Lee Kuan Yew. The Cabinet had discussed how we should mark the occasion. My advice was that we should leave it to ground-up efforts. Groups should keep their observances in proportion, and focussed on the future.

The Cabinet recognised the strong desire of many Singaporeans to show their respect for Mr Lee, and honour what he did for us. We reviewed the events and observances that different groups had planned, and agreed that they were generally appropriate. They expressed the sincerely felt sentiments of Singaporeans, which my Cabinet colleagues and I deeply appreciate.

The idea that I should wish to establish a dynasty makes even less sense. Meritocracy is a fundamental value of our society, and neither I, the PAP, nor the Singapore public would tolerate any such attempt."

The use of social media as a communication tool for politicians has steadily rose over the years and leading by example are Narendra Modi (Prime Minister of India), Shinzo Abe (Prime Minister of Japan) and PM Lee of Singapore.

"The fact that Lee Wei Ling has found Facebook to express her opinions after being shut out by the mainstream media shows the value of social media,” said PN Balji, editor of The Independent Singapore and senior media consultant at RHT ARC Comms & Relations.

It [social media] is a double-edged sword. It can cut both ways. She has found out the nasty consequences of not couching her responses in a rational way. Social media is a devil you must learn to dance with.

One of the core principles in politics is to be able to engage with your citizens, communicate your position to build support for your case so naturally social media makes sense.

“What social media has introduced for sure is an element of 'live' politics; you need to be able to react much faster - within hours - while bearing in the mind the consequences of what you are about to post,” Lawrence Chong, chief executive officer of Consulus, said.

PM Lee's recent Facebook post addressing Lee Wei Ling’s comments garnered 2,465 shares, over 18,000 likes and above 1,200 comments from netizens which has largely been supportive.

“Our Prime Minister is one of a growing pool of world leaders who make use of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to interact directly with the public – and he is definitely one of the few who has done so very successfully,” Cho Pei Lin, managing director of Asia PR Werkz, said.

Cho adds that Lee Wei Ling’s removal of her post from Facebook helps allude to the possibility that the latter never meant to publicly share what she felt about PM Lee, however, since it has been widely circulated, PM Lee has little choice but to address it.

Ryan Lim, principal consultant & founding partner of QED Consulting thinks that this should not be viewed as an isolated case as such exchanges are fast becoming the norm.

“While popularity need not always be the truth, respective parties will have their own version of the truth. Ultimately, it will descend into a battle of perception and online credibility,” he added.