Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong Joins Facebook

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Facebook, welcome your newest world leader: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

On Friday afternoon, Mr. Lee launched his Facebook page, the latest statesman to “join the fun” of the social-networking site, attracting more than 4, 000 “likes” in two hours. Using Facebook’s new timeline feature, Mr. Lee’s page included a string of photos from the statesman’s youth, including one of his primary school graduation in 1963 and one from the University of Cambridge in 1974, with his father, Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, standing proudly beside him.

Mr. Lee’s page also includes a photo from his wedding with Ho Ching, now the head of sovereign-wealth fund Temasek Holdings, and photos from political milestones like his swearing-in ceremony as prime minister in 2004.

After the ruling People’s Action Party was dealt a bruising, narrow win at the polls in last year’s general elections, many cited the role played by social media, a far more loosely monitored sphere than Singapore’s traditional media. Since then, many establishment politicians have embraced social networks –an arena once dominated by opposition voices – in an effort to connect more with the highly wired Singaporean population. More than 2.6 million in Singapore, or 56% of the population, is on Facebook according to social marketing website Twitter has around 619, 000 Singapore users, or 19% of the population, according to a February ComScore report.

“Many of my colleagues have been using social media, including Facebook. They have encouraged me to start my own Facebook page. Having watched them, I have decided to join the fun,” Mr. Lee said in his first Facebook note. The note garnered more than 1, 000 “likes” in just two hours, and hundreds of positive comments – even from unlikely voices like the alternate online press.

“Kudos to PM Lee for making the effort to connect with us. We will help to promote your page. Welcome to the online world, Sir!” said a comment from Temasek Times, a blog known for unhinged comments on socio-political developments in Singapore.

The prime minister also found some fans from across the world. Facebook user Fred Rabeman from Cyprus commented on the welcome note: “Singapore’s remarkable policies ought to be better known in these difficult times, especially in Europe.”

Mr. Lee launched an official Twitter page Friday afternoon as well. Initial tweets at the prime minister were overwhelmingly positive, with some wondering if they could now ask their leader questions like what his favorite food is.

Across the border, Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak has been an active evangelist of Facebook and Twitter, with tens of thousands of fans and followers on both networks. Mr. Najib was much further ahead of the curve than Mr. Lee, joining Twitter in 2008 and Facebook in 2009. He responds directly to his Twitter followers, a tactic that analysts say helps to create a “feel-good” factor, particularly as election fever heats up in the country, with a crucial general election expected to be called in a matter of months or less.

Since PAP politicians have become more active in embracing social media, a few have also found themselves caught up in embarrassing gaffes over hot-button issues such as race and ministers’ pay, demonstrating the viral power of such media. Select blogs have also found themselves issued defamation threats after publishing allegedly false content as debate still rages over how closely the sphere should be monitored.

Mr. Lee encouraged those on the social networking sites to engage with him, and to share their thoughts. Within hours, hundreds already had – expressing their concern with increasingly frequent public transport breakdowns, the prices of housing in the city-state, its high number of foreigners and even their worries about potential defamation suits when negative comments appear on Mr. Lee’s page.

“I hope you will find my Facebook page interesting. I will use it to talk about some of the things I am doing, and thinking about, but I would also like to hear from you,” Mr. Lee’s note read.

But the statesman also took care to admit he was new to the scene and asked for guidance from other users.

“As a Facebook newbie, I would appreciate your advice, suggestions and, most of all, your patience,” Mr. Lee said.