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How Southeast Asian Leaders Use Twitter

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono or SBY joined the Twitter world only last April 13 but he is already the most popular Southeast Asian leader, at least in terms of Twitter followers. As of this writing, he has 2.4 million followers. Meanwhile, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been an active Twitter user since 2008, continues to be his country’s most popular Twitter personality with 1.6 million followers. Philippine President Noynoy Aquino is also a prominent Twitter user with 1.5 million followers.

Indonesia’s @SBYudhoyono joined the Twitter world by posting these 140 characters:

@SBYudhoyono: Halo Indonesia. Saya bergabung ke dunia twitter untuk ikut berbagi sapa, pandangan dan inspirasi. Salam kenal. *SBY*

@SBYudhoyono: Hello, people of Indonesia. I have joined Twitter to exchange greetings, views and inspirations. Nice to meet you.

sbyHe also tweeted the main points of his speech at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore about the achievements and priorities of his administration.

@SBYudhoyono: 15. We did not just reform, we transformed – “reformasi” to “transformasi”.

@SBYudhoyono: 16. Today we’re a trillion dollar economy, largest economy and middle class in Southeast Asia; 6.3% growth, second after China.

He also gave an advice to Arab Spring countries:

@SBYudhoyono: 31. Muslims in Indonesia are comfortable with democracy and modernity. This may well offer valuable lessons to Arab Spring countries.

Enricko Lukman welcomes the entry of SBY in the Twitter world:

It is great to see how technology is being used more and more by important figures. It allows them to interact with people better and even send out important news and messages in real time. I hope this can set the trend for future Indonesian leaders to do the same – to listen to and speak with citizens online.

SBY is not the first Indonesian politician who opened a Twitter account which prompted Akhlis to ask about the motive of SBY:

I don’t know what to say but it is very much out of character to him.

So what makes me wonder is: Why now? Isn’t it now much too late to get actively involved on social media? Even if that’s for political reason, this is so left behind. Many politicians have begun this long before 2013.

Indeed, Indonesian politicians cannot ignore social media tools since a big number of Indonesians are getting their information from the internet. In fact, Indonesia is among the biggest markets of Facebook and Twitter in the world. Wayne Palmer explains further:

Using social media to gauge public opinion is certainly the beginning of something quite new in Indonesia. Politicians themselves have been quick to recognise its capacity to spread information and shape public opinion.

The ease with which the public can openly express their opinions via social media complicates matters for Indonesia’s political elite, many of whom, among other things, have a reputation for the way in which they handle public complaints – ranging from defensiveness to outright petulance. Nonetheless, with all its opportunities and traps, social media has reshaped the playing field in Indonesian political life for those with their sights set on power.

But despite his large following, SBY must learn to interact with his constituents on Twitter. According to social media experts, SBY rarely responds to his Twitter followers.

najibIf SBY wanted some pointers on how to effectively use Twitter in politics, he can probably learn from Malaysia’s @NajibRazak. Like SBY, Najib’s initial tweets were limited to public statements of his office but in 2011 he began interacting with his followers. He even used Twitter to invite his followers to watch a live broadcast of his favorite football team. He hosted several meetups as well. And when Korean singer Psy of ‘Gangnam Style’ fame performed in Malaysia, he clarified on Twitter that no government funds were used in the public event.

@NajibRazak: Just to reiterate, Psy's performance did not involve public money at all. Public was not charged for watching it either.

Najib described last month’s General Elections as Malaysia’s ‘first social media election’, which is probably his way of acknowledging the crucial role of the internet in shaping the views of voters. Najib’s party won again although there were allegations of voting fraud. Najib’s recent tweets included the following:

@NajibRazak: Just heard Nelson Mandela is in hospital in South Africa. I'm sure all Msians will join me in wishing him a speedy recovery.

@NajibRazak: Authorities will investigate tragic incident on Penang bridge. Let's focus on rescue efforts and pray for victims & their families.

@NajibRazak: Joint dev key to solving South China Sea disputes. Sharing prosperity rather than letting it divide us is preferable to the alternative.

@NajibRazak: If you have any views or proposals Budget 2014, email it to Ministry of Finance. Goal is to engage Msians to help create a #BetterNation

@NajibRazak: In the spirit of unity, I announced over the weekend a bipartisan parliamentary committee to be given oversight over the Election Commission

Najib is clearly Malaysia’s leading Twitter user but there are reports that more than half of his followers are using fake Twitter accounts.

pnoyLike Najib, the Philippines’ @noynoyaquino maximized social media tools to succeed in the elections. Aquino’s online presence in the 2010 presidential elections boosted his winning chances. After elections, Aquino maintained his high social media profile. Today he has several Twitter and Facebook accounts managed by three Cabinet members. There was one instance when Aquino directly answered a Facebook critic which showed how the president’s team is efficiently using social media networks to improve the government’s image.

But not all Southeast Asian leaders were successful in using Twitter to connect with their constituents. Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra or @PouYingluck was forced to cancel her Twitter account in 2011 after it was hacked. The hacker was able to post these messages:

You can't protect even your Twitter account. How can you safeguard the country? Think about it my brothers and sisters.

Is it time for our country to change for the better and not project an image to aid businesses, vested interests and relatives?

Overall, Twitter and other social media tools have been very useful for Southeast Asian leaders who needed to communicate directly with their citizens. Social media can improve their image as tech-savvy leaders which could prove appealing to the younger population.

The rise of mobile internet in the region and the globe also means more people would be interacting with governments and their leaders through handsets and tablets. It would most likely inspire even the traditional or older politicians to ‘speak’ to their constituents and deliver their message through virtual means.

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