Singapore’s Prime Minister was left fumbling for answers Saturday after agreeing to a live Facebook chat with increasingly strident citizens turning to the Internet to voice dissent in the tightly-controlled city-state.
Lee Hsien Loong opened the conversation on his personal Facebook page from the social network’s Singapore offices and was inundated with nearly 1,500 comments during a hectic 45-minute session.
The premier managed to post just 27 replies as foreigners and locals alike lobbed questions ranging from the trivial (“Do you like cats?”) to demands for better protection of gay rights and single mothers.
Lee provided brief replies to verbose complaints about spiralling healthcare costs, public transport and public housing, but avoided straying into more controversial waters.
“It’s been a lot of fun this last 45 minutes, reading your questions, answering them, typing furiously and keeping up with the flow,” Lee said in a video post after the chat ended.
“I am sorry I couldn’t answer all of the questions you have asked,” he added.
Perhaps predictably Lee failed to respond to a personal invitation to the city-state’s annual “Pink Dot” gay rights rally.
“My invitation still stands. Send me a PM (personal message),” Facebook user Lim Jialiang wrote to the premier.
Singapore’s penal code criminalises sex between men, a law first introduced by British colonial administrators in 1938.
Some small business owners used the session to bemoan the government’s move to cut its reliance on foreign workers, stemming from citizens’ complaints about overcrowding and a tighter job market in a city where 29 percent of “non-residents” — those working, studying or living in the country — are from abroad.
“Many small-medium enterprises have experienced the same problem as you,” wrote Lee to one Singaporean who said he was finding it difficult to hire locals for “entry-level jobs”.
“We have tightened on foreign workers, but we have not shut them off,” Lee added.
Lee, who has nearly 470,000 followers on Facebook, has stepped up his social media engagement in recent years. The Singaporean leader is also active on Twitter and photo-sharing network Instagram.
Social media has emerged as a key political battleground as the tiny island republic of 5.5 million people transitions from strict political control to a more open democracy.
Singapore is known for its tough stance on crime and retains the death penalty as punishment for serious offences, as well as caning for crimes such as spraying graffiti.
With the local mainstream media still widely seen as pro-government, blogs, forums and Facebook have become a magnet for anti-government sentiment.
Lee’s People’s Action Party, in power since 1959, suffered its worst ever electoral performance in May 2011, garnering an all-time low of 60 percent of the popular vote after the opposition and its supporters relied heavily on social media for campaigning.